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November 14, 2012, Wednesday

Who owns the republic?

Nevzat Tandoğan, the powerful governor of Ankara, is reported to have said to a group of young activists in 1944 that “if we need nationalism, we will bring it; if this country needs communism, we will bring it. Who are you to do any of this?”

This anecdote captures well the authoritarian-Jacobin spirit of the state elites of the early republic. In his absolute self-confidence representing the state, the governor scolds the young activists for going too far in their political views. He would probably have said the same thing to any bureaucrat, poet or scientist if he felt that they were going over the official state line.

The governor’s main message was clear: The state, not some individuals, groups or the ordinary people, own the republic. It looks like this message has stuck with some in Turkey.

The recent events surrounding Republic Day celebrations on Oct. 29 and the anniversary of Atatürk’s death on Nov. 10 have sparked a new debate about who owns the Turkish Republic. The self-authenticating “Kemalists” believe that they are solely entitled to the ownership of the republic because they represent the true values of the republic and its founder, Atatürk.

Coming mostly under the ideological umbrella of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), they accuse the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government of undermining the core values of the republic. “People” count for something to the extent to which they accept the Jacobin authority of the republican elites. All else is anti-republic and anti-Atatürk.

Some appear to believe to the point of paranoia that Turkey is being destroyed and will soon disintegrate -- a plan that the Western imperialists are implementing at the hands of the AK Party government. They criticize the government for not following a “national” foreign policy, for succumbing to the demands of the West and for not standing up against the European Union and the US. Even the charge of “Islamism” against the government fits this picture in a Kafkaesque manner: AK Party Islamism, the American-branded “moderate Islam,” is a conspiracy of the Western imperialists to divide Turkey!

Two ironies, among others, stand out. The first is what the self-appointed republican elites make of the word “people.” The basic notion of a republic as a political system ruled by the people does not quite fit their narrow definition. To many of them, ordinary people are ignorant, gullible and open to political manipulation. The results at the polls in national elections do not represent the true will of the people; they confirm the triumph of political populism.

This is obviously an illusionary notion of the people and the republic. You cannot have a republic without the people, and cannot rule a people legitimately without listening to their demands and aspirations, not to speak of their cultural, historical, religious values, etc.

The second irony is the conspiratorial view of the West and the international system. The Kemalist republican elites have traditionally been the trailblazers of modernization-cum-Westernization in Turkey. Acting with a strong Euro-centrism for decades, they have seen Western science, technology, culture, etiquette and politics as the only possibility for Turkey to join the new brave world. This is fair enough given the extraordinary circumstances under which the Ottoman Empire came to an end and the new Turkish Republic was founded.

The irony is how these die-hard Westernizes now have become the greatest foes of the EU and the US, charging them with all sorts of conspiracies against Turkey.

The republic is not the personal property of any particular group, political party or the state. It belongs to the people in the simplest sense of the term. It lives with the people and grows with it. Freezing the republican idea in a particular time period does not make the republic strong, vibrant and dynamic. It creates an imaginary and painful gap between the republic and the people.

The Turkish Republic belongs to the people of Turkey, and to all of it. Its strength lies in its strong connection with the people and their demands for a better, democratic and prosperous country -- an ideal that only a constantly self-renewing and open-minded republic can achieve.

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