29 October 1923 was the day that the Turkish Parliament declared the founding of the Republic. It is one of the benchmarks of modern Turkish history, and naturally, this day is celebrated as a national holiday.
However, even in something as foundational as the celebration of Republic Day, it is not hard to recognize clear divisions within Turkey’s societal polarization.
“Does the republic represent everyone?” “Have the values of the majority been neglected and undermined by the republic?” These questions describe the sentiment that carried AKP to power in 2002. While climbing to power, AKP established a discourse that described the Turkish Republic as "the work of a handful of elitists" who had nothing to do with "the silent majority who had to put up with unnatural Westernization of their homeland." The constructed resentment of this "silent majority" was one of the main elements of the AKP’s communication strategy.
In the young Turkish Republic, national celebrations were big events. Organizing big city balls in Anatolia was customary, and there people could enjoy dancing and drinking alcoholic beverages. Ankara was famous for its receptions and classical music concerts. National holidays used to be the face of Turkey that looked towards the West. And while national holidays were all about the expression of secular cheerfulness, religious holidays of that time were limited to tradition and modesty.
When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, one of the first symbolic things he did was to introduce the lavish Conquest of Istanbul celebrations. The conquest, which took place in 1453, was first celebrated in 1939 during İsmet İnönü's presidency. However, as the new, young mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan took it to a whole other level. By upping the presentation of the celebrations, he presented Istanbul as almost re-conquered, by this time, "its rightful owners." Now there were extravagant laser shows and pop concerts on the very day the "Ottomans and AKP took Istanbul back."
AKP always had the claim that it was handing the country over to its "actual owners," the "silent majority." This idea was the very foundation of not only the AKP’s communication strategy, but also of their very ideology. Thus, the new group in power in Turkey wanted to show this in every symbolic step they took.
AKP preferred to either not join or cancel national holiday celebrations every chance they got. In 2011, the October 29 celebrations were cancelled due to the catastrophic earthquake in Van. However, on the very same day, then-President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended the wedding of a minister's son. The same year, Gül decided not to participate in the April 23 National Sovereignty Day ceremony at Anıtkabir in Ankara. Also in the same year, reportedly due to Gül’s health issues, the August 30 Victory Day celebration reception was cancelled.
In 2016, the April 23 National Sovereignty Day reception and celebrations were cancelled due to operations that the Turkish military was conducting and out of respect for the soldiers martyred during the military operations.
Besides either looking for or embracing excuses for canceling the celebrations, AKP was also transforming them. In 2018, the drinks that were served in the President’s newly-built palace was a hot topic in the news. For the August 30, 2018 reception, President Erdoğan invited actors, actresses, journalists and business people to the palace. Instead of wine or the Turkish national alcoholic drink rakı, guests were served dragon fruit smoothies and different versions of milk shakes.
This year, the president banned alcohol from being served in Turkish embassies for October 29 gatherings. The official reason for the ban was the on-going Peace Spring military operation in Syria. Erdoğan also decided not to call these events "celebrations" but "acceptance ceremonies."
This year, however, after years of silencing and transformation, there is also a different vibe around and on October 29. As an acceptance ceremony was taking place in the Beştepe Palace, which sometimes looks as if Erdoğan built it for himself, the newly-elected opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) municipal administrations decided to take the matter into their own hands.
In Ankara and Istanbul, for this October 29, four-day long festivities were scheduled. Different concerts and shows have been taking place in different districts of the cities. Ekrem İmamoğlu and his wife joined the main concert in Istanbul. Ekrem İmamoğlu’s wife Dilek İmamoğlu’s dress was the talk of the town. The concert took place in Sultanahmet square, close to conservative neighborhoods. The square was full of people.
After years of October 29 excitement being kept at the lowest possible levels, this time, the feeling of pride and joy was back. I briefly joined a hip-hop concert close to where I live. The artists rapped for the Turkish Republic. Young people were happy and dancing. It felt like a real festival.
CHP municipalities took action on social media too. They shared the song of “You are always with me” with pictures of Atatürk and mentioned each other to form a kind of tweet storm.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turks established the Turkish Republic. However, even the issue of what to celebrate proves that Turks have a long road ahead before they feel like a truly united nation that shares similar ideals and prospects for future.