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August 10, 2012, Friday

The AK Party and Kemalism

The only way to better understand what makes Turkish public opinion tick is to talk with as many people as possible, ideally of various political backgrounds. Writing for a national newspaper facilitates this undertaking as almost everyone will have a personal viewpoint regarding one or other publishing house, hence chances are we hear more straightforward comments.

What recently surfaced during a number of extended conversations I have had with Turkish citizen from various walks of life is interesting. Just at a time when some observers complain about why the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has not turned its back on the pure Kemalism of the past and has begun to incorporate a number of aspects of it into its own policy-making agenda, others seem to be worried that exactly the opposite is happening and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has broken with everything related to the ideologically overloaded Kemalism-centered past.

So, has the AK Party incorporated aspects of Kemalism? Or has it designed an entirely “new Turkey”?

When I spoke with an academic specializing in European studies about change in Turkish society I learned that it is indeed possible to describe oneself as Kemalist, yet as a Kemalist who votes for PM Erdoğan. She also said that as long as change is introduced step by step instead of forced upon the country a vast majority of Turkish citizens from various ideological backgrounds will continue to vote for the AK Party.

Then, speaking with a local hotelier businesswoman, I was told that when her son came home from school shortly before the summer recess he told his mother that he had heard from another child that it is no longer required to praise the founding decades of the Republic but that new, other values were now top of the list. She was worried that this implies that whatever the founder of the Republic of Turkey achieved would no longer be mandatory to be appreciated and that today’s government would have “its hidden agenda.”

Two businessmen I spoke with were not worried at all about the past but clearly stated their confidence in the AK Party because business was good, the economy stable and that entrepreneurship was welcome, not forbidden. They saw no conflict whatsoever between the Republic of Turkey as it once was and is now -- it has simply moved forward, progressed to another stage of development.

Trying to keep a gender balance between men and women I spoke with, I went to a local estate agent. He is a successful yet rather quiet man. His comments were brief yet razor sharp. Being in business, he cannot openly show his party political affiliation as buying a house is about parting with hard-earned monies and every customer has to be made feel welcome regardless of whether voting the government or opposition. He, too, explained to me that the economy is what makes the country tick, and that due to a much-improved level of purchasing power, a new generation of 30-somethings are able to buy their first apartments, brand-new but at affordable prices just below the TL 80,000 mark. These are countryside pricetags; his latest venture is back in the Turkish capital, Ankara, where a similar apartment would cost twice.

Assuming the government -- as well as the opposition -- listens to its public, too, it will see that it was indeed the improving economy that made this unique spring variety, i.e. “the Turkish spring,” possible in the first instance.

Non-scientific mini-survey results are 3:1:1 insofar as three of those I spoke with -- without having had any previous clue about their political leanings except for one -- support change, a stable economy and the AK Party without even mentioning words such as Kemalism. One person I spoke with is worried that highlighting the achievements of the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey is no longer wanted in the public domain. Another person I listened to told me that Kemalism and the AK Party could indeed go hand in hand.

Now this is a tricky enough thing to make any sense out of and most definitely material for a PhD in Turkish politics.

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