By OGUZ ALYANAK and UMIT KURT
On June 7, 2015, Turkish constituents will be visiting the ballot box to elect a new leader. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has won seven consecutive elections (three general, three local and one Presidential) in the past 13 years, is once again the main contender of this election cycle.
This time, however, there are different dynamics shaping the political scene. For one, opposition parties wage a wiser election campaign this time. Rather than focusing on ideological divides (Turkish/Kurdish; laicite/Islam), and blaming the AKP for polarizing the nation (which has been a valid critique that surprisingly did not gain them much leverage in previous elections), they prioritize social policies pertaining to welfare and democratization. The constructive language that they adopt in their election programs and the concrete steps they lay out online, through social media, and on the ground, through political rallies, instil in the constituents greater confidence, and more importantly, relief that the AKP is no longer the sole contender for Turkey’s progressive and innovative political party slot.
While there are solid indicators to be optimistic about the growing support for the opposition, the AKP is expected to maintain its position as leading party. Most recent surveys estimate the AKP will have no less than 40 percent of the votes casted. Depending on how well the opposition parties do (whether, for example, the Peoples’ Democratic Party/HDP could pass the 10 percent electoral threshold, which would cost the AKP 60 or so seats in the Parliament), 40 percent may or may not translate into the AKP gaining enough seats to form the government. The danger with that is President Erdoğan’s ego, which, we argue, not only harms the AKP in the long run, but also dispenses with the Islamo-pragmatic political culture it was able to construct in the past 13 years. With Erdoğan pushing the AKP to the limits in order to obtain enough votes to force a constitutional change (thereby transforming Turkey into a presidential system—making him both the President of Turkey and the leader of the AKP), the AKP may have more than just this election to lose.
Looking back at the past 13 years of AKP rule, one could speak of a transformation of AKP’s policies and political identity, which becomes particularly evident after the AKP won general elections for the third time in 2011. To highlight this change, compare two phases in these 13 years: the AKP phase between 2002 and 2011 and the Erdoğan phase from 2011 onwards. The main difference is in Erdoğan’s role in the party. Whereas in the first two terms, Erdoğan’s political identity is part of a bigger and shared whole—that of the Islamic movement in Turkey—since 2011, we see Erdoğan breaking ties with this tradition and initiating his own movement, that of Erdoğanism (or what others call Sultanism), which requires subservience not to an ideal, or a dava (that of Islamic movement), but to a leader (Erdoğan himself). Hence his emphasis on transforming Turkey’s parliamentarian system into a presidential one where the President no longer assumes a symbolic role, but extensive administrative duties.
In 2002, when the AKP won the general elections, Turkish constituents cast a protest vote. They purged a dysfunctional system (a coalition government) and actors who were victims of their own ego battles. When the AKP today instils fear in constituents over loss of stability in an AKP-less future, the year 2001 plays a principle role. In February 19, 2001, the tension between the then President of Turkey, Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the then Prime Minister, Bülent Ecevit, reached its peak at a National Security Council meeting. Sezer and Ecevit fought over Sezer’s initiative to audit the banking system in Turkey (via the State Supervisory Council presided by Sezer), thereby limiting Ecevit’s control over economic (banking) affairs. When Ecevit asked Sezer to stop meddling in his affairs, Sezer threw the physical copy of the Constitution at Ecevit, and told him that what he was doing was well within his constitutional power. The crisis in the National Security Council spread to the economy, which, already standing on shaky grounds, collapsed—leaving Turkey with the worst economic crisis in its history.
Calls for early elections that year led to the 2002 general elections, and to the introduction of AKP, then a new political actor, onto the Turkish political scene. At a time when the constituents’ trust in the existing political actors was lost, the AKP had given people a path forward: EU integration, economic growth, foreign investment, jobs, stability, greater educational opportunities for all, better services, in short, a country that lives up to its potential rather than wasting away its energy in ideological battles. People had qualms about a party that was born out of Turkey’s Islamic movement. Many of the names in AKP had previously served in the Welfare Party during the 1990s, which was closed down in 1997 for violating the constitutional principle of laicite, and its successor, the Virtue Party, closed down in 2001 for the same reason. Nevertheless, in 2002, pragmatism won out, and the AKP was given enough seats to form the government.
The success of the first term instilled greater trust in the AKP. Nonetheless, AKP’s Islamic past was brought up various times. Its ambition to elect a president (Abdullah Gül) whose wife wears the headscarf led to mass demonstrations in major cities around Turkey, and brought about an e-memorandum/online statement by the Turkish Armed Forces hinting at the possibility of a coup d’etat. Despite the challenges, the AKP grew bigger and once again won enough seats to form the government.
The second term initiated with the AKP electing Abdullah Gül as the 11th President of Turkey through a widely contested election process in the Parliament, and then enacting constitutional changes through a referendum (2007) that took away the power to elect the President from the Parliament and give it to the people. This show of power, however, had its backlash. One of the battles that the AKP had to fight was the Ergenekon trial where leaders of a covert organization were tried and convicted for preparing a coup d’etat against the AKP. This trial, which left many ex-army Generals convicted, was a show of force by the AKP over the military, which, up until that point, was seen as the vanguard of laicite. The second battle that the AKP waged was against the judiciary where the AKP faced closure in the Constitutional Court for pursuing policies that ran counter to the principle of laicite. Similar to the 1997 trial of the Welfare Party in the Constitutional Court, not only the AKP, but an entire heritage of the Islamic movement in Turkey was put on trial. Seen as the inheritors of a tradition, the AKP was to face the consequences of the burden that was passed onto them. As a political party, the AKP was able to withstand the challenges. Having learned its lesson, the first step that the party leaders took was to force another constitutional package, which would allow the AKP greater supervision over both the military and the judiciary. The reform package of 2010, also supported by the EU as a step towards further democratization, was not able to gain qualified majority in the Parliament. Yet, similar to the referendum of 2007, the AKP was able to bring it to the people’s vote, which was voted in favor by 57 percent of the constituents.
