Image: Battle of Manzikert, 1071
Today is Victory Day in Turkey, the anniversary of Atatürk’s decisive pushback of Allied forces in 1922, ending the War of Independence. The city is festooned with enormous flags, billowing in unseasonal gale force winds. Two days ago, a new President and a new Prime Minister were inaugurated to great fanfare, marred only by a booklet being hurled at the Speaker of Parliament by an enraged member of the opposition, presumably in protest at the depressing predictability of the new appointments.
Is this a brave new era or a continuation of the old? Tayyip Erdoğan is embarking on a presidency which, all going to plan, will grant him as much power as he has enjoyed over the last eleven years as prime minister. He will continue to control the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in all but name, having personally chosen his successor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s former foreign minister, like a sultan choosing a suitably loyal vizier. On Wednesday, MPs from the AKP “voted” for Davutoğlu, the only candidate for the role of head of party (/Prime Minister), while Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s overshadowed president of the past seven years, was shuffled off stage like a redundant great-uncle. Yesterday, a new cabinet was announced – no big surprises, bar a last-minute midnight announcement that Yiğit Bulut, a controversial ex-journalist who believes assassins are trying to murder Erdoğan via telekinesis, is to be the new President’s chief economic advisor.
After this game of political chairs, we are left with the status quo: Erdoğan, stern of face and booming of voice, taking key decisions and shaping party policy while Davutoğlu, the smiling stooge, continues to sidestep delicate matters like the threat of IS on Turkey’s borders, one of the consequences of Turkey granting indiscriminate free passage to Syrian rebels in the past three years of conflict. Party members toe the line, as before, grand construction projects continue, as before, opposition parties grumble uselessly, as before. Yet this is “New Turkey”, apparently. We are on the brink of something big, at least in the imagination of the AKP: a prosperous future for a proudly Islamic Turkey that leads its neighbours and refuses to bow to the West. To achieve this, Erdoğan will have to remain firmly at the helm.
In general elections next year, the aim of the AKP is to get a large enough majority to pass a constitutional change which will grant full executive powers to the president. Erdoğan will be in power for at least the next five years, and very likely more. So keen is he on uninterrupted power that when he won the presidential election with 51.8% of the votes on 10th August, the results were not published in the official gazette, which would have necessitated his stepping down as prime minister before inauguration as President on Thursday. This has also, incidentally, meant he kept immunity from prosecution for the intervening seventeen days.
It is vital that Erdoğan keeps a continuity of power, now and in the long term, because he is the face and guts of “New Turkey”, a Turkey which is actively stepping away from the secular republic shaped by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the debris of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Two days before becoming Turkey’s new prime minister, Davutoğlu laid out his plan to repair the “damage” of the last ninety years – in other words, Ataturk’s republic. While insisting that this did not mean a return to an Islamic, Ottoman state, Davutoğlu’s statement echoed many made by Erdoğan, who has made a point of celebrating Ottoman sultans (most controversially by naming the third Bosphorus bridge after Selim the Grim, who massacred tens of thousands of Alevis in 1514), and pointing ahead to important upcoming anniversaries in Turkey’s historical calendar. Some of these are less obvious than others, and commemorate not just the Ottomans but even earlier ancestors, Muslim warriors from the steppes. In December 2012, Erdoğan urged the Turkish youth to look forward to 2071, the 1000 year anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert (above), when the Byzantines were defeated by the Seljuk Turks. This is, according to the new president, when “Turkey will reach the level of our Ottoman and Seljuk ancestors” – let us hope he is not envisaging a return to old-fashioned cavalry charges near the borders of modern Armenia. Erdoğan will not be alive then, but he understands very well that a lofty vision of the future is vital in keeping momentum and cementing support for the continuation of the AKP, and in the meantime, for himself.
The closer and more obvious anniversary will be 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey – now only nine years away. Erdoğan has made every indication that he will be firmly in charge at this point, marking the birth of the “New Turkey” being carefully introduced to the public by the AKP’s hardworking marketing team.
Grand plans, limitless ambition and ever-increasing self-confidence. This is neither New Turkey nor Old Turkey: this is, for the foreseeable future, Erdoğan’s Turkey.