Freedoms, especially press freedoms, are anathema to Kemalists. They would prefer that Kemalist bosses own the media and self-censor criticism against the Kemalist party. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has followed a similar path, with the Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star and Takvim newspapers and the ATV television channel being prime examples.
Kemalists did not consider media, civil society, business groups, our foreign partners, academics and so on as having a legitimate right to criticize the government on a daily basis. The AKP, especially in its third term, shows similar inclinations. They either shout at or insult their critics, ask them to establish a political party and challenge them in elections or to mind their own business. Kemalists would kill or imprison critical journalists; in the third AKP term, their bosses fire them “willingly.”
Kemalists would argue that their party addresses and represents all the demands of society so there was no real need for a second party. The AKP is trying to do this, at least for the political right in Turkey. But this is not primarily their fault and the opposition must firstly be blamed.
Kemalists were happy with an isolated Turkey and they followed their own agenda in the country. In its third term, the AKP is increasingly following policies that disregard international criticism. Strong electoral support seems to be sufficient for the AKP. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia but criticism that is directed against the Saudis can also be directed against the AKP’s Turkey. While talking about democratization in the region, Turkish democracy is still not first class when we consider the Kurds, the Alevis, non-Muslims, the press, human rights and so on. And the AKP is reform-fatigued. Reforms do not even appear in the serious speeches and statements of leading AKP figures. Kemalists were the leaders of Turkish nationalists and their actions on the Kurdish issue and their declarations, especially before the elections, dominated Turkish nationalist sentiments and concerns.
Kemalists preferred a mixed economic system where the state is heavily involved and it would create its own indigenous Kemalist bourgeoisie by giving them privileges. Recent figures show that during the AKP’s tenure in the last decade, the state’s involvement in the economy did not decrease despite privatization pledges. In the health care sector, the AKP acts against the private sector. It dominates the housing industry by way of the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ). In education, especially religious education, private sectors are not given priority. Moreover, I do not know the behind-the-scenes dynamics, but an AKP-friendly bourgeoisie is getting stronger with every passing day.
Kemalists loved a centralization of power and detested local politics, local power and decentralization. They preferred to decide everything in Ankara. The AKP in its third term does not act differently. Kemalists would ignore Parliament and deputies were not strong figures thanks to a political parties law and election laws. In most cases, one leader would decide on every issue and this has not changed in the AKP era. They do not even speak about changing it or making deputies stronger.
Kemalists always had a double standard. The Higher Education Board (YÖK) was considered anti-democratic until it was filled with pro-AKP figures. Similarly, something is anti-democratic if it is inhibiting the AKP’s power, including the judiciary. They obey the AKP and the AKP does not try to democratize the institution or its constitutional status. The National Security Council (MGK) is another case in point.
Kemalists sided with the military against the democratic wishes of the people. The AKP, during its term, tries to negotiate with the military behind the scenes despite the wishes of the people. The people voted for an Ombudsman in the 2010 constitutional referendum, believing that he would question the military, but the AKP made a law exempting the military.
With the exception of their attitude towards practicing Sunni Muslims, the AKP and Kemalists do not differ much in other respects, and that is why I call the AKP religious Kemalists. The late Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan used to say if Atatürk were alive, he would be the leader of Erbakan’s party. I ask a similar question: If Atatürk were alive, would he be doing politics à la the Republican People’s Party (CHP) style or the AKP style?