I remember the 50th anniversary of the Republic, which was celebrated when I was in high school. An anthem to celebrate the anniversary was composed upon the government's request by Necil Kazım Akses, a very talented classical composer. The new anthem was played on the radio and on the only state-owned TV channel, which broadcasted just a few hours a day. This was done to teach the population a glorious anthem about the achievements of the Republic. I barely remember the music and some of the words. It did not have a long-lasting effect on society, because back then the Republic was a given, a system that would never be challenged.
For the record, the 50th anniversary happened just two years after the quasi-coup of March 12, 1971. It was a time when most of the public believed in the virtue of the "untold" political control of the Kemalist Turkish Armed Forces over the elected government.
These were the decades of missed opportunities and political shortsightedness. In 1973, the first democratic elections took place after the quasi-coup of 1971, and a "new" old party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), came in first in the elections, but fell largely short of a majority in Parliament. The young and ambitious leader of the CHP, Bülent Ecevit, who was excited about his victory over the historic leader of the party, İsmet İnönü, chose to form a coalition government with a new rising political force, the National Salvation Party (MSP) led by Necmettin Erbakan.
As a result, Turkey transitioned to a democratic government, encompassing a social-democratic party with an Islamic popular party at a time when Francisco Franco was still alive and in power in Spain, when Portugal was entering a terrible period of military coups and turmoil and when Greece was under the authority of a repressive military junta.
There were good reasons to celebrate the Republic, because the once-weakest aspect of the country, the democratic system, was running smoothly. The government was established in 1923 on a three-pillar system of republicanism, laicism and democratic function. The last pillar did not develop well, alongside similar regimes in Western Europe and North America. However, the coalition government founded in January 1974 was an opportunity to include opposition to Kemalism in institutional governance.
The coalition protocol of the CHP and MSP stipulated a common denominator in their preamble: "Both parties, believing deeply in the national, democratic, laicism and social, law-abiding character of the state, with deep respect for democratic rights and freedoms and the supremacy of the law, have decided that their common goal is to form governance respectful of equality in law, a society respectful of Atatürk's principles and based on understanding, fraternity and social justice."
The military intervention in Cyprus in July 1974 led to the end of the coalition. Ecevit, thinking that his new status of "national hero" would earn him a majority in Parliament, sabotaged the government and wanted to have early elections. The early elections never took place. The very promising coalition government was replaced by the very radical, right-wing government of the Nationalist Front. As a result, urban terrorism flourished and Turkish society became more divided than ever. International relations became very tense, an arms embargo, already placed by the U.S. because of poppy cultivation in the region of Afyonkarahisar, deepened after the Cyprus intervention.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), despite the declaration of martial law in 1978, waited for the perfect moment to intervene, which came in 1980. At a time when all European countries were moving toward democracy – Greece under Konstantinos Karamanlis, Spain under Adolfo Suarez and Portugal under Mario Soares – Turkey entered a deep and primitive military regime under the blunt and shallow leadership of Kenan Evren.
Although we celebrated gloriously in 1973, it was totally wasted seven years later, and the wounds of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup have never truly healed. Instead, it destroyed the intelligentsia of the Republic in the name of a created Kemalist ideology. The left-wing Turkish intelligentsia has never really recovered.
The Republic owes its existence to the genius and political wisdom of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, his Ottoman military and civilian colleagues' ability to forge a nation-state out of the remnants of a dead empire. They achieved this by breaking the nasty rules of the Versailles system, which wanted to implement the nefarious Sèvres Treaty. This was another miraculous and wise achievement. The administrative and military traditions of the old empire served its last descendants very well in coping with modernity.
What happened after the 50th anniversary of the Republic is perhaps much more debatable. We are all still struggling to normalize the democratic functioning of Turkey. As incredible as it might sound, we discovered last year that there was the threat of a military junta fomenting a coup. Thus, there are not many reasons to celebrate. Society still remains divided along a number of lines with no tangible solution or peaceful perspectives in sight. Let us all hope that the 100th anniversary is celebrated under better auspices.