Draped in flags, 370,000 Turks rallied in Ankara on April 14 against their religious-minded prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was a demonstration that emphasized both the intense opposition that Erdogan will face if he stands for president, and the depths of Turkey's cultural division.
Among the slogans chanted by protesters as they marched to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder, were: "Turkey is secular and will stay secular" and "We don't want an imam in the presidential palace."
Erdogan hasn't yet announced whether he wants to take over as president on May 16, replacing the incumbent, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who is retiring. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. If he does, Erdogan is virtually assured of election: the chief executive here is selected by the parliament, where the prime minister's Justice and Development Party (AKP) holds a huge majority. Under Turkey's constitution, Turkey's president is largely a figurehead. Yet, the chief executive does possess some important prerogatives, including the authority to confirm the appointments of governmental officials.
Sezer, an arch-secularist, has used his presidential powers to slow AKP efforts to expand its influence over the machinery of state, blocking the nominations of hundreds of senior bureaucrats proposed by the government. If Erdogan takes Sezer's place, and the AKP wins parliamentary elections later this year, "Turkey would look like a single-party state", Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish expert at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, argues in a recent paper.
During the protest in Ankara, it was not constitutional niceties that people were worried about; it was Erdogan's political views. A former Islamist-turned-"Muslim democrat," Erdogan's management skills have impressed many political analysts since his party came to power in 2002. Turkey's economy has grown by nearly 33 percent over the past four years. In addition, his government managed to push through reforms that opened the way for the country's European Union accession process, 40 years after Turkey first knocked on Brussels' door. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But many Turks remain convinced Erdogan's pro-market, pro-western make-over masks an Islamist core. These critics are quick to point out that Erdogan is a man who once said, "thank God, I'm for Shar'ia [Islamic law]." Recent tax hikes on alcohol, efforts to alter the country's secular educational system, and a failed attempt to criminalize adultery provide additional evidence that Erdogan still harbors a conservative Islamist agenda, and is just waiting until the pillars of Turkey's secularist institutions are sufficiently undermined before he moves to implement it, critics say.
"If this man becomes president, Turkey will go back to the Middle Ages", says retired civil servant Bahriye Yesilfidan, 49. "He isn't sincere about democracy. He just wants to turn Turkey into Iran, or Saudi Arabia."
President Sezer thinks the same. "Foreign forces," he said during an April 13 speech, are collaborating with some Turks "to introduce a moderate Islamic regime under the name of democracy. This is a fundamentalist model."
"The ideology of the modern Turkish Republic contained in Ataturk's principles is a state ideology that all citizens should take as their own," Sezer added.
Sezer's speech underscores the depths of Turkey's current dilemma: though the AKP's secular credentials are undoubtedly questionable, the secularists' democratic credentials are even more so.
The organizer of the April 14 march was an NGO chaired by a retired military police chief rumored to have led two coup attempts against the government in 2004. That link encouraged many to stay away one prominent intellectual even compared the protest to the march on Rome that brought Mussolini to power in 1922.
Many of the Ankara protesters had nothing to do with either the organizing NGO, or Turkey's head opposition party, whose leader occasionally makes veiled calls for military intervention. Yet there was something evocative of the tumultuous 1920s about the rally. Ubiquitous images of Ataturk, who died in 1938, contributed to that, as did the participants' defiant rhetoric. It's clear that present-day partisans of Turkey's secularist tradition see themselves as on the frontlines of a culture war over the future direction of the state.
"We won the Liberation War despite the fanatics, and we won't lose now", read the slogan on one woman's back, referring to the war leading to Turkey's foundation in 1923. Others carried postcard-sized badges reading simply "Mustafa Kemal will win the war."
"We are today's mad Turks", schoolteacher Hasan Devecioglu said approvingly, as a speaker on the platform called for the "imperialist" International Monetary Fund, the US and the EU to "get your hands off Turkey."
He was referring to a fictionalized retelling of the Kemalist version of Turkey's liberation struggle that has barely left best-seller lists since it was published in 2005. The success of Turgut Ozakman's "Those Mad Turks" stems largely from the fact many Turks see parallels between the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and today.
After the First World War, while the Sultan and his Istanbul government collaborated with British occupation forces, Turkish nationalists prepared to fight from the depths of Anatolia. Today, increasingly anti-Western secularists think, the collaborators are the AKP and the invaders are Brussels and Washington.
Fiercely opposed to globalization, supporters of the secularist-nationalist cause also dream of a return to the economic statism of the early Republic. "Is it an accident that there are simply no radical secularists who argue for a free-market economy?" economist Eser Karakas asked in a recent article in daily Zaman.
Small wonder Turkish big business has turned its back on them, or that Turkey's small band of secular liberals are wondering how long it will take the secular nationalists to come to their senses.
"You don't win elections by frightening people", daily Radikal editor Ismet Berkan wrote in a commentary published April 14, referring to President Sezer's warning that Turkey has never faced so many threats in its 84 year history. "You win them by being reasonable. If the opposition one day gets bored of being in opposition and really sets out to win power, it will learn this."
Political scientist at Sabanci University in Istanbul, Ali Carkoglu agrees. "These people [secular nationalists] have a point, but they sound like [our] grandparents," he says. "Turkey can only move forward when its modernists modernize themselves."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.