(Re)inventing the nation on the centenary of the Turkish Republic: A Rhetorical Political Analysis of Erdogan’s ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’
by Arife Köse
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit].
- Walter Benjamin -
On 28 October 1923, dining with his friends, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is said to have declared ‘Gentlemen! We are going to announce the Republic tomorrow.’ The next day, he proclaimed the following law: ‘The form of government of the Turkish state is the republic.’ Once the law passed by the Turkish Parliament later the same day, the State of Türkiye as republic, which is now a century old, came into being. From one perspective, that date—29 October 1923—is just a place on the calendar, ‘chronos’, or quantitative time. However, as Benjamin argued, calendars are also ‘monuments of historical consciousness,’ marking out moments of what rhetoricians call ‘kairos’—measuring not quantity of time but a quality of timely action.
Kairos points to the ‘interpretation of historical events’ because it is about the significance and meaning assigned to them. It is also about the opportunity to be grasped now for action that cannot be grasped under different conditions or situations. Thus, kairos always has an argumentative character since the significance given to historical events are always contested and temporarily decontested in specific ways. In this respect, due to the significance and meaning assigned to it, the foundation of the Turkish Republic can be understood as a moment when ‘chronos is turned into kairos’. Now, 100 years since its foundation, the country’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is seeking to create a moment of kairos again, using it to reinvent the idea of ‘Turkishness’ itself and to turn it into a time of action in the service of continuity of his rule. This is a rhetorical act that requires ideological analysis.
In this article, I examine how Erdoğan fulfils such a rhetorical act through Rhetorical Political Analysis (RPA) of the speech he delivered on 28 October 2022. This speech was intended to set forth his vision for the future of the country on the day that the Turkish Republic entered its centenary and was entitled a ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’. I will begin by providing some historical and theoretical background, followed by a rhetorical analysis of his political thinking around the centenary. My argument is not only that his ideological thinking shapes his actions but also his understanding of Turkishness in the context of the centenary is shaped by his strategic action, aiming at winning the elections in Türkiye in 2023 and consolidating his and his party’s leadership position in the future.
As 29 October 2023 marks the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Erdoğan, as both President of Türkiye and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), delivered a speech on 28 October 2022 to set out the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’. The gathering was held in the capital Ankara, in Ankara Sports Hall which accommodates 4,500 people. 11 political parties were invited to the event. The only party that was not invited was the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the Kurdish-led, left-wing party which has been denounced by Erdoğan as a ‘terrorist’ entity due to its alleged connection with PKK, the Kurdish paramilitary organisation. Alongside the political parties, AKP Members of Parliament, mayors, party members, and supporters were invited to the event—as well as some artists, NGOs, academics, and journalists (unusually including notable dissident journalists). The event, at which Erdoğan spoke for 1 hour 40 minutes, lasted 2 hours overall.
Like the morphological approach to ideological analysis pioneered by Michael Freeden, rhetorical approaches to ideologies start from the position that political ideologies are ubiquitous, and a necessary part of political life. However, unlike morphological analysis, they focus on ideological arguments rather than ideological concepts, on the grounds that ideologies are ‘shaped by and respond to external events and externally generated contestation from alternative ideologies’. Accordingly, Alan Finlayson suggests using RPA to analyse ideologies, in order to pay attention not only to the semantic and structural configuration of ideologies but also to political action, such as the strategies that political actors develop to intervene in specific situations. Further, RPA focuses on the performative aspect of political ideologies by drawing attention to how performativity becomes part of the morphology of the ideology in-question through foregrounding specific political concepts. Alongside the concepts provided by the rhetorical tradition, RPA also draws on kinds of proof classically categorised as ethos, pathos and logos. Whereas ethos indicates appeal to the character of the speaker with whom the audience is invited to identify, pathos is about appeal to the emotions. Lastly, logos indicates appeal to reason by political actors in their attempt to have the audience reach particular conclusions by following certain implicit or explicit premises in their discourse. Overall, RPA commits to the analysis of politics ‘as it appears in the wild’.
The rhetorical situation
Analysis of political speeches begins with the analysis of the rhetorical situation, since every political speech is created and situated in a particular context. In this respect, every political speech, alongside its verbal manifestation, performs an act by intervening in a particular situation. Those situations are characterised by both possibilities and restrictions for the orator, and it is one of the primary characteristics of skilled orators to know how to employ the opportunities and overcome the restrictions embedded in the situation. In such situations, political ideologies are not only deployed by political actors to intervene in and shape the situation, but they are also shaped through the act of intervention when addressing the challenges or trying to persuade others of a particular action.
