By Mason Hill
Since clenching the Turkish Presidency and enacting constitutional reforms that made the once ceremonial position the crux of Turkish political power, President Erdoğan has once again turned Turkish politics on its head. Whereas at one time all political parties in Turkey defined themselves in reference to Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), it appears that after ten years of rule by the Justice and Peace Party (AKP), Turkish politics might be realigning. Indeed, Erdoğan’s religiously tinged populism seems to be assuming the central role that Kemalism once filled. This is particularly evident in the electoral decline of the CHP and the nature of political opposition in Turkey today.
The 2014 Presidential election is of particular interest. Erdoğan won after beating his nearest opponent by 15 percentage points; the nature of his opposition underscored how fractured the once central Kemalist forces have become. For example, the CHP did not field its own candidate; instead, they endorsed the nationalist candidate Ekkmeledin Ihsanoğlu who is a far cry from the traditional standard bearer of secular Kemalisim. Indeed, the fact that the CHP endorsed Ekkmeledin shows how dead traditional Kemalism is in today’s Turkey. In many ways, Ihsahnoğlu’s career represents the antithesis of what it means to be a Kemalist.
Ihsahnoğlu’s own biography reads like a critique of the excess of Turkish secularism. His father, an academic, fled Turkey to teach at the al-Azhar University in Cairo. Indeed, Ihanoğlu’s father ran from Ataturk’s secularism because he was so deeply opposed to it. Furthermore, Ihsanoğlu’s own academic and diplomatic careers have had Islamist tinges to them. Not only did he make his academic career as a professional historian that specialized in the Islamic intellectual tradition, but also his highest administrative position was Secretary General of Islamic Co-operation, an organization that served somewhat as a rejection of secular and nationalist tendencies that are entailed in Kemalism.
This is not to say that Ihsonğlu has not since come to embrace elements of Kemalism. He emphasized during the campaign support for a secular state, and since losing the election he has emerged as a potential CHP candidate for parliament. Nevertheless, that he has come to be associated with the CHP shows the decay of traditional Kemalism. On the other hand, it shows that while Erdoğan has been largely successful in consolidating power, it has not been without alienating more conservative members of the cultural establishment that once supported him. Ihsanoğlu once talked about being Erdogan’s 2007 AKP Presidential candidate when the position was still largely ceremonial. Fetullah Gulen and his brand of Islam were a key part of Erdogan’s rise, but Ihsanoğlu and Gulen have since had a falling out. The sustainability of Erdogan’s coalition will be put to the test in the upcoming parliamentary elections, but his success to date has been a testament to his ability to cobble together new support as once powerful backers turn on him. Whereas the Republican People’s party was once emblematic enough of the status quo to draw ire and opposition from all who did not like the way things were in Turkey, Erdoğan’s party has now assumed that role of drawing criticism from both the left and the right. Perhaps that, more than anything else, is indicative of how much power Erdoğan has consolidated.