The AKP entered the third general elections in 2011 with the promises of a new constitution. In front of the constituents was a choice between the AKP, a party that not only stood strong in face of allegations dispatched by members of the military and judiciary, but also the global economic crisis of 2008-9. During this period, Erdoğan’s charisma started to extend beyond the party’s identity. His return to Turkey from his one-man show in Davos in 2009 and greeting by thousands, some holding the banners “Sultan Erdoğan”, was an affirmation of his constituents’ acceptance of his bloated ego. Erdoğan’s cult did not go to political rallies to only hear about how they would benefit from another term under the AKP rule. Instead they wanted to go and see Erdoğan in the flesh. As early as 2008, a commentator following the then Prime Minister Erdoğan in a speech given to a Turkish audience in Cologne wrote: “the staging is reminiscent of a superstar’s pop concert. There are flashing multi-colored lights and dramatic music, and images of the prime minister are projected onto an enormous screen set up on the stage.”
The landslide victory in 2011 was a reaffirmation of confidence not only in the AKP but also Erdoğan. Aware of his popularity, Erdoğan took matters more into his own hands during the third term. He started to enjoy his fame under the spotlight, which came at the expense of dispensing with his friends at home and abroad. Hence began his “drift towards isolation.” Over the years, Erdoğan’s visibility in the party has reached such a level that it is now next to impossible to separate the party’s identity from Erdoğan’s image. Especially following the Gezi Park Protests, his proponents pursued an aggressive media campaign, transforming him into the omniscient figure he is today. He was on billboards, in documentaries, and even in songs. In his recent article onPolitico, Steven Cook makes apt observations about the process through which Erdoğan established his one man show: first, the removal of Abdullah Gül in 2007 by granting him Presidency, then Gül’s supporters in the following years, followed by unease at Davutoğlu’s appointment as the next Prime Minister, unease at Erdoğan’s support for MPs facing corruption charges in 2013, which led to his reshuffling of the Cabinet and appointment of his kin (his own daughter, and her brother-in-law) to advisorial positions.
To Cook’s examples, one could add Erdoğan’s ongoing battle with another significant actor representative of the Islamic movement in Turkey, Fethullah Gülen. The crisis between the two egos was made public following another one of Erdoğan’s shows, this time within the context of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident for which Gülen criticized Erdoğan. The rift between the two widened first in Erdoğan’s handling of Gezi, and then in the corruption tape scandal, for which Erdoğan blamed Gülen. Erdoğan’s loss of the Gülen movement network led to massive (and ongoing) purges from key institutions (media, judiciary and the police). The most recent episode in this clash was the prosecutors’ attempts to examine trucks “allegedly” carrying weaponry across the Syrian border, and Erdoğan’s outburst at it, which Emma Sinclair-Webb recently wrote about for openDemocracy. Today, anyone who disagrees with Erdoğan’s policies, let alone competes with him for power, is being discarded. This leaves the AKP with new and younger faces for whom the decades-old Islamic davameans little. Such is the “New Turkey” that Erdoğan left for the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu.
Whether Erdoğan’s megalomania was a work in progress as the Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow Steven Cook argues, or if he was simply “corrupted by his long time in power” as opines former New York Timescorrespondent Stephen Kinzer, one point hard to ignore, and particularly relevant for the upcoming general elections in Turkey is that the Sultanism/Erdoğanism displayed during the AKP’s third term, even after Erdoğan was elected President in 2014, squanders not only the credibility that the AKP gained by pursuing pragmatic policies but also respect won for the Islamic movement in the eyes of the public over the years.
His insistence on transforming Turkish politics into a presidential system puts further tension on the AKP. It expects of its leader, Davutoğlu, to replicate what Erdoğan was able to achieve in the Presidential elections of 2014—by winning over 51 percent of all votes cast. Even then, the AKP might not be able to win enough seats to gain the two-thirds qualified majority necessary to single-handedly introduce constitutional change. This would not only cast Davutoğlu in a bad light, but force AKP constituents to revisit whether an Erdoğan-less party is worth investing in for future elections. If, however, the AKP gains high enough votes to make Erdoğan’s dream come true, Davutoğlu’s achievement could secure the undermining of his own position as Prime Minister of Turkey and leader of the AKP.
Today, all the progress achieved by the AKP over the years—building rapport with the Kurds, making Islam and headscarves an accepted and lived reality, establishing strong regulatory mechanisms to stabilize the Turkish economy, negotiations with the EU, foreign policy in the Middle East—depend on Erdoğan’s Presidential dream. This points to a clear divergence from the pragmatic policies that the AKP pursued during the first two terms—policies which constituents voted for.
It takes Turkey back to the pre-2001 context in which ideological clashes and the battle of clashing egos brought the country’s political and economic system to the brink of collapse. For Erdoğan, who gradually dispensed with close friends with whom he shared the same seats during his former Islamist years, there is now no way out but to force the AKP to achieve his dream. But this may come at the expense of the political heritage of a modernized and pragmatic Islamic movement in Turkey that the AKP so skilfully engineered in its first two terms.
About the Author
Umit Kurt is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history at Clark University and a lecturer at Sabanci University. His research focuses on Aintab Armenians and the confiscation and appropriation of Armenian properties during 1915-1921.