In the case of Erdoğan’s ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’ there are two exigencies: first, for him, it is a moment of kairos to be grasped and put in the service of his strategic aim of winning the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in 2023. For this, evidently, he needs to prove to the people beyond his supporters that he is the leader of the whole country who can carry it into the future. Thus, it is an opportunity for him to amplify his rule as President of Türkiye, which is a position that he gained as a result of regime change in Türkiye 2017. On 16th April 2017, Turkish voters approved by a narrow margin constitutional amendments which would transform the country into a presidential system. This was followed by the re-election of Erdoğan as the President of the country on 24 June 2018 with the support of MHP (Nationalist Movement Party). Since then, AKP and MHP work together under the alliance called People’s Alliance. The new system has been widely criticised on the grounds that it weakens the parliament and other institutions and undermines the separation of powers through politicisation of the judiciary and concentration of executive power in a single person. Overall, this has led to an increasingly authoritarian governance.
The second exigency for Erdoğan is the enduring economic crisis from which the country has been suffering since June 2018. In that year, as a result of Erdoğan’s insistence on lowering interest rates, Türkiye experienced an economic shock, resulting in a dramatic loss in the value of Turkish Lira against Dollar. Since then, three Turkish Central Bank governors have been successively dismissed by Erdoğan. For example, in March 2021, Erdoğan fired then governor Naci Ağbal after he hiked the interest rates against Erdoğan’s persistence on not increasing them no matter what. Erdoğan replaced him with Şahap Kavcıoğlu, known for his loyalty to Erdoğan. Such a move made the economic situation in Türkiye even worse. One of the economic commentators in the Financial Times wrote, ‘Erdoğan’s move leaves little doubt that all the power in Türkiye rests with him, and this will result in rate cuts. This will simply make Türkiye’s inflation problem even worse.’ The overall consequence of this turmoil has been rising prices as the Lira collapsed and wages remained stagnant, causing a dramatic drop in people’s purchasing power. By August 2022, according to research, 69.3 percent of the Turkish population were struggling to pay for food. In November 2022, after Erdoğan delivered the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’, the inflation rate reached 85.5%.
Erdoğan had to address these two exigencies while he was under heavy criticism not only from international actors and his national opponents but also from the rank and file of his own party about Türkiye’s economy and democracy. His leadership has also been weakening for some time. Erdoğan’s loss in the two big municipalities—Ankara and Istanbul—in the local elections in 2019 exposed the myth that he is a leader who never loses an election. This was the context in which the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’ event was held. It was a kairological moment for Erdoğan, where he attempted to reinvent Turkishness and decontest its meaning through an ideological speech-act manifested through various rhetorical moves to position him and his party as the only option in the upcoming elections.
The arrangement of the speech
Political speeches are significant for the analysis of ideologies not only because of what political leaders say but also because they provide us with the opportunity to observe how the political leader in-question, the nation, and the audience are positioned both in the speech and on the stage. Therefore, paying attention to the arrangement of the speech is as important as the text of the speech. ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’ begins with a performance including video clips with narrations, dance performances, songs, and poems. The decoration of the hall can also be thought of as part of this performance. This part of the event can be considered as what is called the ‘prologue’ of the speech in the rhetorical tradition and is also part of ideological analysis.
The second part of the event consists of Erdoğan’s speech, where he begins by saluting people in the hall and then praising the Republic and those who fought in the War of Salvation for five minutes. He talks for 35 minutes about the significance of the AKP in the context of the centenary by explaining what it has achieved so far. Following this, he drones on about his party’s achievements by marshalling the services provided by the AKP under his leadership, which lasts for about 20 minutes. After that, he talks about his promises for the ‘Century for Türkiye’ for 20 minutes. In the closing section of the speech, he asks everyone in the hall to stand up and take a nationalist oath with him by repeating his words: ‘One nation, one flag, one homeland, one state! We shall be one! We shall be great! We shall be alive! We shall be siblings! Altogether we shall be Türkiye!’ In sum, the whole speech consists of two main parts of which the first is about glorifying the Turkish nation and the second part is primarily concerned with the AKP and Erdoğan himself. The speech is therefore arranged in a way which conflates the nation with AKP and Erdoğan and argues for an indispensable bond between them.
