The decision of modern Turkey’s founder to open the first legislature despite the ongoing War of Independence was critical in setting the country on the path to becoming a republic, according to Professor Tülay Alim Baran.
“While preoccupied on the one hand with issues pertaining to war, the parliament created a structure to govern the country,” she recently told the Hürriyet Daily News regarding the centennial of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, which first opened on April 23, 1920.
“It was as if they had finished the war in their heads and were talking about the post-war republican period. With legislative and executive structures, the parliament started to give birth to the Turkish Republic.”
Can you tell us about the circumstances Turkey found itself at the opening of the parliament?
Anatolia was under the dire consequences of its defeat from World War I. Starting with Istanbul, many parts of the country were under occupation by 200,000 foreign forces. The male workforce had eroded, and society was suffering from several diseases like malaria. As people were exhausted from many years of war, the objection of the Istanbul-based administration for an armed resistance was making it hard to motivate the masses for a new war. In 1918, the number of deserters from the army had reached 300,000.
Mustafa Kemal started the national struggle after leaving Istanbul, but smuggling arms from the occupied lands to Anatolia was proving difficult, as the railways were under the control of occupying forces.
In addition to the economic hardships, Mustafa Kemal had to struggle against the propaganda of Istanbul and the occupying forces, which portrayed his resistance as a movement of rebels against the sultan.
So the overall situation was tremendously dire, and that’s why the success that followed was miraculous.
Why did Mustafa Kemal Atatürk feel the need to set up a parliament at that stage?
Mustafa Kemal was a true believer in democracy. Starting from his student years, he was very involved with the situation of the state, and he saw from early on that the empire was living its final days. The Mudros Armistice [a 1918 treaty that ended the Middle Eastern war between the Ottomans and the Allies] vindicated him. The Istanbul government did not believe this would lead to occupation and, therefore, was against armed resistance.
Atatürk saw independence as the only way out, and he was against the sovereignty of one individual. As he had realized long before that the state could not continue as an empire, he had decided on the model of the regime, and the parliament was the most important leg of the republic he had in mind.
When he left Istanbul and arrived in Samsun in May 1919, he started to implement the state model he had in mind. While he started the national struggle, he did not just open the way for the War of Independence, he also opened the road to the model in which sovereignty belonged to the people. The name of the newspaper he started issuing in Anatolia was named “The Will of the Nation,” for instance. He called [the militia forces in the early stages] the national forces. From early on, he used terminology implying a governance model based on the will of the nation.
“Sovereignty belongs unconditionally to the nation” [the phrase currently written on the wall behind the speaker of parliament in the Turkish Grand National Assembly] is the first article of the first constitution [from 1921].
By opening the parliament, thereby offering people who were confused, under occupation or facing the threat of occupation the ability to govern and take decisions together, he also brought the country closer to the republic.
I think he himself provided the best answer as to why he felt the need to open the parliament under those circumstances. This answer is attributed to a conversation he had with [journalist] Yunus Nadi, who asked him whether it would have been better to first set up an army and then open the parliament. His answer was “I am one of those who expects miracles from the parliament. We have come to a stage where all acts need to be legitimate. Legitimacy in national affairs can only be secured by their basis in national decisions by interpreting the nation’s general tendencies.
How did the first parliament come into being?
The parliament was made of civil servants, soldiers and representatives of different professions. Some of the members of the dissolved parliament in Istanbul who fled from the occupation also joined. This was the parliament of several firsts because it changed the regime and gave birth to the republic. It was established under extraordinary circumstances. It organized the country for the war but also played a crucial role in securing independence and national sovereignty.
How would you describe its initial function and accomplishments?
This was a parliament established against foreign occupation and one that succeeded in this endeavor. It was tasked with setting up armies for the national struggle and also providing for all the needs of the army and, therefore, finding economic resources.
To start with, it needed to convince the people that war was necessary for independence. There were too many defectors, so as soon as it was opened, it issued a law against defectors.
Mustafa Kemal’s success in gathering people in the national struggle and opening the parliament prompted increased efforts from Istanbul and the occupying states to vilify the movement. The parliament found itself against those who favored the continuation of the sultanate under the protection of foreign states. This has led to nearly 40 internal uprisings between 1918 and 1923.
The parliament also assumed a representative function in the international domain, as it launched diplomatic talks and signed agreements.
And while preoccupied on the one hand with issues pertaining to war, the parliament created a structure to govern the country. There was a ministerial body which included, for instance, an education minister. You might think that education was not a priority while the war was continuing.
It was as if they had finished the war in their heads and were talking about the post-war republican period. With legislative and executive structures, the parliament started to give birth to the Turkish Republic.
One would think this was a parliament that did whatever Atatürk wanted.
But this was a parliament that criticized Atatürk as well; after all, they got demoralized from time to time due to the dire circumstances. Some members fell into pessimism when hearing the bombshells from enemy lines. It had several groups within it; at one stage, it was divided as group one and group two; the latter consisted of dissenting parliamentarians.
When you look at the debates during the draft law about Mustafa Kemal’s commander-in-chief, the minutes of the parliament show that there were heated discussions.
Obviously, Atatürk was central to republican history. Would you say that the achievements of some institutions, like the parliament, may have been neglected or overshadowed by Atatürk’s success?
You can not lead a war without the support of others. But what is crystal clear is that without Atatürk, there would not have been a parliament. The liberation of this country took place thanks to the patriotic people, but he was the moderator of this movement. From the onset, founding the republic was his dream, and the parliament was the most important institution to bring him to the republic.
*Who is Tülay Alim Baran?
Professor Tülay Alim Baran is currently the director of the Institute of Atatürk Principles and Revolutionary History at Yeditepe University in Istanbul. Her main area of research is the “national struggle movement,” encompassing all activities that led to the foundation of republic as well as republican history.
She is the author of several books and articles. The historian is currently working on a book compiling the memoires of Ethem Tem, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s photographer at the war front.
Hurriyet Daily News