Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared the parliamentary system out of date and while laying down the blueprint for the transition to a presidential system, he gave more clues to what lies ahead.
The venue this time was not the glittering grand hall of the new presidential palace but a packed conference centre in Ankara. Instead of his usual audience of heads of local neighbourhoods, a carefully selected group of pro-government associations and foundations were convened under the title, “Turkish Constitution Platform”.
Mr. Erdogan is clearly not content with having 317 AKP deputies in the 550-member parliament as well as a loyal media machine. He has decided to take his case direct to his people. For the grass-roots campaign to secure the necessary constitutional change, he will rely on his favourite civil society organisations, among them the Turkish Youth and Education Service Foundation, TÜRGEV which is practically a family-run enterprise; the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) of the Gaza flotilla fame and the Independent Industrialists and Businessmen Association (MÜSİAD).
The president expects civil society groups to lead the debate on the new constitution which will, ultimately, be put to a referendum.
It is no secret that Mr. Erdogan is getting increasingly impatient with the parliamentary arithmetic. He needs 13 more deputies to be able to formalize his de-facto one-man rule. His relentless push for a constitutional change is interpreted as his haste to consolidate his powers but Thursday’s speech rallying his civil society loyalists indicates that there is more to it than meets the eye.
Mr Erdogan has mentioned something that should stop everyone to think what else might be in the store.
“Every constitution we had so far was of an imported kind” he said. “None was our own. We were ruled by imported products, imported mentalities. Now, we will revert back to the local and national.”
A few hours before I heard the President speak live on television, I was deliberating a recent comment by Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.
In an article titled “Kemal Erdogan’s second Turkish revolution” published in the online magazine Politico, Soner Cagaptay argues that there is more to Erdogan than simply being an Ottoman revivalist. Erdogan’s agenda goes deeper. “He wants to rid Turkey not only of the legacy of Ataturk, but also of the late, westernized Ottoman Empire,” Cagaptay says.
After their defeat in Vienna in 1683, a radical Islamist movement led by the judge Kadızade Mehmed, and supported by its young and fiery seminary students known as the Taliban, dominated the Ottoman politics. Their insistence that the decline was due to the empire’s abandonment of “true Islam” resulted in a fundamentalism that lasted until the late 18th century when, under Sultan Selim III, westernization of the Ottoman military, bureaucracy and educational system started.
“Ataturk was the product of the Ottoman pivot to the West,” Cagaptay says and Mr Erdogan appears not only overturn Ataturk’s legacy but also the westernized Ottoman legacy by reinstating Islam to a central role in politics. Recent changes to Turkey’s education system as well as reshaping of its foreign policy by “re-engaging the Middle East and cementing Turkey’s status as regional Sunni power” are the manifestations of this policy.
It is an analysis worth discussing further.
History may not always repeat itself but those of us who fail to learn from it may end up sleepwalking into a disaster of our own time.