History without contingency
The event begins with a narration by a male presenter accompanied by sentimental music, speaking about the ‘limitless’ and ‘mystical’ universe that operates with self-evident ‘balance’ and ‘order’. We are told that all we do is ‘to find our place within this universe’, and ‘whatever we do, do it right’. Then, around 25 people representing different age groups, genders, and occupations stage a dance performance, embodying the Turkish nation: comprised of a variety of people yet performing the same movements harmoniously under the same flag.
In this part, first and foremost, the Turkish nation is situated in its place in time and history. We only hear a narration without seeing the actual person speaking and this narration is accompanied by a video show. The voice asks us to commence history with ‘the moment that the horizon was first looked at’; with the moment that ‘the humanity became humanity’. Within this transcendental history whose origin is undeterminable, the beginning of the Turkish nation is also rendered ambiguous. We are told:
If you are asked when this journey began, your response should be ready: When the love of the homeland began!
Thus, the origin of Turkish nation is situated into a self-evident kairos without chronos as if its existence is free from the contingent flow of events throughout history. This arrest of contingency is further amplified through the topos of a ‘nation who always does the right thing’:
You had forty paths, and maybe forty horses too. If you had not chosen the right thing, you would not have been able to arrive at your homeland, today, now. You chose the right thing even if it was the hard one.
Moreover, according to the narration, Turkish nation is a nation which acts now through considering the future; thus, its now is always oriented to the future:
You have always envisaged tomorrow. Your history has been written with your choices. Hence, the future also means you.
Here we see a nation that always knows what it is doing, always does the right thing and has the power to shape history through the choices it makes. Its actions are always determined by its vision for the future and its future is not contingent but is destiny; a ‘journey’ with its own telos.
Then, the narrator asks, ‘when does the future begin?’ and adds, ‘this is the biggest question. The most important question is where the future begins.’ But, this time, we are not left in ambiguity. We are told that it begins ‘here,’ ‘today,’ ‘now’. Strikingly, today is only meaningful as a point of beginning of the future. Hence, our present is also arrested by both our past and our future. We do not have the right to choose our own kairos—our right time for action for a future that is designated by us—but are destined to conform to the already designated kairos for us within, again, already designated chronos: our possibility to have alternative ‘now’ and alternative ‘future’ is taken from us.
The ethos of Turkishness
Such an articulation of transcendental Turkishness with time and history is amplified with the further delineation of the ethos of the nation. Accordingly, for Erdoğan, the Turkish nation consists of ‘siblings’ who are united under and through the same ‘crescent’—the crescent on the Turkish flag. This is a nation who has the courage and strength to challenge the entire world. Connoting the lyrics of Turkish National Anthem, the lyrics of one of the songs that performed in the event reads:
Who shall put me in chains
Who shall put me in my place.
Then the song continues by saying:
There is no difference between us under the crescent
We are not scared of coal-black night
We are not scared of villains
Nevertheless, nowhere in the speech are we told who those ‘villains’, or people who want to ‘put us in chains’ are. Although they cannot stop us from our way, we are expected to consider their existence when we act. Here, we see the manifestation of the ethos of Turkishness through its association with the concepts of freedom, understood as sovereignty, and the Turkish flag. Türkiye is presented as a nation where differences between its members perish under the uniting power of the Turkish flag, and when acting, it always prioritises the protection of its sovereignty.
Furthermore, it is argued, the most definitive characteristic of the Turkish nation is that it never stops; it is always in motion, walking towards the future. Thus, the current Turkish Republic constitutes just a small part of its ‘thousand years of life’ so far. However, the Republic is important because it proves what the Turkish nation is capable of: it can achieve the unachievable, and it can overcome the toughest obstacles. But Turkish nation’s ambitions cannot be limited to the current Republic, and no matter how much it suffers now it must keep moving towards the future. In his speech, Erdoğan also uses the metaphor of a bridge, which can be thought together with this topos of ‘nation in motion’. He says, ‘We will raise the Turkish Century by strengthening the bridge we have built from the past to the future with humanistic and moral pillars’. Here, the ‘bridge’ signifies the uninterrupted continuity between past and future built by Erdoğan and his party, where the present is only characterised as a transition point in the ‘journey’ of the Turkish nation towards the future.
