April is normally an eventful month in Turkey as elsewhere. As spring consolidates itself with a hint of the summer’s arrival, the joys of Orthodox and Gregorian Easter and Jewish Passover can be felt in the air, where the remnants of these communities exist, mainly in major western cities of Istanbul and Izmir. 

Then begin the schoolchildren’s preparations for the April 23 celebrations. This date marks the first sitting of the Ankara parliament, Grand National Assembly, the nucleus of republican Turkey, and therefore is marked as the ‘National Sovereignty Day’. It is also celebrated as “Children’s Day” emphasizing the importance of the new generations for the new republic. 

This year is the centenary of the April 23 national day and it is rather unfortunate that the coronavirus outbreak will not allow public ceremonies and festivities on this important day. In compensation, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will address the nation by reciting the verse of Turkish national anthem live. 

The approaching centenary will inevitably spark a new controversy between the secular-republican opposition and the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government regarding the latter’s relationship with the republican conventions and Kemalist principles, as well as the current state of the parliament under his presidential system. Opposition figures have long spoke of President Erdoğan’s distaste for the parliament and his desire to rule the country with presidential decrees rather than parliamentary legislation. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the majority of the deputies of other opposition parties support the abolition of the presidential system, which was introduced after a referendum on April 16, 2017 with a narrow majority in favor, an outcome still subject to dispute. 

The argument against the new system emphasizes the dictatorial dangers its opponents see as being attached to it, along with its position against the republican principle of representative government. In this view, the assembly of the parliament in Ankara is the genesis of the new Turkey and the decisive end of the Ottoman ancien regime. The story of the parliamentary tradition in Turkey, however, is more sophisticated, in which the continuity, rather than rupture, is more evident between the late Ottoman and republican parliaments.

Forcing the sultan to be free

The idea of ‘national sovereignty’, and the parliamentary system along with it, is the invention of the Young Ottomans, a group of radical litterateurs of mid-19thcentury, who were the founders of the Ottoman constitutional movement. While they were in exile, ‘their man in Istanbul’, Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha, introduced the first constitution with a palace coup on December 23, 1876 with the help of the Ottoman navy. Midhat Pasha’s coup also dethroned and jailed the ruling sultan and elevated Abdulhamid II after the latter’s acceptance of a significant devolution of monarchical powers. 

The 1876 constitution provided for equal rights for all citizens without distinction of race or creed, the abolition of slavery, an independent judiciary based on civil rather than religious law, universal elementary education, and a bicameral parliament, with an Assembly of Notables (Senate) appointed by the sultan and a directly elected Chamber of Deputies.

The life of the first democratic venture was not long. Sultan Abdulhamid would dissolve the parliament and suspend the constitution on February 14, 1878 under the pretext of the war with Russia. Midhat Pasha would be sent into exile and eventually executed on the orders of sultan. 

The legacy of the constitution and parliament, however, survived. In 1908, the ‘Young Turks’ organized as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) seized power and forced the same sultan to restore Midhat Pasha’s constitution. General elections were held and the Ottoman parliament was re-launched with greater powers.

The Ottoman Empire entered World War I under CUP dictatorship, which sidelined the parliament although never abolishing it. Following the defeat of the empire in the war, the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal and the Ottoman government jointly called new elections to be held on October 22, 1919. The newly elected parliament was convened in Istanbul and approved the nationalist program of resistance against the foreign invasion, which led to the Allied forces’ occupation of Istanbul and the subsequent dissolution of the parliament on April 11, 1920.

Ankara: war and democracy

The Ankara Assembly was formed from the existing Ottoman deputies and newly elected members from around Anatolian provinces on April 23, 1920. From that date to the conclusion of the National Struggle in 1923, the provisional government of Ankara was known as the government of the Grand National Assembly. The Assembly was in session throughout the war against the occupying Greek forces and drafted the first constitution of the Ankara government on January 21, 1921. The first Ankara parliament also ruled for the abolition of the sultanate in November 1922 and sent representatives to the peace talks in Lausanne.

Until the conclusion of national struggle was crowned with success, the main conflict seemed to be between the nationalist government in Ankara and the Freedom and Accord Party government in Istanbul which tried to rule the remnants of empire under the supervision of the occupying Allies. As soon as this duality came to an end, a split between the Kemalist leadership and the conservative and pro-Islamist wing of the parliament, known as the second group, surfaced. The parliamentary expression of this Kulturkampf could not be tolerated for long: on April 1, 1923, the leader of the nationalist movement Mustafa Kemal abolished the parliament.

According to Atatürk’s biographer, Andrew Mango, the new assembly consisted of deputies hand-picked personally by Mustafa Kemal. This parliament approved the Lausanne Treaty, declared Turkey a republic on October 29, 1923 and ratified a new constitution under Kemal’s influence in 1924. Although there were some failed attempts of transition to a multiparty system throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the first multi-party elections of the republican era would be held in 1946. Since that date, despite periodic ruptures and serial constitutional amendments, the Turkish political regime has functioned as an essentially pluralist parliamentary system.

Mostly because the Kulturkampf of the early republican era has never been resolved, historical symbols play an important role in contemporary Turkish politics. Kemalist discourse tends to associate the conservative and pro-Islamist currents either with Abdulhamid’s conservative dictatorship or the liberal Istanbul regime which collaborated with the Allies against Ankara government. Erdoğan’s response is usually an accusation that the CHP leadership are ‘unaware of their-own history’.  

Erdoğan’s positive references to the first Ankara assembly and ‘national sovereignty’ have symbolic significance, as his references to the Ottoman and pre-Ottoman past, emphasis on the historic figure of Abdulhamid, etc. These positive aspects of history are often contrasted with a set of negative references to the post-1923 period of the one party rule along with the secularist westernizing reforms, symbolized by the term ‘CHP mentality’. This approach to historical events is accompanied by the recent expressions of objection to the terms of Lausanne Treaty and Montreux Convention.

April 24: the unuttered foundation

The opposing sides of the unresolved Kulturkampf agree on one issue: however much one may choose to be vocal about 23 April, one must maintain a position of denial regarding the day after, that is 24 April. This year, April 24 is the 105th anniversary of the day when the Armenian ‘mass deportation’ – which according to some estimates cost over a million human lives –began. 

In the Ottoman parliament, the seats were shared among Ottoman ethnic and religious groups of Muslims, Greeks, Jews and Armenians, while the 1920 Ankara assembly consisted exclusively of Muslim Turks. In this sense, a significant dimension of the transition that the 1920 parliament symbolizes is that from a multi-cultural society to a monolithic nation-state, in which the role of non-Muslim communities were negligible. The mass elimination of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek peoples of Anatolia in the second decade of the century prepared the ground over which both the Islamist/conservative and modern secularist wings of a national entity were able to function. It is only after these annihilations that the formation of a “purely Turkish and Muslim” parliament and government, of which both the government and main opposition are still proud, became possible. Maintaining a collective attitude of silence and denial regarding the day after 23 April is consequently an aspect of national character that welds together the otherwise warring parties.

Spring has arrived in the world in rather strange circumstances this year, tomorrow is April 23 and will inevitably be followed by April 24 the next day. As American writer William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”.

* The Turkish-German sociologist and historian Taner Akçam borrowed the term Kulturkampf from the German to describe a major conflict in Ottoman-Turkish cultural and political life between the pro-Western modernists on the one side and the conservative Islamists on the other.