‘General Will,' Kemalists and neo-Kemalists

Taha Akyol's book, titled “Ataturk'un Ihtilal Hukuku” (Ataturk's Legal System of Revolution), shows how Mustafa Kemal increasingly become Ataturk, the father of Turks, and eventually started seeing himself as above the law. This is unfortunately human nature and is of course not specific only to Ataturk. That is why a system of checks and balances, free press, the existence of a proper functioning opposition and a strong civil society that can criticize rulers are seen as essential for a proper democracy.

As Akyol shows us, Ataturk thought that he was representing the will of the nation, the “General Will,” and that this was something different from the majority vote. He acted in a way that suggested that Parliament could not represent the General Will and that he was the embodiment of the General Will. That is why Ataturk would give orders to Parliament, and when parliamentarians were not ready to listen, he would even threaten them. Akyol gives concrete examples of such cases.

The deterioration of the freedom of the press and the termination of civil society were simple manifestations of this reality. Everyone knows the reasoning of the Kemalists on the one party political regime. They argued that since the nation was homogenous without any classes, interest groups or splits, there could only be one common interest on any issue. This one common interest could be advocated by one party and thus there was no need for other political parties.

Not many people know also that the Kemalists applied this very logic to civil society. For instance, they asked women rights associations to abolish themselves since the Kemalists were already giving women their rights and thus there was no need for lobbying in favor of women's rights. Similarly, the Kemalists did not allow trade unions to operate either. They were afraid of independent and autonomous civil trade unions. This is normal.

Everywhere and at every time, authoritarian rulers who see themselves as the embodiment of the General Will abhor trade unions which they cannot control. If they have the power to shut them down, they will do so as soon as possible before these trade unions become strong voices of the working people and come up with democratic demands. Authoritarian fathers do not like to be asked for rights. They prefer to “grant” them and be eternally thanked for their “favors.” History is full of such men who thought that they were unique and irreplaceable. But history and comparative politics show us that all these authoritarian rulers resemble each other and that everywhere in the world they do similar things, disrespecting civilian voices. History has also shown us that God works differently. His plans are different and no one can stay here for long.

Life is a test. It is not only a test for those authoritarian rulers. It is also a test for everyone else. It is a test for the friends, colleagues and advisers of the rulers. God wants to see if and to what extent these people will remind the ruler of justness and truth and if and to what extent they choose their selfish interests. It is a test for the opponents of the rulers. God wants to see if and to what extent they are just opponents who not only justly and constructively criticize rulers, but also acknowledge the good deeds and actions of the rulers. Life is also a test for scholars. God wants to see if and to what extent they will be able to tell the truth or prefer to remain silent using all sorts of justifications while the rulers clearly silence their critics. It is of course only God who can decide if the justifications of these scholars are based on their sublime, noble, otherworldly or altruistic plans and calculations to save their common projects and future generations or their selfish career expectations disguised as rational altruistic acts.

All in all, life is a test and it is never just a test for only one person -- the authoritarian “General Will” ruler. In others words, there is never a “one-man show.”