The performative construction of Turkishness is also accompanied by its articulation with its state, flag and homeland which are the core concepts of Erdoğan’s nationalism that he summaries with the motto ‘one nation, one flag, one state, one homeland.’ For example, in the middle of the hall, there is a huge sundial hanging from the roof, and there is a huge star and crescent on the floor under it that represent the Turkish flag and the homeland. Furthermore, there are 16 balls hanging around the sundial, representing the 16 states founded by Turks throughout history. In Erdoğan’s political thinking, ‘one nation’ signifies indivisible community where the nation is characterised by its ethnic and religious origins- namely being a Turkish and Sunni Muslim. ‘One flag’, on the other hand, signifies the Turkish flag, consisting of red representing the blood of martyrs killed in the Turkish War of Independence, and the white crescent and the star representing the independence and the sovereignty of the country. While ‘one homeland’ represents the land of Türkiye, ‘one state’ signifies the powerful and united Turkish state.
The role of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)
So far, we have been told who we are, where we are coming from and where we are going, and now, the stage is Erdoğan’s. Erdoğan’s speech consists of three points: situating his party and himself within the history of the Republic by explaining what they have done so far, emphasising his role in this process, then, explaining his promises for the next ‘Century for Türkiye’.
For Erdoğan, the AKP is the guarantee of continuity between the past and the future. Accordingly, after beginning his speech by praising Atatürk and the people who fought in the War of Independence, he continues by saying:
Of course, there were good things initiated in the first 80 years of our Republic, some of which have been brought to a conclusion. However, the gap between the level of democracy and development that our country should have attained and where we were was so great.
Then AKP came into power, his story goes on, and ‘made Türkiye bigger, stronger and richer’ despite all the ‘coup attempts’ and ‘traps’. It was the AKP who actualised ‘the most critical democratic and developmental leap with common sense, common will and common consciousness going beyond all types of political or social classifications’ by including everyone who has been oppressed and discriminated in Türkiye, from Kurds to Jews. Hence, we are told, it is the AKP who will build the Century for Türkiye through the ‘bridge that it establishes from the past to the future’.
The ethos of Erdoğan
Erdoğan also positions himself as the leader who has brought Türkiye up to date and, thus, the person who can take it into the future. Erdoğan claims that today he is there as a ‘brother’, ‘politician’, and ‘administrator’, as someone who has devoted all his life to the service of his country and the nation. He emphasises that he is there with the confidence that stems from his ‘experience’ in running the country. He then situates himself within other significant or founding leaders in Turkish history by saying,
I am here, in front of you with the claim of representing a trust stretching out from Sultan Alparslan to Osman Bey, from Mehmet the Conqueror to Sultan Selim the Stern, from Abdulhamid Han to Gazi Mustafa Kemal.
Thus, he is not only one of the leaders in the 100 years of the Turkish Republic but is part of a line of leaders beginning with Sultan Alparslan who led the entrance of Turks to Anatolia with the Battle of Malazgirt in 1071. Moreover, for him,
We are at such a critical conjuncture that, with the steps that we take, we are either going to take our place in the forefront of this league or we are going to be faced with the risk of falling back again.
This is the task awaiting the leader, one that is so crucial and important that it cannot be undertaken by just any leader. It requires, first and foremost, experience. As proof of his and his party’s level of experience and ability to undertake big and important tasks, he reels off a lengthy list of services provided by the AKP under his leadership in the last 20 years. He gives detailed figures from education, health, transportation, sport etc., such as how AKP has increased the number of classrooms from 343,000 to 612,000, or the number of airports in the country from 26 to 57, or the gross domestic product from 40 billion Lira to 407 billion Lira. Thus, he seeks to close the debate around his way of governance and leadership by depoliticising the discussion through relying on inarguable statistics. Then, he again draws attention to the experience when at the same time emphasising the inexperience of the opposition in running the country and warns, ‘if we do not continue our way by putting one work on top of another one, it is inevitable that we are going to vanish’. Consequently, as happened during the process that led to the independence of Türkiye and the foundation of the Turkish Republic 100 years ago, we are put in a position of choosing between two options, this time presented by Erdoğan: either we are going to do the right thing, or we are going to disappear.
