ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Whether stirring crowds with fiery election speeches or, as on Thursday, swearing an oath as Turkey’s first popularly elected president, Tayyip Erdogan casts himself as the heir of one man above all others - a man whose life ended on an army gallows.
On the forsaken island of Yassiada off the shores of Istanbul, a military tribunal sentenced to death Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s most popular prime minister by share of vote, a year after a 1960 coup that would set the stage for military interventions lasting another two generations.
“We are realizing Menderes dream,” Erdogan, 60, said on the campaign trail ahead of his presidential election victory, in a frequent evocation of his hero. “They may have executed him but he is not forgotten. He is in our hearts.”
To Erdogan’s supporters his inauguration is the culmination of a half-century struggle by popular governments against unelected generals and other parts of the secular elite who saw themselves as the true keepers of Turkey’s republican values.
It is a schism in Turkish society reaching back to the 1920s when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a secular republic from the ruins of an Ottoman theocracy, banishing Islam from public life.
Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose political origins lie in a banned Islamist movement, has said he will exploit the full limits of the presidency, which has been a largely ceremonial post in recent decades. Eventually, he hopes a new constitution will endow his office with expansive executive powers.
He believes an active presidency will better express what he refers to as “the national will”: empowering what he sees as a long downtrodden, often poor, religiously conservative populace and finally capping the power of an army that staged three outright coups and pressed a fourth government to quit in 1997.
“Erdogan sees himself as a political actor with a historic mission: to rebuild the republic using the country’s majority as its foundation,” said Etyen Mahcupyan, a columnist at the pro-government newspaper Aksam, who has advised Erdogan.
Critics warn Erdogan’s aggressive style has cooled foreign allies and polarized Turks along sectarian lines. Concentrating more power in his hands could fracture the country, they say.
Erdogan - who remains Turkey’s most popular politician - faced down massive anti-government protests last year organized by mainly young, secular-minded opponents over his perceived authoritarian and conservative tendencies.
Similar charges were levied against Menderes, whom the Western media described as “dictatorial” at the time of his ouster for jailing journalists, targeting non-Muslim minorities and brutally suppressing anti-government protests.
Menderes became prime minister in 1950 in Turkey’s first truly free and fair election and won twice more, clinching victory thanks to massive support from the devout rural poor. Erdogan has also served three terms as prime minister.
A populist who eased some of the republic’s strict curbs on Islam, Menderes raised alarm among military ranks that he might roll back Ataturk’s reforms.
Menderes was deposed and hanged with two ministers. A fourth committed suicide in detention.
Yassiada, used by the Byzantines to exile royalty, still bears the sports hall that served as the courtroom. Barely visible is part of the lettering high on the wall that once read: “Justice is the Foundation of the State.”
Erdogan’s government renamed Yassiada, a former navy outpost located some 16 km (10 miles) offshore, Democracy and Freedom Island and has mooted plans to develop it into a tourism centre.
For now, its crumbling edifices serve as an unofficial monument to one of Turkish political history’s great tragedies.
“Enough, the power is with the people,” was Menderes’ election slogan - revived by Erdogan for his own campaign.
Opponents “were going to set up kangaroo courts, as they did for Menderes. They wanted to do the same thing to us that they did to Menderes,” Erdogan said at a rally this month, referring to a graft probe that broke late last year and implicated his inner circle. He said it was a coup plot aimed at toppling him.
There have been other moments when the spirit of Menderes might have loomed at Erdogan’s shoulder. Foremost was a standoff with the military in 2007 when the army issued a memorandum on its website expressing disapproval at plans to make Abdullah Gul, a close ally of Erdogan, the country’s president.
With the suggestion of a coup hanging in the air, government met and decided to stand firm, issuing a statement dismissing the General Staff’s intervention. The ‘coup by memorandum’ against Erdogan failed in a huge symbolic victory over the army.
Erdogan draws inspiration also from another former president viewed with suspicion by conservative secularists, Turgut Ozal. Some believe Ozal, who died of a heart attack in 1993, was poisoned. His body was recently exhumed and tested but there was no conclusive evidence he had been assassinated.
“Erdogan believes the national vision was denied repeatedly, most expressly in the 1960 coup and the trial and execution of Menderes, and that it is his historic role to reassert the process Menderes started,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.
Erdogan has said that he, at age 7, and his father, a poor sea captain, cried when Menderes was hanged and that it served as the catalyst for his own political awakening.
Erdogan himself was jailed for four months for reciting a poem deemed anti-secular in 1997 when he was mayor of Istanbul.
“Erdogan saw himself as part of an anti-establishment revolt, a kid from a tough waterfront area who made it into political power,” said William Hale, professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London.
Erdogan has overseen a tripling in the size of the economy, promised to end a 30-year war with Kurdish militants that has killed 40,000 people and forced generals out of the political sphere, rendering the chances of another coup remote.
Ataturk remains Turkey’s official national hero, his portrait adorning all public buildings and many homes.
But his secularist legacy is fading 75 years after his death. Erdogan vigorously promotes conservative values, like curbs on alcohol sales and women’s rights in abortion.
“Erdogan enjoys popular support in a way Ataturk never did, since he did not stand in an election,” said Eissenstat. “Ataturk founded a state. Erdogan revolutionised it.”
Editing by Nick Tattersall