Turkey's founder Ataturk: a 'Yes' or 'No' voter?

Raziye Akkoc and Luana Sarmini-Buonaccorsi
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If Turkey says 'Yes' to the changes, it would grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more power than any leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey

Whenever Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held a rally in the campaign for a new presidential system, a picture of a smartly-dressed man with a piercing gaze hangs next to his own giant portrait.

That is Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- who in 1923 created the modern Republic out of the ashes of the decayed Ottoman Empire.

Ataturk has since been regarded with near religious awe by many Turks as the saviour of the Turkish nation, an icon whose memory it remains a criminal offence to denigrate.

And although he died in 1938, Ataturk has emerged as a key player in the campaign for Sunday's referendum on whether to grant Erdogan greater powers.

Both government and opposition have squabbled over who is the true inheritor of Ataturk's legacy and whether modern Turkey's first president would have voted 'Yes' or 'No'.

For the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Erdogan is undermining the secular and democratic pillars of modern Turkey set up by Ataturk.

But for the president, he is continuing the legacy of the man whom he calls "Gazi (warrior) Mustafa Kemal" by creating a great Turkey that can stand up to foreign powers.

- 'Only one Ataturk' -

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the CHP which Ataturk formed, told AFP the proposed system would be a move away from the founding father's ideals.

"If someone comes and takes democratic standards backwards, this would mean the start of a process against Ataturk's envisaged revolution," Kilicdaroglu said.

While Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, Ataturk established secularism as its overriding principle and it is this legacy opponents accuse Erdogan of trying to undermine with a creeping Islamisation.

Under his rule, the government has lifted a ban on female students wearing the Islamic headscarf in the public sector and schools.

The government has also encouraged the opening of Imam Hatip schools which mix religious education with a modern curriculum.

Earlier this year, a new draft curriculum expected to begin in September came under heavy scrutiny after it was accused of removing references to Ataturk.

Gulsun Bilgehan, granddaughter of Ataturk's right-hand-man and successor as president Ismet Inonu, said the curriculum draft showed there were attacks on Ataturk's legacy.

Bilgehan argued Erdogan would "certainly have a place in history, as prime minister, as president of the Turkish Republic but among others," she said.

But the CHP MP added: "There will only be one Ataturk."

Yusuf Tekin, education ministry undersecretary, insisted Ataturk remained important to the curriculum and children's education.

Tansel Colasan, chairwoman of the Kemalist Thought Association which seeks to defend the legacy of Ataturk, said the government wanted to create an anti-secular mentality through education.

"They want to erase the values of the republic including secularism, women's freedom, to remove the wisdom of Ataturk and Inonu," she added.

- 'Transform Turkey' -

But Erdogan angrily rejects charges he is ripping up Ataturk's legacy, saying Turkey's founder would have supported the presidential system.

One key change under the new constitution is that the president can be affiliated to a political party, just as Ataturk was to the CHP while he was president.

Last month, German daily Bild said Ataturk would have voted 'No' to the changes after a diplomatic row between Turkey and Europe over Turkish ministers banned from rallies.

But Erdogan responded by saying that Ataturk would have supported him: "What we want to do, Ataturk already did."

Some Western observers also note Ataturk's rule was far from a shining example of democracy, with significant limits on press freedom and political opposition.

For Jean-Francois Perouse, of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies, the "regime of Ataturk was authoritarian" and "the system under Ataturk should not be idealised".

Erdogan appears intent on carving a place in Turkish history that rivals that of Ataturk, and is set on being in power in 2023 when modern Turkey celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Ataturk's achievements were as far-ranging as changing the entire alphabet for the Turkish language from an Arabic system to a Latin script and ordering that all Turks -- including himself -- should have surnames.

Erdogan too, analysts say, sees himself similarly as a transformative leader of historic proportions.

"Erdogan now wants to amend the Turkish constitution so that he can become head of state, head of government and head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)," said Soner Cagaptay, author of the forthcoming book "The New Sultan".

"Just as Ataturk engineered Turkey’s sociopolitical landscape, Erdogan, too, wants to transform Turkey top-down, but as a deeply Muslim society," Cagaptay added.