Concepts of the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’
Then, Erdoğan moves onto explaining the ‘spirit’, ‘philosophy’, and ‘essence’ of the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’ that he suggests as a vision for future not only to Türkiye but to the entire world and humanity. He summaries the Vision with 16 core concepts—namely, sustainability, tranquility, development, values, power, success, peace, science, the ones who are right, efficiency, stability, compassion, communication, digital, production, and future. At the core of those 16 concepts lies the claim and promise to make Türkiye a great regional and global power. Such an assertion consists of two dimensions: first, liberal economic developmentalism, which has a prominent place in the Turkish neoliberal conservative political tradition and is structured around the adjacent concepts such as growth, progress, investment, and enhancing competitive power. For example, Erdoğan says,
We will make Türkiye one of the largest global industrial and trade centres by supporting the right production areas based on advanced technology, with high added value, wide markets, and increasing employment.
According to Erdoğan, the second dimension of making Türkiye great consists of security and stability. For him, Türkiye has become a global and regional power under his rule thanks to the stability and security guaranteed by the presidential system that came into force in 2017. The continuation of this power, he argues, depends on the maintenance of this security and stability, which is also the guarantee for a continuously prosperous economy and the provision of more work and service to the country. When doing this, for him, we are also responsible for the protection of the values belonging to the whole of humanity—not only the Turkish nation—thus we will also ensure ‘cultural and social harmony’.
When considered together with the whole speech, this section conforms with Erdoğan’s understanding of Turkishness articulated with himself and his party. According to the reasoning that we are asked to follow throughout the event, instead of being occupied with the present infrastructural problems of the country that have led to the deterioration of the economy and democracy, our thinking and actions must always be future-oriented. In this respect, for example, what matters is not the present economic situation but the economy in the future as presented in the Vision. We might be starving and struggling to continue our daily lives yet still we should continue growing, competing with our rivals, and building bridges and airports. And such a shining future cannot be arrived through change and but only through security and stability ensured by the leadership of the ‘right man’.
Then, he makes a call to ‘everybody’ to contribute to the ‘Century for Türkiye’, to ‘discuss’ it, to ‘put forward proposals’, and to ‘create’ and ‘build’ the vision for a Century of Türkiye together. However, it is not clear how people are to contribute to the ‘Vision for a Century of Türkiye’ when our past, present, and path to the future are turned into a destiny where we are not agents but prisoners. In fact, such a tension between the closure and opening of the political space can be witnessed throughout the whole speech. For example, Erdoğan says,
Today we have come together for the promise of strengthening the first-class citizenship of the 85 million, except the ones committing hate crimes, crimes of terror and crimes of violence.
Here, he draws his antagonistic boundaries around who is included and excluded from the nation. When doing this, he uses tellingly vague terms such as ‘crimes of terror’, which can potentially include anyone depending on how far the definition of ‘terror’ becomes stretched. However, despite this, he promises ‘to put aside all the discussions and divisions that have polarised our country for years and damaged the climate of conversation that is the product of our people's unity, solidarity and brotherhood’. This should be understood as part of his effort to secure his existence in the future of the country as the leader of the whole nation, yet still seeking to do this by persuading people of his way of doing politics. Here, the art does not lie in the total closure and opening of the political space but in the ability to convince people that he is the leader who can do both any time he sees convenient—this is a crucial dimension of Erdoğan’s leadership style.
Finally, he ends the speech with an oath as he usually does. He asks around 5,000 people in the hall stand up and repeat his words after him: ‘One nation, one flag, one homeland, one state! We shall be one! We shall be big! We shall be alive! We shall be siblings! Altogether we shall be Türkiye!’ This is his signature; thus, the speech has been signed.
Erdoğan’s nationalist political thinking in the context of the centenary of the Turkish Republic is shaped by his particular way of intervening in the political situation and has become part of his strategic action. Erdoğan employs the centenary to assert the continuity of his and his party’s leadership by establishing an analogical continuity between the foundation of the Turkish Republic 100 years ago and his leadership today. He turns the kairological moment in the past into his kairological moment for himself. He does this by articulating Turkishness, time and history in a way that enables him to situate himself and his party as the only figure that can guarantee such continuity on which the existence of Turkish nation depends—otherwise, we are going to ‘vanish’. Returning to Benjaminian analysis, Erdoğan takes a ‘tiger’s leap into the past’ to establish such continuity, however, as history has also shown us, there is a limit for every jump.
 I quoted this phrase from the amended version of the Turkish Constitution in 1923 known as Teskilat-i Esasiye Kanunu. The Constitution can be reached from: TESKILATI_ESASIYE.pdf (tbmm.gov.tr), p. 373.
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 Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan "Türkiye Yüzyılı" vizyonunu açıkladı - YouTube
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