Turks question ideological foundations of the state: Kemalism has been undermined but no new formula is in evidence that might replace it, writes Hugh Pope in Istanbul

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The Independent Online
BEHIND the political confusion, Islamic stirrings and Kurdish bloodshed that have thrown Turkey off balance since the death in April of President Turgut Ozal is a tentative but growing feeling that the time has come to reassess the Kemalist ideology on which the republic is based.

A broad desire for a change of image, and exasperation with old-school politicians, was the main reason for the ruling conservative True Path Party's choice of Tansu Ciller on 13 June to become Turkey's first female Prime Minister. Mrs Ciller has voiced aspects of a programme of 'radical reform', a promise of economic and social innovation that has kept popular and media support behind her despite her amateurish style and ill-defined objectives.

One problem is that the country is, as she puts it, in flames. At least 67 soldiers, guerrillas and civilians have died in the Kurdish insurgency since Sunday and a full-scale army offensive against Kurdish rebels is now in progress. But, above all, Turkish intellectuals believe that a replacement has to be found for Kemalism, the decaying 1920s ideological construct at the core of the Turkish state's intransigence towards the Kurds, Islamic resurgence and to a certain extent economic and foreign policy.

Standing against any such attempt is most of the army and bureaucratic elite that has used Kemalism to run Turkey for the past half-century. Mrs Ciller's position on Kemalism is vague, but radical Kemalists attack her the hardest. One provoked her into shouting 'stop your nonsense' and storming out of a party meeting on the Kurdish question.

In fact, nobody in power seems able to articulate a new formula that adequately embraces the new motivations of Turkey's mostly open-minded, economically dynamic population of 60 million Turks, Kurds, secularists, Islamists, Sunni Muslims, Alevi Muslims and others.

'Kemalism is weakening in society, it's dead. Nothing has come in its place except chaos,' said Mehmet Altan, a commentator whose proposed 'Second Turkish Republic' had little effect on Turkish politics. 'I tried to propose a way of peaceful change, but now I see that violence may win the day.'

It is not just Turks who are worried that the Kemalist old guard will refuse to bend and will be broken, especially in the war-torn Kurdish south-east of the country.

'Turkey has the personnel, resources and entrepreneurial capabilities to become an impressive mid-level power in the next decade; but it is also possible, if less likely, that such difficulties (of governance and national identity) could tear the country apart,' wrote Morton Abramowitz, an influential former US ambassador to Turkey.

Kemalism is the great survivor of the nationalist ideologies that swept the European continent in the 1920s. It was named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who led Turkey's war of independence and founded the Turkish republic in 1923. Drilled into generations of Turks almost as a religion, Kemalist principles include a secular state, a state-dominated economy, Turkish nationalism, the non-existence of Kurdish cultural rights and a belief in past Armenian massacres of Turks rather than vice versa.

Ataturk's picture is still in every office. The school curriculum is filled with the minutiae of his life. But Kemalism has been undermined in the past decade, its 1920s modernism overtaken by genuine change and its anti-communism by the collapse of the Warsaw Pact which, practically surrounding Turkey to the north for four decades, was a threat that helped block political innovation.

Mr Ozal also promoted his own 'Ozalist' vision of a dynamic, open, consumer-oriented Turkey at the expense of Kemalism. He scaled back state mourning on the anniversary of Ataturk's death and downgraded the status of the standard-bearers of Kemalism, the Turkish armed forces.

The military has staged three coups since 1960 in the name of saving Ataturk's vision of Turkey. Thanks to the breadth of Mr Ozal's changes, few believe that could happen again. The current chief of staff, General Dogan Gures, says 'the word coup should be removed from the Turkish language'.

But the armed forces are fighting back by other means, taking advantage of Mrs Ciller's political inexperience to impose their vision of a military solution to the Kurdish insurgency - an approach that has failed for the past nine years of fighting in which more than 6,500 people have died.

Gen Gures has appeared shaking his fist in a picture on the front page of the national daily newspaper Hurriyet, speaking of the need for martial law if the Kurdish rebels are not wiped out by the end of the winter. He also warned of military 'sensitivity' towards secularism and that any change to the Kemalist ideology set out in the military's 1982 constitution would be a constitutional crime.

Turkish intellectuals are worried, especially since some fear that radical Islam may move to fill the ideological vacuum. One group of Turkish, Kurdish and Islamic moderates rented a plane to drop leaflets over central Istanbul. 'We don't want towns divided by green lines under the protection of peace forces,' the leaflet said. 'We have inherited a rich enough culture to find our own solutions.'

(Photographs omitted)