Turkey After Atatürk

Last month, some-thing unprecedented happened in Turkey: more than 50 high-ranking military officers, including several retired four-star generals, were detained and questioned by prosecutors over an alleged coup plot. Codenamed Sledgehammer, the conspiracy supposedly aimed to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which many Turkish secularists find too Islamic.

Turkey's military has toppled elected governments four times over the decades, so that part was no big surprise. The shocker was that, for once, the generals are actually being held to account. "Everybody should get this right," wrote Gülay Göktürk, a prominent liberal: "the military guardianship regime is now history." One could add that Turkey is finally be-coming a more democratic place, where elected politicians, not self-appointed officers, will have the upper hand.

The old military "guardianship regime" was based on the idea that the Turkish people and their elected representatives were not wise enough to govern the country. The generals who established the system rooted in it the persona of Kemal Atatürk, the war hero who saved Turkey from occupation after World War I, founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, and then carried out an extensive Westernization program.

What's rarely understood in the West today is that while this Westernization had its benefits (especially for women's rights and education), it was neither democratic nor liberal. That's because the West in the late 1920s and '30s, which Atatürk looked to for guidance, was not a haven of liberal democracy; it was the golden era of authoritarianism, and that was the lesson Atatürk and his aides followed in creating a new Turkey.

The resulting system was based on a personality cult around the "supreme leader" and three other pillars: an authoritarian secularism that suppressed even the most moderate religious groups; an assimilationist nationalism that outlawed all non-"Turkish" identities such as that of the Kurds; and a dominant role for government in the economy. After World War II, the Kemalists were forced to accept a multiparty system. But Kemalism remained the official ideology, and if democratically elected governments strayed too far, the military would intervene—as it did on several bloody occasions.

This quasi democracy survived into the 21st century, but began crumbling in the last decade. The AKP, which came to power in 2002, is part of the explanation. But so are legal reforms encouraged by the European Union that allowed freer speech and abolished authoritarian institutions such as state-security courts.

The most definitive changes came in Turkish society. The conservative Islamic camp, after decades of blaming the West for its oppression by the Kemalists, eventually realized that the Western liberalism could be a boon, not a scourge, and so embraced the EU accession process. The Muslim middle class, which emerged as markets were freed up, distanced itself from Islamist ideology and started advocating a liberal secularism along U.S. lines. In response, the Kemalists offered little but more nationalism and deepening paranoia.

The result is a new, post-Kemalist Turkey. The passing of Kemalism as an official doctrine is a good thing, for the age of ideological regimes is long past. Some critics fear that the new elite, the religious conservatives, will prove just as intolerant as the generals before them. But that is an exaggerated fear, for what is really eroding Kemalism—the expanding pluralism of Turkish society—will defy any new attempt at authoritarianism. The AKP is hardly a party of Jeffersonian democrats—like other Turkish parties, it is hierarchical, intolerant of criticism, and eager to manipulate the media—but it has proven pragmatic enough to learn from its mistakes. And its leaders remain more liberal than the old guard on many issues, including the rights of Kurds and Christians.

Still, to consolidate Turkey's democratic gains the country needs a new Constitution that guarantees all rights and liberties with checks and balances. This new charter should limit the power of the central state and increase that of local administrations, while creating a nonpartisan judiciary, autonomous universities, and enforcing accountability both for politicians and bureaucrats. Most fundamentally, unlike the previous constitutions forged by the Kemalists, whose motto read, "For the people, despite the people," this new one should be made for the people and by them.