Theirs was a centuries-old great empire on the edge of Europe, but who in the wider world thinks of the Ottomans now?
The Ottoman Empire survived beyond the first world war, whose last veteran died just 12 years ago. But the modernisers who set up the secular Turkish Republic from its ashes in 1923 ensured that the mighty sultanate they disdained for being too traditional and religious has all but disappeared into exotic folklore — as if it only ever existed in the imagination of writers.
What those founding fathers would think of today is probably unprintable.
Because, on May 14, in the year of Turkey’s centenary, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an authoritarian, teetotal former political Islamist with evident nostalgia for the Ottomans will be fighting for the right to take the country into its second century as the most consequential leader since its revered, hard-drinking, pro-Western secularist first president, Kemal Ataturk.
And he will be doing so at the helm of a NATO-member country that, after more than 70 years of multiparty politics, is still fighting over the cornerstones of parliamentary democracy, the separation of powers, the role of religion in public life and the extent of Turkey’s commitment to the West — all arguments on the table when the sultans last sat in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace.
In this country that wanted to throw off the shackles of its empire but whose democracy has never quite matured, the historic echoes around what is possibly the most significant election in the world this year make a worrying contrast to the forward-looking messages of its dawning days. Although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does, as per Mark Twain, “often rhyme”.
And there are rhymes aplenty. Among those following the upcoming elections is the Oxford historian and author of the best-selling The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan, who told me: “The thing that is most striking to me ….(is) the centrality of the Ottoman past in modern Turkish politics. History, one might say, is more important than ever.”
Erdogan had been hoping to capitalise on this with a series of celebrations marking Turkey’s centenary. But instead, the presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in the aftermath of a brutal earthquake that devastated an area the size of Hungary on Turkey’s Syrian border, killing tens of thousands — an enormous tragedy that could determine the outcome of the polls.
Erdogan is the most electorally vulnerable he has been in his two decades in charge because of the ailing economy and general malaise about his belligerent presidency. As a combined opposition consisting of former ministers and a former prime minister who quit Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) try to rally his numerous dissenters behind them, all eyes are on Erdogan’s handling of the tragedy.
Will Turkey, as The Economist asked in its recent European cover story, pull away from the brink and return to its flawed attempts to push through Ataturk’s quest towards Western-style democracy, or plough on towards a much more dictatorial darkness?
In reality, Turkey is more complicated and the choice might not be quite so stark, but for the artists and intellectuals exiled in Europe, the politicians banned from office and the journalists and human rights workers jailed by his unforgiving regime, not to mention the students, women, minorities and progressives forced to live with restrictions to their previous freedoms to drink, have abortions and speak as they find, the imperative to get rid of Erdogan is urgent.
And while the country grieves for the lives lost in the earthquake and those suffering, homeless, in the freezing winter nights, Erdogan’s opponents are looking to another rhyming couplet of history for some hope – the fact that he swept to power in 2002 partly thanks to the lamentable response of the ruling coalition to the 1999 earthquake that hit Turkey’s northwestern industrial heartlands, including Istanbul.
Then Erdogan was railing against the government’s inadequate preparation, the lack of resources and the endemic corruption that allowed construction companies to skimp on building safety while pocketing large profits. Today, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu fumes about the “Gang of Five” big house builders who have close ties to the president and damns his disorganised response.
Optimistic opposition journalists write that Erdogan will “go the way he came”, crushed by an earthquake like the one he harnessed to victory..
But not so fast. Even after two decades of polarising leadership, Erdogan still has a strong power base among the divided electorate. While he may be weakened by the disaster, his strong control of the media could mean that social media criticism from survivors and commentators won’t make it onto mainstream bulletins. He has also imposed emergency rule in the affected areas which give him extended powers to control people and the narrative.
He has been working hard, ensuring his strongest rival, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, is sidelined with a conviction that bars him from office, and giving large rises in the public sector to cover up the inflation his leadership has caused.
And it’s important not to forget his appeal. While restricting some of his citizens’ lives, he’s widened the horizons of others, often the more religious who were sidelined and saw higher education and public office opportunities denied them over things like the Islamic headscarf. He also has support for his visible legacy of grands projets such as gleaming airports, city underground railways, a bridge across the Bosphorus, high speed trains and smooth new motorways, even as his opponents ridiculed their grandiosity.
Erdogan’s foreign policy outbursts, such as calling the Dutch Nazis for not letting him hold campaign rallies for Turks living there or his tactical veto over Sweden’s NATO accession angered leaders abroad, but found fans for “finally standing up for Turkey”.
