BACKGROUND: When Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party was founded on August 14, 2001, the new party’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that “nothing will be the same in Turkish politics after this day” in his inaugural statement. This bold if not pretentious statement sounded like wishful thinking to most people who were present at the inauguration ceremony and hardly anyone could predict that AKP would soon become the dominant force in Turkish politics.
Today, after nearly ten years in power, the AKP is the unchallenged master of Turkey. The belief is widespread in Turkey, including among political analysts, that this state of affairs is set to continue for the foreseeable future. The AKP is indeed taking this for granted, making ambitious plans for the future and further consolidating its hold on power. Erdoğan, who is assumed to be coveting the presidency, is advocating the adoption of a presidential system under a new constitution, which would give him the opportunity to rule the country, as the popularly elected president, with extended powers.
The AKP’s success story was the product of a pragmatic approach. It exploited the opportunities created by the global environment and the deadlock in Turkey’s domestic politics. Indeed, the rise of AKP coincided with the rising fear of fundamentalist Islam in the aftermath of 9/11. In the West, the AKP was generally perceived as a “mildly Islamic” party, adhering to the democratic standards of the West, aiming to make Turkey a full member of the European Union while embracing market friendly economic policies.
The AKP did indeed come to power by promising to bring Turkey closer to EU standards by pursuing an agenda of democratic reforms, opening the way to a peaceful settlement with the Kurds, and by following economic policies that would enable Turkey to achieve sustainable growth at acceptable levels. The perception that the AKP is spearheading the country’s democratization and economic development – making Turkey a valuable model for others in the Muslim world – has contributed to attracting global finance to Turkey; and the inflow of capital has in turn contributed significantly to sustaining economic growth during the rule of the AKP.
In fact, the rise of the AKP coincided with the rise of emerging markets, and the global shift of economic power. Turkey has been one of the countries that has benefited most from this transition, besides countries like China, India and Brazil, enjoying a big jump in capital inflows. The inflow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Turkey, which was around US$ 1 bn per annum pior to 2003, exceded $20 bn in 2006 and 2007, and Turkey’s exports jumped from $36 bn in 2002 to $135 bn in 2011.
Favorable external factors thus played an important part in AKP’s success story but the decisive factor behind the AKP phenomenon was the abject failure of the political parties that had ruled Turkey before its advent. Turkey had to live with chronic high inflation since the OPEC oil shock of the 1970s, climbing to triple digits in years of crisis. The Turkish economy went through three painful crises, characterized by steep devaluations and severe economic contractions in 1994, 1999 and finally in 2001. The Kurdish question remained unresolved. The founders of the AKP were careful not to repeat the mistakes of the parties that had lost touch with the people. They notably conducted a countrywide poll with a very large sample base in order to identify the demands of the electorate before writing the party program and setting up the policy guidelines.
IMPLICATIONS: For Erdoğan, the lessons to be drawn from the dismal experience of political parties with Islamic references was crucial. The lessons Erdoğan learned from these experiences may account for his obsession with securing total control and absolute power. He knew that it was not sufficient to win elections and to take part in government to become the true ruler of the country. But now that the AKP is fully entrenched in power, and in full control of the state, the pragmatism that once characterized the party risks being replaced by dogmatism. The conservative streak of the AKP is becoming more pronounced, as indicated by Erdoğan’s statement that “we are going to raise pious generations”, and the subsequent overhaul of the education system in line with this statement.
The AKP seems to be signaling that it is envisioning forcing its world view on the rest of society. Indeed, the AKP is demonstrating an unwillingness to leave any room in society – be it in the public administration, in the universities, or in the business world, to those who are not its supporters. In this endeavor, it has enjoyed – until recently (See Turkey Analyst, 5 March 2012) – the support of the movement named after Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Gülen’s followers have set up an impressive network of schools in Turkey, and in many other countries, in the last thirty years and the cadres educated in these as well as those backed by scholarships awarded by the Gülen community are now filling positions in the government and the public administration. It is widely believed that the movement has established a very strong base within the police and intelligence community and its influence in the judiciary is increasing.
