What can anyone say about Turkey’s new presidential palace that has not already been said? It is enormous. It is gaudy. It is expensive. I am not sure what was wrong with the old place, which is nestled into a hillside in the Cankaya area of Ankara. Inside, it was a tasteful blend of republicanism with a subtle nod to Ottoman greatness, but it was altogether understated. The aura of the old palace seemed consistent with the restraint and above-politics powers that were built into the Turkish presidency. I guess it was no longer right for the times.
In many ways, the new building’s size and ostentation befits the castle’s current resident—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—whose charisma, fearlessness, malevolence, and political cunning have made him the most important person in Turkey. He is, in effect, president, prime minister, foreign minister, mayor of Istanbul, and moral conscience to the nation. And therein lies the symbolic importance of this neo-Ottoman monstrosity that has risen in a forest that was once Ataturk’s private property. The new palace is a physical representation of what the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to do since it came to power 12 years ago: Bury Ataturkism, rendering it a historical artifact—a fossil—all the while aggrandizing the new great man, Erdogan, who the faithful refer to as the “Great Master.”
The AKP has always paid lip service to Ataturk, but they never had any actual commitment to him. They came to power in antipathy to the “six arrows” of Ataturkism—republicanism, secularism, “revolutionism,” statism, nationalism, and a particular kind of populism. In this opposition, Erdogan and his followers are not wrong. Strict adherence to these principles—or at least the way Ataturkism’s true believers interpreted them after Ataturk’s death in 1938—demanded a political conformity that was not just secular, but irreligious and openly hostile to piety. It was also built on an ethnic chauvinism that could not accommodate Kurds in the Turkish midst. In order to maintain control over pious Turks and the country’s sizeable Kurdish minority, the political system that Ataturk built had to be authoritarian. Ataturkism’s supporters and apologists would vehemently protest this claim, citing the advent of multi-party elections in the 1950s, the dizzying array of coalition governments in the 1970s, and the energetic opposition press, but Turkish politics during those years was played within a narrow band acceptable only to the General Staff.
Whenever politics strayed beyond what the officers perceived to be a threat to the republican order the military responded, most famously in the four coups d’états between 1960 and 1997 but also in countless other routine interventions through channels of influence the commanders placed strategically throughout the system. The military’s interventions reveal in and of themselves the weakness of Ataturkism. It never became embedded in the minds of Turks in a way that made Ataturkism “common sense.” Consequently, it was always vulnerable to political challenge, meaning the military always needed to be vigilant in shoring it up through force and coercion. It was a losing proposition, though. Ataturkism was bound to fail. In the nine decades since the implementation of Ataturk’s reforms, Turkish society has become more complex, differentiated, and linked to the world beyond Anatolia.
Despite its negative consequences for Kurds and religious Turks, perhaps Ataturkism was necessary at that moment after WWI when Turks found themselves at their greatest peril. Now it just seems irrelevant, which is why Erdogan’s new palace—more a mix of the worst of Dubai and Turkmenistan than Mimar Sinan—is so gratuitous. Ataturkism was already dead; there is no need to bury it again.