He’s credited for giving weight to Turkey in the international political scene with controversial moves such as trying to balance his economically vital relationships with both Russia and Ukraine, which led to him brokering a deal for grain exports between aggressor and defender in the Ukraine war. Turkish diplomats have blamed him for messing up slowly thawing relations with the European Union in 2016, but they share his belief that the EU won’t let a Muslim country join. On issues such as Turkey’s spat with Greece, France and other Mediterranean countries over gas exploration rights off the shore of Cyprus, much of Turkey’s population thinks he is right.
After the elections, Turkey’s former ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, believes a lot of this will calm down. He told me that a symbolic way will be found for Turkey to lift its veto on Sweden, and while EU accession looks impossible under any leader, positive steps can be taken on issues such as visas and customs.
He sees an Erdogan win as bad for the country, but believes this will mean a continuation of the restless stalemate with the West, rather than a complete turn eastwards, for which there is little political scope.
But an opposition win could lead to a softening on flashpoint issues such as human rights and the rule of law and usher in a brief honeymoon period.
That’s if they get there. It’s a tough job for any opposition to beat Erdogan, and while the current Table of Six — a grouping of disparate parties from nationalist to social democratic to Islamist — has united remarkably well compared to past efforts, it has yet to provide the inspirational leader needed to mount a serious challenge. Despite lagging behind in the polls, Erdogan still has a strong chance of winning.
It’s a terrifying prospect for his opponents. It’s also worrying in a wider sense because it could condemn a vital geopolitical giant to at least another decade of political darkness under one of the 21st century’s original strongmen, and lay to rest the early promise of the Turkish Republic as a rare example as a secular, tolerant Muslim democracy.
For Frankopan, the themes of the polls, and fears over whether they will be fought free and fair, tell “a story of Turkey’s journey in the last one hundred years. One of so much potential regularly being kept locked up because of the paralysis of the political process. So for me, the significance remains that of how Turkey steps into the future, rather than insisting on keeping a foothold in the past.”
To understand where Turkey is going, we need to look at its past. And it’s everywhere in this election process, sometimes deliberately so, as Erdogan uses symbols and historical allusions to galvanise voters..
Even the date of the election has retro links. May 14 is the day in 1950 that Turkey first properly transitioned to multiparty democracy, with the convincing election of the liberal Adnan Menderes, who attempted many populist reforms before being ousted in the first of Turkey’s many coups and hanged. He is now reframed as a martyr in the people’s struggle against the domineering, military-backed state apparatus.
This is an image Erdogan appropriated for himself when he first won office, against military opposition and after he had been imprisoned for reading an Islamist poem. One of his achievements was to push the military back into the barracks and out of public life to the extent that even his fiercest opponents took to the streets in 2016 when some members of the armed forces tried to overthrow him. Remember what it was like, he seems to be saying, and remember how I made it better.
In between further coups in 197, and 1980, leftists and far-right nationalists calling themselves “Grey Wolves” fought deadly battles in the streets. Thousands were killed. The Wolves have now muscled into contemporary politics following the assassination of a former leader, Sinan Ates, which has been blamed on an internecine squabble among Erdogan’s nationalist allies. Mafia bosses such as Sedat Peker and Alaattin Cakici have reappeared on the scene, some allegedly working with the government, others lining up to dish the dirt on politicians’ links with organised crime.
If this old battle continues, it could help the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), itself an important historic exhibit as it was founded by Ataturk as a resistance organisation in 1919, banned after the 1980 coup, and revived later because of its symbolic value.
Looming large as possible kingmakers in this election are the Kurds, whose restive disenfranchisement goes back to Ottoman times and has haunted the past 50 years as Kurdish separatists fought a bloody guerrilla war with the army. Erdogan had made strides to bring about peace, but the two sides turned against each other in the mid-2010s, especially after Erdogan’s alliance with the nationalists. Now, the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, is in jail and the party itself faces closure.
The HDP is not part of the Table of Six — whether they work together or not could be decisive in May’s election. Many areas affected by the earthquake have large Kurdish populations, so their view of post-earthquake efforts of the government matters.
Other themes in Erdogan’s pre-election historical Jukebox include performative threats to invade Turkey’s neighbour, Greece, which is marking its own take on Turkey’s centenary as the Great Catastrophe. Since Greeks who occupied part of the Ottoman Empire were in the firing line of Turkey’s war of independence, led by Ataturk, and died in their hundreds of thousands in fighting, from attacks and during the mass exodus of Ottoman-born ethnic Greeks, these threats to invade a much smaller neighbour are in extremely poor taste, but Erdogan believes they serve to appropriate an era of “heroism” and rally the nationalists.
He has also infused public discourse with inflammatory historic grievances in ongoing arguments over the fairness of the post-war Treaty of Lausanne, and the role of the Sykes-Picot pact that drew the borders between Iraq and Syria in today’s Middle East conflicts. But what Erdogan seems to have done best is harness the myth of Ottoman greatness to his leadership.
