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February 01, 2013, Friday

Turkey’s CHP problem

The most controversial issue in the past week was a remark by Republican People's Party (CHP) İzmir deputy Birgül Ayman Güler, who, during a general assembly session where the right to defend oneself in one's native language was being discussed, said, “You cannot make me view the Turkish nation as equal to the Kurdish nation.” I had briefly discussed this matter in my previous column but I believe that this subject deserves further and much more comprehensive attention because it holds some crucial clues and insights for Turkey's past, present and future.

Many people argued that Güler's remark was racist. Considering that the remark includes references to Turks and Kurds, as well as equality, and that Güler raised a strong objection to it, the accusations of racism seem pretty grounded. But did Güler make this statement for racist purposes or was this a remark which she saw as justified through the lens of an ideological story? I think that the second is more accurate. I am sure that Güler believes that what she did is not racist. But this remark is entirely racist. She strongly dismissed the racism allegations and also demanded an apology. She believed that the treatment she faced is unfair. I am sure that she is sincere in her feelings.

But how did this happen? Given that she was being racist, why is she seeking an apology? Why did she decide that Kurds and Turks cannot be equals despite the fact that she refers to both as nations?

In fact, the answer is simple. Güler was describing the republican regime that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created. The Republic of Turkey, founded after the collapse of the Ottoman state where many ethnic elements and different nations coexisted peacefully, was based on the superiority of the Turkish nation as a Turkish national state. It designed its ideology and pursued its policies accordingly.

Historic roots

Atatürk was a pro-Turkish leader. In fact, in the initial years of the War of Independence, a more democratic and pluralist approach was followed; this was also evident in the 1921 constitution. However, it became evident that his preference was not sincere and that it was part of a plan staged to attract the support of Kurds. A few years later, a totalitarian constitution was drafted in 1924. Atatürk made the following statement on Kurdish autonomy for the press in January 1923: “Under our constitution, these autonomies would be recognized anyway. This means that if an area is predominantly Kurdish, that area would be an autonomous administration.”

Atatürk, who held these views in 1923, implied in the 1924 constitution that the state would be strongly based on the superiority of the Turkish nation because important developments took place during this period; the War of Independence was won and it became clear that the West would not punish Turkey for the Armenian massacres. Atatürk did not need the Kurds anymore. In response to this “betrayal,” the Kurds rioted, staging a rebellion against the state between 1924 and 1930. Some of them, like the one in Dersim in 1937 and 1938, were brutally repressed. The Kurdish issue has been suppressed and addressed by methods such as coercion and denial up until the 2000s.

And the issue was not just Kurds alone. There was no place in the Turkey that Atatürk had in mind for those who did not describe themselves as Turkish and secular. As part of a state policy, non-Muslims were driven out from the country through repression, economic pressure and intimidation. The message delivered to non-Turks was clear: They would either be assimilated or would face prosecution, repression or even extermination.

While this was being done, the pillaged capital and properties taken away from the disadvantaged groups was transferred to the Turkish elite. The economic side of the guardianship was created this way.

Instead of thinking about the realities of the state which they created, the Kemalists relied on the imagined power which they had to create a new nation under an ambitious project. Atatürk viewed the whole country as a project and wanted to convert it to another Switzerland or France. He was an ardent Turkish nationalist but the Turkish nation in his mind and the reality on the ground were not compatible. There were people from different ethnic backgrounds and faiths. To deal with this “problem,” they relied on social engineering accompanied by violence.

History gave Atatürk an opportunity to become a great leader. Everything was going great for him. What surprised Atatürk was the wrong diagnosis which they had made about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The pain associated with the collapse of the Ottoman state and the sentiment of inferiority vis-à-vis the West made this military elite feel anger towards the East and the Orient. They wanted to become strong like the Westerners and go through a huge process of recovery.

Traces of nation-building myth

There are currently people who still believe in this project and fail to appreciate the harm that this project did to non-Turks and non-secular people in this country. They are generally represented in the CHP because Atatürk's project sought to create a nation and it cannot be said that it totally failed. The social segments represented by the CHP in Turkey could be seen as products of this project. In fact, as the people of Turkey, we bear traces of that period. However, those who strongly react to the silent revolution staged by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) over the last decade hold the views prevalent in the 1930s that were held by Atatürk and his friends. Güler is one of them.

From the perspective of the 1930s, Güler's Turks are the founders whereas Kurds are those who were allowed to live in the state that these people created. Turkey in the 1940s could be seen as progressive at a time when genocides were being committed in Europe. However, these people think that Atatürk's project is perfect and that it is resistant to time. They attach some sacred meaning to him and his project. For this reason, criticizing an administrative approach that is 80 years old is still seen as a disaster in 2013.

However, this project has totally collapsed. It has attempted to survive through four coups and remain strong; however, it was exhausted after the end of the Cold War and due to the impact of globalization. What the AK Party has been doing since 2002 was fixing the mistakes that the Kemalists had committed during the creation of the state. But this does not necessarily mean that what they did is totally wrong just because they made some mistakes during this process. The reforms introduced between 2002 and 2012 have been beneficial to those who had been denied access to the state apparatus but were a disaster for the CHP and its supporters. What is happening is a slow reorganization and revolution. However, ideological corruption, resistance to change and arrogance kicked this party out of politics. Their objections were not current and sincere. How would you react to the demands for equality? What chance would a CHP of Güler have vis-à-vis the AK Party in 2012?

Therefore, from this perspective, Güler's reaction is understandable. However, this is something relevant to psychology rather than politics. There is a large CHP base that shares Güler's emotions and outrage. This is an initial reaction considering that their once-privileged status was seized by their opponents. This is a sentiment of defeat and the loss of privileges. It is hard to tell them that this is not true and that everybody in this country is equal. Nobody would bother telling them this anyway. The CHP's flawed structure will not change. This is the primary reason for the lack of a prediction on our end for the CHP in the short term. There is an ongoing revolution in Turkey and everybody knows that the CHP and its radical support base were defeated in this process. It would be unfair to expect that they would adapt to this.

Previous articles of the columnist