One hundred years ago two days ago, the 25th of April 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps 3rd Infantry Brigade landed at a small cove on the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula. Backed by British support in the grand plan of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill the Gallipoli campaign signified a decisive move take the straits of the Dardanelles that provided a sea route to the Russian Empire. With a small, but knowledgeable force, the Ottoman Turks, while failing to prevent the landing, managed to contain the attack close to the shore. The stalemate on the shores of what is now known as Anzac cove would begin a nine month long campaign that would later be described as the greatest victory in World War I of ‘the sick man of Europe.’ More decisively however, Ottoman victory signified a decisive point in the Turkish nationalism that would come with the rise of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, one of the commanding generals of the Turkish forces.
Australia mourns the loss of more than 8000 that died on the rocky shores of the Gallipoli peninsula; a memorable and commemorated number nonetheless overshadowed by the 87,000 Turks killed during the campaign. Despite the many dead – the campaign is seen as the most successful military work of a dying empire. The success of the Ottoman campaign brought about, lead by Ataturk, a new era and political attitude of populist secularism that would characterize Turkish politics for the years to follow. Today Turkey’s political secularism is under fire from contradictory political culture and deep polarization over the integration of religion into the public sphere. Is Turkey heading toward a neo-Ottoman state; and how is the rest of the world expected to react?
Ataturk’s influence was more than simply that of a charismatic political leader. As the “father of the Turks”, rather responsible for the ingraining of a political culture that saw the military as the “guardians of Turkish secularism” a duty that would see the armed forces as a political actor rather than an organ of the state. This is rather problematic, considering the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party, though officially characterized ideologically as “conservatively democratic” bears with it strong Islamist roots. Ataturk maintained a dream for a Turkey built on populism, embraced secularism, sovereignty and economic supremacy. A commendable dream – but a dream nonetheless. Though Turkey economically successfully weathered the 2008 Financial Crisis, its liberal structures are damaged in their democratic standing by institutional flaws and social cleavages that are too easily manipulated by political agenda. The military might be politically subject for now, but that’s not to say that the Kemalist dream is completely dead.
The issue with the Turkish political conflict is that it plays on a number of pre-existing divisions within Turkish politics. The AKP demonstrates significant democratic issues – Turkey is still not a liberal democracy despite years of reform on the part of institutions and liberties. The Kurdish challenges pose enduring implications to the direction of Turkish politics, but lacking in the organization to establish themselves as a formidable political force. Opposition parties to the AKP seem disorganized and divided by internal disputes. Future coalitions and alliances between Turkish parties attempting to set the country’s political direction will provide an interesting commentary – and a strong influence on the direction that Turkey’s neighbors and allies will take when dealing with the country swiftly building a hybrid model of political engagement.
It has now been one hundred years since the fall of Gallipoli – this new Turkey is an entirely new political beast to the one created by the mystical ethnic-nationalism of Ataturk. Turkey isn’t rebuilding the past, but rather facing conflicting political ideals about how to react to a rapidly changing system centred around the place of government in the public sphere. As the Australian Prime Minister articulated on his recent visit to commemorate the beginning of the end of Ottoman Turkey at Gallipoli, modern Turkey is “prosperous, its pluralist, it’s peaceful and it’s a stark contrast to the kind of things we see happening in Syria and Iraq right now.” A contrast it may be, but that doesn’t mean its not being watched just as closely. Turkey’s political -religious fusion is no longer an experiment – but a thinly veiled model to rest of the Arab world, despite the rhetoric modesty of the AKP. Needless to say, June’s election will be an important one.
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