He will often quote Ottoman figures and refer to their accomplishments. The new third bridge across the Bosphorus is named after Sultan Selim I, or Selim the Grim, who expanded the Empire by 70% into Muslim Arab heartlands, including assuming the guardianship of the Islamic holy sites, Mecca and Medina. He is unfashionably a fan of Sultan Abdulhamid II, who was deposed by the Young Turks, pointedly describing him as a visionary whose modernisation plans defined the past 150 years of Turkish history even though he was “one of the the biggest victims of a harsh ideological polarisation that had captured Turkish intellectual life.”
All this is part of Erdogan’s presidential stage-management. As president, he has overseen cosplaying ceremonies marking the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and posed with men in Ottoman military costumes on stairs of his Putinesque residence in Ankara.
A picture of the 1,000-room building started circulating on social media recently, in response to the question about what on earth the government had done with billions of liras worth of earthquake taxes supposedly imposed to strengthen buildings and avoid the mass collapse we are seeing along the faultline now. The building has been likened to a sultan’s residence, and the opposition dubbed its own election manifesto “Farewell to the Palace”.
Although Erdogan publicly flinches whenever his democratic credentials are questioned, he may enjoy the allusion to autocratic leaders that once dominated a large, powerful empire spread across Europe. With Ottoman-themed films and dramas breaking rating records, maybe the comparison isn’t as harmful as some believe. He isn’t going to lose the election in a country that is constantly seeking powerful leadership by being likened to powerful leaders from the past.
It wasn’t always like this. Ataturk had founded the new Turkish state with the aim of staying in tune with the modern world, changing social norms and throwing off the trappings of Islam. He saw Turkey’s future firmly in the West and didn’t dwell on the past. The end of the empire was messy and unpleasant, with little reason to lament the last, weak years of the sultanate – certainly not the Young Turk era, when the nationalists that disempowered the sultans pushed to join Germany in the war, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, and oversaw the Armenian genocide in 1915, when attacks on Turkey’s numerous ethnic and religious minorities hit new highs.
According to the writer Ryan Gingeras, author of The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire, the years between 1918 and 1922 were not so much about “the dismantling of a state as the destruction of cultures and whole communities.”
“We think of (the Young Turks) as heroes but the fact is in 1922 they were deeply reviled and rightly so,” Gingera told me. “Ataturk basically said ‘these guys are villains’. For THAT Ottoman Empire you would never in a million years say ‘yeah we missed that place. That was a great time.’”
Attempting to break cleanly from the past, Ataturk brought in some reforms almost overnight, including outlawing some traditional garb, encouraging women to dress in a more modern way and encouraging men to wear hats. He even changed the alphabet from Arabic to Latin, forcing people to effectively learn to read again. When not depicted in military uniform, he was often pictured wearing black or white tie at events such as dances or embassy gatherings. But as the transformation started to get difficult, the initial excitement gave way to disappointment. Some sections of society, particularly the more traditionalist, were left behind, sowing the seeds of some of today’s struggles. Continuing discrimination against overtly religious Muslims created a backlash that led to a growing Islamist movement from which Erdogan emerged. Anti-minority sentiment remains a problem.
“People didn’t see the Ottoman Empire nostalgically in 1922 or 1923 precisely because it embodied all those different immediate hurts and hardship and traumas and so on,” said Gingeras. But slowly, attitudes softened, people started to celebrate certain Ottoman military officers, wax nostalgically about lands that were lost after the war, then widen their yearning to a “grab bag” of different things to celebrate depending on the taste of the beholder. Erdogan has been able to enable then deftly exploit that wide array of appealing motifs and symbols.
“One of the things that make him such a formidable figure in politics is that he’s able to be that Ottoman nostalgist, but he’s also very capable in utilising Kemalist tropes, even tropes of Turkish nationalism,” Gingeras said. “The whole idea of Turkish ethnicity as blood, the idea that the Turkish republic is a thousand year-old state going back to the Seljuks – that’s not very Ottoman nationalist but it is a very Kemalist idea of what the Turkish nation is.”
This ability to fuse themes of history that can appeal to different elements of the national spectrum is, in some ways central: “ Despite the economy, despite Turkey’s isolation, all these sorts of things that you think can hurt him, Erdogan has very successfully made this election about something bigger — which is about the nature of Turkey, the future of Turkey.”
That’s what sets him apart from potential challengers such as Kilicdaroglu, who lack his charisma, and the six opposition figures who all represent different things.
In some ways, the Ottoman reset was welcome, its multiethnic past a positive contrast to the stridently nationalist, slightly brutalist take of the republic. As depicted in Diana Darke’s new book, The Ottomans, this was a cosmopolitan society, with many ethnicities, languages and religions, where medicine, arts and sciences flourished and skills such as bookkeeping and urban planning were prized.