The influence of the Gülen movement in the business community is also growing fast. The
Anatolian middle class, which could be seen as constituting the indigenous bourgeoisie of Turkey, has close connections with the Gülen movement. It is even possible to speak of a model of capital accumulation that is developing under the movement’s influence. Islamic fraternity can be used to soften employer-employee relationships, and this creates the ideal conditions for capital accumulation. On the other hand, by doing business exclusively with businesses and companies that are part of the fraternity, it is possible to create business networks and opportunities that are closed to outsiders.
Those who do not identify themselves as social or religious conservatives are also bound to feel alienated by Erdoğan’s strident rhetoric. Erdoğan's speeches are littered with humiliating, denigrating remarks about those in society who think differently, and the prime minister has a tendency to show disregard for the freedom of expression. Many critics in the media have been silenced.
One may fear that the AKP, if it remains unchallenged, will feel emboldened to transform Turkey according to a conservative vision that everyone is expected to adhere to; it is certainly telling that Erdoğan did not talk about “raising pious generations” ten years ago. Although the AKP enjoys broad support, religiously inspired social conservatism nonetheless alienates a substantial part of society, provoking serious tensions in the process. One could thus argue that we are approaching a critical moment in Turkey’s politics.
The argument could be made that the unquestioned dominance of Erdoğan and the AKP will not be that long lasting, that Erdoğan’s divisive strategy and authoritarian tendencies will inevitably create the conditions for the rise of a counter-force. As loved as he is, Erdoğan also provokes opposite sentiments, as a Time magazine poll 2011 illustrated: Online votes cast by people on the opposing ends of the love – hate axis made Erdoğan “the most popular person of the year” by 122,939 votes, but also “the most hated person of the year” by 180,571 votes.
Ultimately, it is Turkey’s economic performance that underpins the AKP’s power. Yet the sustainability of Turkey’s economic performance is questionable because Turkey's low domestic savings ratio(around 13% of GDP) makes its growth story dependent upon an uninterrupted inflow of foreign capital. In addition to the low savings ratio, Turkey has a very high current account deficit(around 9% of GDP) and nearly half of Turkey’s exports are destined to Europe which looks set for an extended economic and financial crisis. One can argue that the AKP’s overhyped economic success story looks more vulnerable now as the uncertainty in the global economy is growing. But the economy is not making headlines in Turkey today because there is a general belief that the AKP government “knows how to manage the economy”. Yet ultimately, the question is if the AKP’s narrowly conservative vision will help sustain Turkey’s continued growth.
For one thing, Turkey is in need of policies that encourage women to participate in the workforce, and that is not something that the AKP government is doing. And if non-conservatives were to conclude that there is little or no place for them in Turkey, the country would face the risk of a “brain drain”. The AKP will have to address the anxiety among the secular, urban middle class; more generally, the rulers of Turkey need to recognize that no single group – be it conservatives or seculars, Turks or Kurds – can lay claim on the country, at least not if it is not going to deprive it of the resources it needs for its continued development.
CONCLUSIONS: What Turkey needs at this critical juncture is a political alternative that transcends the divides of society and seeks to reconcile differences instead of exacerbating them. There is presently no sign of any such alternative emerging. Yet there is perhaps nonetheless reason for hope. As the AKP's ambition to impose a conservative ideological vision on society is becoming more pronounced, the Western-oriented, urban middle class could eventually be galvanized into producing an alternative. But for such an alternative to be credible, it must succeed in reaching out to a broad section of society, which can only be done with a promise of freedom for all, not only to one group in society.
Osman Ulagay is a Turkish journalist and author. This article was adopted from his recently published book “Türkiye kime kalacak?” (To whom is Turkey going to be left?), which has stirred a major debate in Turkey.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".