When I was a kid, certain national holidays were a big deal. As students, we would train for weeks for Children’s Day on April 23 and National Youth and Sports Day on May 19. Then we would perform some choreography mixed of dance and gymnastics in the city stadiums. Parents would come and cheer, people would watch and local street salespeople would sell refreshments and street food. It was neither a festival nor a very serious state-organized event. It was a mixture of both. Stadium celebrations would be bigger events for smaller cities, and insignificant activities in bigger cities. They were “official” rather than joyful.

When I describe the national days like this, it sounds a bit North Korea-ish, I know. However, the world was a little bit like that back then. It was the Cold War: states would stretch their muscles from time to time. Turkey was flipping from one coup d’etat to another. 

Then the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, promising fundamental changes when it came to democracy. As a part of “democratization,” AKP promised to turn such national holidays from stadium events into street festivals. Turkey neither democratized, nor did we ever have street festivals on our national holidays.

Stadium events were banned by AKP government, but the promised street festivals never took place. The government always found an excuse not to celebrate: either a terror attack would be an excuse, or some sort of a natural disaster. It was not a surprise, as the AKP was in conflict with the fundamental basis of the Turkish state. For a long time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refused to acknowledge Atatürk as the founding father. For most of his time as president, Abdullah Gül would avoid state receptions on national days, always finding a health issue as an excuse. The AKP took alcohol away from state receptions and added Quran recitation sessions instead. 

However, it seems to me that this approach has had the opposite effect. Rather than diminishing the symbols of the Atatürkian basis of the Turkish state, the government’s rejection of national days and symbols has caused people to embrace them even more.

This year, because of the COVID-19 lockdown, on both April 23 and May 19, people were at home and not allowed to go out. However, ironically, I have witnessed the most joyful celebrations this year. People went out on their balconies and sang the national anthem and the marches they like. They were waved flags and danced. It was really like a festival this time. Some gated communities had their own fireworks show. People living in different buildings, who maybe never said hello to each other on the street, gathered under a shared feeling. The feeling of being a part of one ideal, one understanding, I suppose.

Earlier, the state would organize celebrations for official holidays and people would participate — some voluntarily, some unwillingly. With the AKP, much has changed in Turkey, including national day celebrations. This time, people initiated celebrations and the state had to follow. I remembered what a Felicity Party executive told me earlier. He said that Kemalism used to be the ideology of the state and it was not embraced by the people. However, it is vice versa now: Kemalism is embraced by the masses. It does not even matter whether the state adopts it anymore.