But, while Erdogan ushered in an opportunity to make peace with history and a certain realism about the deified Ataturk, who was after all a man of his time, seeking influences from communism and the then rising fascist movements, the mythmaking he embarked upon became dangerous and divisive. Erdogan is a vocal fan of the Ottoman-born poet and writer-philosopher Necip Fazil Kisakurek, who became an Islamist ideologue bent on replacing Ataturk’s secularist reforms and translated the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Turkish.
As he settled into his leadership, Erdogan sought the kind of power he imagined Ataturk enjoyed, even though Ataturk was initially more a first amongst equals in a group of comrades in arms.
However, the difference between the pair was not as marked as it initially seems. They were both strongmen, iconic figures to their followers, and both have had issues with democracy. In Erdogan, who made much of his popular mandate while trying to ensure the public cannot unseat him, that’s easy to see. Ataturk wanted a western-style democracy, and even ordered one fellow founder to form a political opposition party to the CHP. But when this party did things he didn’t like, it was abolished. It was only after his death that a multiparty system was reinstated.
In a sense, their superficial similarities demonstrate the problem that has run through Turkey’s stop-start democracy. They’re both strong characters, one inspired the yearning for a strong leader and the other was the product of this search. There would inevitably lead to a disdain of squabbling political pygmies, and a taste for military leadership when civilians visibly failed. Maybe a 21st century autocrat was baked into Turkey’s 20th-century foundations?
Has Turkey lost its way as it veered inevitably from its original vision? Is the fact that this election is simply a rehash of the old hits from Turkish and Ottoman history proof of this?
Yenel, a former Turkey ambassador, thinks — or hopes — not. “This struggle has been going on for hundreds of years. The pendulum between the progressives and the regressive keeps swinging back and forth — this is one of the reasons why we got the printing press late, for instance.”
But the overall direction has only been one way: “We got to an advanced stage in Ataturk’s time and that lasted until now. There has been pushback over the past 10-15 years, but even so, some gains have been firmly established.”
The progress of Turkey meanders, but eventually ends up further ahead than at first thought. In Erdogan’s early years, in the 2000s, the atmosphere of liberalism and progress was pervasive. Suddenly, minority rights were more respected, human rights reforms were made and laws on women’s rights transformed as Turkey began its faltering EU accession process in 2005.
“Things like women’s rights — whatever happens we can’t retreat on that,” Yenel said. “On democracy, we have traditions, particularly since the 1950s. We aren’t like Russia — in the end, an opposition exists.”
Even as he became increasingly repressive, Erdogan has never been credited with impossible North Korea or Putin-level majorities. Sometimes he scrapes through. This doesn’t mean the elections are necessarily free and fair, but, given that Erdogan is still popular (even if his image is burnished by a crony-run media), election results broadly reflect the people’s views. He hasn’t yet faced a credible presidential opponent to test this thesis further.
The Istanbul mayoral elections in 2019 show that Erdogan’s electoral support isn’t unlimited. When Imamoglu was elected as Istanbul mayor, Erdogan contrived a rerun, only for Imamoglu to get an even more thumping majority.
There are worries that Erdogan might try to overturn any presidential election he doesn’t win, but in past elections — such as the 2015 hung parliament — he was, as president, officially detached from losers and able to meddle. It will be much more difficult to do if he is the one losing power
And when Erdogan’s party first came in in 2002, it won despite strong opposition in the Turkish media, secularist establishment and the state apparatus. It’s harder now for the opposition to overcome these inherent disadvantages, but not impossible. What’s more important is a strong candidate, and, with Imamoglu seemingly out of the picture, there isn’t one. Without that, there’s no guarantee that disaffected Turks will unite in opposition even when faced with an incumbent who has helped crash the economy and faces enormous pressure over the loss of tens of thousands of lives in an earthquake.
As the opposition starts to show cracks of disunity over the candidate choice and individual leaders start to make renegade statements, the veteran columnist Yalcin Dogan drew a troubling parallel with Hungary’s last elections, in which a group of opposition parties similarly joined forces and showed promise in the polls, before fading away and gifting victory to Viktor Orban once more.
“Can you imagine?” he wrote in the independent news portal T24. “You have a governing faction struggling to reach 40% and an opposition comfortably commanding 60% of the vote, and then you irresponsibly lose confidence through ridiculous arguments and unsanctioned statements until the election starts to look difficult to win. Do you not realise that you are playing with fire?”
If Erdogan does win, despite the economy, despite the earthquake, despite everything, the omens aren’t good for those fighting to get rid of him. According to Barbara Geddes, a leading theorist on global authoritarianism, one-man authoritarian regimes can be removed by the people if its within their first 20 years in power. If they survive beyond that, they’re likely to continue for another 15, or until they become too old to do the job.
This election could be the best opportunity to renew the Turkish leadership. The message for the fragile opposition alliance is, blow it now, and you could have more than a decade to repent at leisure.