May 19 -- Atatürk Commemoration and Youth and Sports Day -- was celebrated with joyful and colorful activities across Turkey on Saturday without any trace of coups and militarism, a picture Turkey has dreamt of for many years.
Official ceremonies and military parades were replaced by civilian festivities this year, with people taking to the streets and public squares to mark the day. May 19 marks the anniversary of the beginning of the War of Independence, when Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, landed in Samsun to start the fight in 1919. Until this year, militarism had been at the forefront of the May 19 celebrations. High school students used to parade in military formations in perfect precision in stadiums and perform athletic routines. Military troops also used to parade, with generals attending ceremonies in big cities alongside politicians.
On Saturday, however, Turkey witnessed civilian-style May 19 celebrations. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said May 19 had finally become a festival for the nation. “Tanks and troops no longer parade [to mark the day]. Now there are festivities. The youth are in the streets [for the celebrations]. Now May 19 is a real festival. Older celebrations used to recall those of iron curtain countries. May 19 is now a symbol of change and transformation.” The prime minister's remarks came as he received youth representatives from 81 Turkish provinces and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) at the prime minister's office on Saturday morning.
The new style of celebrations came as part of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's efforts towards normalization and the elimination of military influence from the education system. The Ministry of Education issued a circular early this year cancelling the May 19 celebrations in stadiums. Instead, the ministry said, the celebrations would be held in public squares to provide a chance for more widespread attendance.
In Samsun, the celebrations began with a theatrical performance depicting the moments Atatürk landed in the city to start the War of Independence. The performance received the audience's appreciation, with the actors being applauded long after the performance had ended.
In İstanbul, a huge crowd gathered in Taksim Square to celebrate the 93rd anniversary of May 19. The celebrations began after Numan Güzey, head of the İstanbul Municipality's Cultural and Social Affairs Department, laid a wreath in front of the Atatürk monument. The crowd later sang the Turkish national anthem. Some participants, however, reacted negatively to the style of celebrations in Taksim, showing their displeasure that a moment's silence had not been observed in memory of Atatürk. Furthermore, a crowd -- mostly supporters of the Republican People's Party (CHP) -- marched in İstanbul to protest the government's decision not to hold large-scale official ceremonies in stadiums.
Youth and Sports Minister Suat Kılıç was in the Turkish capital to participate in the celebrations there. He visited Anıtkabir, the mausoleum of Atatürk, early in the morning with a group of young people. The minister laid a wreath at the mausoleum and observed a moment's silence in memory of the founder of the republic. Later, he signed the Anıtkabir memorial guestbook. “Esteemed Atatürk, the Turkish youth is on your path with a strong will and an unshakeable faith. We commemorate you with great passion and gratitude along with the youth which will illuminate the way for the future of Turkey,” the minister wrote in the book.
Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan was in the southern province of Mersin to attend the May 19 celebrations. The minister joined a group of young people during the celebrations and performed a local halay dance with them. After the dance, Çağlayan spoke to reporters and said: “We shall not forget that every citizen of this country -- Turks and Kurds, Yörüks and Circassians, Alevis and Sunnis, Arabs and the Laz -- are all brothers. Turkey will grow with all of its brothers. We learned brotherhood from our Prophet [Muhammad] and we will walk on the same path with him.”