Mehmet Metin

Considering that the longing for autocratic rule was unimaginable following its ousting 75 years ago, but that within the last 25 years it became a 20 % political force in the fledgling democracy of Turkey, the question in the above title is not at all outlandish.

Let us first lay out shortly the extensively published facts, in an attempt to answer the question:

(1) Autocracy, the religious order and culture, changed as a natural course of evolution in the political life of countries. It took Europe about 200 years of enlightenment and bloody revolutions from 1640 Puritan Revolution in England to the revolutions that engulfed most of Europe in 1840s, to change from autocracy to democracy. Therefore, having come there at a great cost, democracy is soundly established. (The case of the USA is very different from this general picture that should not be compared.) The Ottoman Empire existed and succeeded in an era when no other method of ruling but religious autocracy was the practice the world over. When the 18th century enlightenment came to other countries, the Empire did not have its share of it until late in the 19th century. And, at the end, it was not the people’s revolution like in other countries, but the courage and determination of one man, Mustafa Kemal, that replaced autocracy with democracy, the rule of religion with the rule of people. He, not the people, saw that the free and prosperous existence of the people of the country was possible only if they were to follow the evolution that engulfed the rest of the world. Hence the change required time and continuity to be absorbed and well established. He entrusted the revolution and progress as a continuum to the youth, to the future.

(2) That future was never to be. The democratic culture could not establish sound and irreversible roots. The main reasons were:

(a) Since the change did not come as peoples’ revolution, the need and nature of it had to be taught and explained to the masses for it to be acceptable and durable. It was to be a long continuing process. But, Mustafa Kemal’s followers did not unwaveringly and effectively continue his teachings that the reason for change was for an independent and free survival, that the change was about changing the whole culture, and that the change could only be successful by way of education and science;
(c) The people, having come from a paternalistic regime, lacked the initiative and enthusiasm to change and take matters in hand for self government, they found it convenient and natural to continue to expect everything from the government without any feeling of responsibility for self-government.

(3) Both governments and the people not having done their duty given to them by Mustafa Kemal, wrongly came to the conclusion that the expectations promised to them by Mustafa Kemal were not realizable. Cultural change was not necessary either for the sovereign survival of the country as it was as able to stay at balance of great power plays during the WWII and the Cold War. While it is true that Turkey’s neighbours, like Greece, Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria may still like to see Turkey to disappear from the map, it is equally true that big power plays still would not allow that, especially after the large oil deposits of the Caucasus now became accessible. Furthermore, democratic regimes from within and without the country require and even encourage the flourishing of any political movement, may it be even an autocratic one. The question above can now be answered in the affirmative. But is it too late to put Kemalist democracy reforms back on track in Turkey? While one can be easily pessimistic considering the passage of more than one generation’s lifetime since the introduction of Kemalist reforms without completion, in view of the fact that at least one element of the society, the military, seems to have successfully followed through the Kemalist revolutions, there is no reason not to believe why some other elements of the society cannot emulate the military.

What needs to be done is to follow the democratic process and go to the people, to every community, every school, like Mustafa Kemal did himself. All government offices, Kemalist civil organizations and businesses in cities and towns should be mobilized in this effort (Remember Halkevleri ?) First and foremost it has to be understood well that the reforms in question were not and are not a matter of politics and ideology, but a matter of convenience, the most effective approach to the improvement of their individual and national well-being and prosperity. The people must be reminded how it was in 1919 and how it would have been today if it were not for the Kemalist reforms. These reforms should be put in the perspective of the death winds that swept the country in 1919 through 1922. To have Ata’s statue and bust in every town square and his portrait in every office and school does not help the furtherance of the reforms. It is time that the reforms become the people’s reforms. He showed the way, but it is up to the people to make it work for their own sake.

The masses must be reminded that Mustafa Kemal did not only fight the occupying foreign forces, he was not only a heroic liberator of the “country”. It should be well understood by all that he was also the liberator of the “people” from a despotic regime based on medieval orders. The people should not forget that he fought the autocratic rule with equal determination that he fought the foreign forces. He went to the people at every step of his actions to explain to them and to set an example that the sovereignty belonged to the people, that they had the basic right to be free from medieval autocratic rule as much as from foreign domination. The people must come to accept that to be free from autocracy and to embrace democracy means to change from the archaic religious rule (blind obedience to the ruler) to modern self rule. The public should learn that this is what to be understood from democracy and laicism. There is a lot of talk about these concepts, but everyone seems to understand or want to understand something different from them. For example, the most common interpretation of democracy among the Turkish people is the freedom of speech. They enjoy this freedom to the fullest: a lot of talk but no deed.

If people are sincere about democracy they have to embrace Kemalism. The governments must gradually but swiftly refrain from the paternalistic style of governing. They should wean the public from dependence on the state and from holding the state and governments responsible for every detail of their life. People must be made aware that the governments are not the ruler, but the servant of the people. They should be taught to be more responsible for their local administration and their well being. The governments should without delay transfer all state economic activities to the people. The people should learn to be their own master if they want to be competitive in, and respected by the rest of the world. If people will not learn to lead they are sentenced to be led. And, in the absence of a leader like Mustafa Kemal, they are bound to be led by the power that ruled the world for centuries, the autocracy. They will take refuge in the comfort of being led. Let us recall J.S. Mill’s observation on the American society after his visit to the USA (On Liberty, 1859): “…let them be left without a government, every body of Americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be; and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration.” Finally, the Turkish people should realize that the Kemalist reformism (inkilapcilik) is not a one time static affair. It has a connotation of continuity; it should rather be understood as progressiveness. These people cannot hide behind their glorious history, including that of that great man called Atatürk, and relax in its shadow. They have to work towards progress without interruption.

A country-wide campaign and mobilization will no doubt require a very difficult organizational process, as well as a serious confrontation with opposing forces. However, people have to accept that improvement of their well-being does not come cheaply. Unless these actions are taken without fear, Turkish people will, under whatever regime, continue to exist but not within the full meaning of sovereign democratic society, thus they will not progress at the same pace as with the rest of the advanced world, where they really deserve to be.