Closer look at AKP after its eight-year rule in Turkey

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Jumada' al-Akhirah 18, 1431 2010-06-01

Background

by Ahmet Aslan (Background, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 4, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1431)

In order to get a balanced view of the nature of the AKP agenda, one should understand the dynamics of the movement in light of its eight-year performance in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Justice and Development Party — Adalet va Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) in Turkish — is perhaps one of the most interesting and perplexing political movements operating in the Muslim world today. Its official program and ideology are not dissimilar to many political party platforms in the West. The AKP adheres to “democratization” and civil society, rule of law, fundamental rights of freedom, and liberal economic policy. The official party program has no reference to Islam or Muslims and none of the policies have had any Islamic discourse. Even the leader of the party, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is known for his Islamic background, has so far not made any statement indicating an Islamic agenda. Yet it has been branded by Western analysts to be an “Islamist” party.

In order to get a balanced view of the nature of the AKP agenda, one should understand the dynamics of the movement in light of its eight-year performance in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Fazilet party, which had been led by the high profile Islamic leader Necmeddin Erbakan, was closed down soon after a postmodern coup d’état in 1997. After the closure, a group led by the current Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gul split from Erbakan’s Islamic movement, Milli Gorus (National Consideration), and formed the AKP on August 14, 2001. The remaining politicians formed the Saadet Party (Felicity Party) under Erbakan’s supervision.

Soon after its formation, the AKP won the general elections in 2002 and since then has enjoyed popular support from different segments of the population. In a short time, the AKP was embraced by most of the supporters of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus movement, conservatives, democrats, Sufis and some moderate nationalists and leftists. In the 2007 general elections this support reached an all time high and AKP won 47% of the popular vote, up from 37% in the 2002 elections, but its seats total dropped from 363 to 341 in the 550-member parliament based on the country’s electoral system. There are a number of factors that secured for the AKP such broad popular support.

1. The personal charisma of Erdoğan, leader of the party, is an essential factor for AKP’s domination of Turkish politics for eight years. When it comes to charisma, few can match the battle-hardened political genius of Erdoğan. Born into poverty, Erdoğan had to work hard as a vendor in his youth in Istanbul, the very city that would later catapult him into the most powerful seat in the country. His charisma is embodied in his eloquence, honesty, willpower and impeccable political record. Serving a four-month prison sentence in 1997 for reciting a poem only increased Erdoğan’s popularity. Soon after the ban on his involvement in politics was quashed, Erdoğan became prime minister on March 14, 2003. Until then, this position was occupied by a long-time colleague and associate Abdullah Gul who then served as foreign minister and is now the country’s president.

2. The AKP’s economic performance has also been a very important factor in its success. The AKP was born in the midst of a Turkish economic crisis which took the country to the brink of bankruptcy. In a notoriously corrupt economic system, the wealth of the country was being plundered by the secular elites and foreign enterprises. By undertaking bold economic reforms and a liberal market economy approach, the AKP gradually resuscitated the ailing economy and significantly reduced inflation and unemployment. The steadily growing Turkish economy has now become the 17th largest in the world and 6th in Europe, and is rising.

3. Fundamental human rights and freedoms have advanced greatly under AKP rule. Draconian laws that were enacted after the 1980 military coup had tightened the secular oligarchy’s grip on society. Upon forming the government, the AKP adeptly used the EU accession process to amend some of these laws.Civil liberties and freedom of expression have greatly improved; torture, ill-treatment, and unlawful killings have diminished significantly. The Kurdish minority has been embraced by the state; TRT, the state channel, has set up a 24-hour Kurdish channel, and a state university has opened a Kurdish languagedepartment. These developments have made the AKP even more popular in Kurdish dominated southeastern Turkey than the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). This was reflected in the AKP success in the Kurdish areas during the 2007 general elections.

The AKP has also significantly curbed the influence of the Turkish army that had formerly held great sway over political affairs and carried out four coup d’états. Using the backing of the EU, and strengthening the police force, the AKP has gradually reduced the powers of the generals. Recently, several high ranking officers including generals have been imprisoned for their involvement in an outlawed ultra-nationalistErgenekon group which reportedly attempted to overthrow the government.

4. A new, and more proactive, foreign policy paradigm introduced by the AKP has helped Turkey increase its influence and agreeable reputation in the international arena immensely. A “zero problem” approach with neighbouring countries has removed hostilities between Turkey and its neighbours and allowed Turkey to greatly boost its economic, social and political relations with these countries. Turkey has also opened up to other Middle Eastern countries as well as South Asia, Africa and South America.

