Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's apology concerning the incidents in Dersim (present-day Tunceli) between 1936 and 1938 that resulted in a massacre is generally being discussed from a narrow political perspective.
It has been stressed that his opportunism put the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) behind the eight ball; however, it is nonsensical to make the ruling party pay for the political weakness of the opposition. Those who are cognizant of how deep the Sunni-Alevi dichotomy runs in Turkey will readily understand that this move by Erdoğan was not really an easy one. The thing is the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is now trying to lay the psychological groundwork for a new “reconstruction” process, and it is just using Dersim as one of the triggering mechanisms to this end.
The government had been expecting the Kurdish issue to provide an opportunity to build this foundation: In a process that started with his 2005 speech in Diyarbakır, the prime minister went beyond an official recognition of Kurds and their rights and openly stressed the state's responsibilities, even hinting at potential negotiations with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). With such a background, it appeared easier to stress the shortcomings of the republican regime and create a psychological infrastructure that would pave the way for its reconstruction. However, there were several factors that prevented the “use” of the Kurdish issue to this end: First, the PKK's insistence on using violence and without refraining from targeting even Kurds veiled the state's tyrannical practices in the past. Second, channeling the debates on the Kurdish issue would have political risks as it was not clear how the AK Party's Kurdish voters might be affected and the government would not want them to be part of the debate. Indeed, the Kurdish revolts of 1925 and 1930 might serve as justification for the antidemocratic quality of the state and introduce problems in an attempt to bring to the surface the real nature of the single-party regime.
Yet, the Alevi issue does not have any of these negative elements. Indeed, the Alevis never resorted to violence; they did not even produce a consolidated resistance movement. As Alevis represent only a tiny minority among AK Party voters, the ruling party does not run the risk of suffering great losses in its electoral support during the debate. Moreover, Alevis have never revolted against the state, and they enthusiastically welcomed the republican regime. For these reasons the Alevi issue was perfect to reveal the true face of Turkey's single-party era. The fact that the CHP has a broad Alevi voter base and its leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is from Dersim makes it more likely to destroy the opposition party from the inside.
Aware of these reasons, the prime minister lay low and waited for an opportunity, which he aptly used it when it presented itself. A narrow political analysis will argue that Erdoğan is pushing the CHP towards the neo-nationalists in order to tread the road to democratization alone. However, a broader perspective that takes future implications into consideration will make us state that the AK Party is trying to maintain psychological supremacy in the process of drafting a new constitution. Indeed, those who argue that the current constitution must be preserved rely solely on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the notion of the republic. If the ruling party manages to exhibit the inadequacies of these two references with regard to democracy and if it is able to secure public support in this respect, then the inviolable articles of the Constitution may be discussed in a rather relaxed atmosphere.
However, the meaning of Dersim does not appear to be restricted to this. It seems that the ruling AK Party is trying to achieve two long-term targets by putting the republic and Mustafa Kemal against a realistic historical background. One of these targets is to seek out and achieve a sort of wiping clean of the slate in all areas, as this confrontation will eventually entail. Rather than proceeding toward a comprehensive recognition or offer of apology, the intention of the ruling party is to create a climate of internalization and an “environment of peace” which will make society reclaim the past and which will take every community's sensitivities into consideration. Yet this environment of peace is just a psychological foundation for a new start or as Erdoğan put it, for building an advanced democracy.
A second long-term target is to make official history flexible thanks to this confrontation with the republic and to find a basis in the Ottoman era for Turkey's democratic traditions. Unlike Kemalism, which defines religious Sunnis as a mass that failed to be modernized, this approach advertises them as the very agents of modernization with the salient implication that this group aptly fulfills the mission of democratic renovation.
In summary, the Dersim apology has meanings beyond mere interparty rivalries. Rather, and more broadly, it serves to legitimize the AK Party historically and ideologically and even make it the sole legitimate actor in the democratization of the Turkish Republic.