Simply put, the Kemalists had it coming. When Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1950, various parties sought for decades to maintain Ataturk’s legacy, while the military guarded the system.
Eventually, however, lethargy took hold. Far from remaining the progressive, forward-looking movement of the early 20th century, Kemalism stagnated and then shifted into an ideology for protecting the past. To those of us growing up in Turkey in recent decades, the most visible sign of this process was the emergence of mass-produced Ataturk statues, on almost every town square, after the 1980 coup that ended anarchy on the streets but also gave the country its highly restrictive and military-written constitution.
By turning Ataturk into a cult, the generals also ensured Kemalism’s demise.
Even after Turkey became a democracy in 1982, this process would not be reversed: The governing parties, mostly from the center-right, failed to produce ideas for change. The nascent Islamist parties sensed an opportunity and began building grass-roots networks and incubating a forward-looking vision for Turkey, one that cultivated permeable walls between religion, public policy and government, and that embraced the country’s Islamic identity in foreign policy.
When the dominant center-right parties collapsed after a debilitating economic crisis in 2000 and 2001, the Islamists used a platform of moderation to attract voters. Once in power, the AKP garnered popular support for change, succeeding in part because of the decade of stable economic growth the party has provided. A buoyant AKP established itself as Turkey’s new elite, gradually replacing Kemalist power centers in the media, business, academia, civil society, unions and, after amendments to the constitution last year, the high courts.
The military was the final institution of Kemalism. Since 2007, a court case known as Ergenekon, which alleged that the army was plotting a coup against the government, has crippled the military’s power. The army has been criticized for allegedly planning a vicious takeover bid and accused of planning to bomb Istanbul’s historic mosques to precipitate a political crisis. Although the assertions remain unproven, the effects are clear: The military’s status as the country’s most trusted institution is plummeting. In 1996, 94 percent of Turkish respondents to the World Values Survey said they trusted their military, while in 2011 the same poll found that barely 75 percent do.