In order to assert its new foreign policy, the AKP has occasionally tried to bend US policies in the region. The first defiance occurred in 2003 when the Turkish National Assembly vetoed an American proposal to use Turkish soil to invade Saddam ruled Iraq. And in a later defiance, the AKP government invited Khalid Meshaal to Turkey, when Hamas became victorious in Palestine’s January 2006 elections.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has worked in AKP’s favour at the domestic level as well. For instance, a harsh exchange between Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan and Israeli President Peres at the World Economic Forum in January 2009 helped the AKP retain its majority of votes in the 2009 local elections. Prior to the incident, poll results had indicated a decline in AKP support. AKP popularity has reached its acme with the recent Palestinian-aid flotilla incident in which Israeli commandos attacked the boats killing nine Turkish aid workers. The Turkish public, whose national pride has been vexed by arrogant Israeli actions, has united behind the government. Some experts are now expecting a landslide victory for the AKP in the forthcoming elections.

On the other hand, there remain some areas in which the AKP has performed poorly during its eight-year rule, thus prompting criticism from some intellectuals and activists.

1. The AKP has failed to implement a social justice policy. Using the principle of a liberal capitalist economic model, the AKP distributed wealth disproportionately. The party has been implementing controversial International Monitory Fund (IMF) dictated policies which prioritise the rights and prosperity of capitalist elites. Consequently, the working class and civil servants have continued to suffer under the IMF regime. Due to intensifying criticism in March 2010, the government announced that it would not sign a stand-by agreement with the IMF; however the same policies remain in place.

2. There have been limited developments in terms of religious freedoms, especially the rights of practicing Muslims. A strictly implemented headscarf ban still exists at schools, universities, work places and official institutions. There have been great restrictions for students of the Imam-Hatip School (semi-Islamic vocational schools) in their entry bid to Higher Education and difficulties remain for opening of Qur’an schools.

Despite ameliorating the fundamental rights and freedoms of other groups, Muslims so far remain left out. In 2008, an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove the headscarf ban. The AKP-dominated National Assembly enacted a short-lived amendment to the law annulling the headscarf ban. However, in June 2008 the Constitutional Court overturned the amendment on the grounds that it contradicted the founding principles of the constitution.

Failure to embrace the rights of Muslims has put the AKP in a strategic dilemma domestically as it could not deliver promises made to its grassroot supporters. Since the first days of its rule, the AKP has followed pro-EU policies which it has used as a tool to curb the influence of the military and secular oligarchy. Hence, rights and freedoms have been granted according to EU standards. The policy worked fairly well for weakening the “internal foes” but did not do much to recognize the rights of its allies. The EU, due to its own Islamophobic stance, showed no interest in pressing for the rights and freedoms of Muslims.

3. Although the AKP has managed to contain some aspects of the widespread corruption in politics, it has not been able to erase it from the system. At lower levels, some party members have been exposed to corruption. Critics also argue that the AKP has created its own wealthy class by awarding lucrative business contracts. Many party members suddenly became wealthy, jumping through social classes. The extravagant lifestyle of these members has been exposed in the media, sharpening the tone of critical voices against the AKP.

The AKP has always publicly denied any affiliation to an Islamic agenda. During election campaigns however, it is an undisputable reality that its members rarely miss an opportunity to make allusions and references which appeal to the religious sensitivities of Turkey’s pious Muslims. For example, many experts believe that the landslide victory of the AKP in 2007 was due to the pressure mounted on the party by the secular establishment not to elect Abdullah Gul as president because his wife wears the headscarf.

Further, the religious background of leading AKP members has strengthened the significance of these references and the overall Islamic identity of the party. As such, many practicing Muslims, that form the bulk of AKP support base, have certain expectations of the party. They are also aware that there is still great pressure exerted on the AKP by remnants of the secular oligarchy. A clear example of this was the manner in which the Constitutional Court prosecutor nearly ended the political life of the AKP in 2008 when the party attempted to alter the constitution to lift the headscarf ban. It was viewed as an indication of the party’s “hidden Islamic agenda”.

The AKP, with its many achievements, has certainly enjoyed sustained and continuous popularity, seeing it even to its attractive position in the approach to the forthcoming general election. However, the party’s long term success depends on tackling the issues important to its many disenchanted Muslim supporters. If it fails to find tangible solutions to these issues, it is very likely that in the long run, it may be overtaken by a re-emerging “Islamic” Saadet Party. Under the new leadership of Numan Kurtulmus, the Saadet Party has skillfully exploited AKP mistakes, thereby attracting some of its supporters. And it is clear that in the present political climate, this constructive opposition combined with robust leadership poses a far greater challenge to AKP rule than the crumbling secular oligarchy in Turkey.

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