BACKGROUND: Since the June 7 election, there has been widespread expectation among Turkish commentators that Turkey’s politics is now to be “normalized,” after President Erdogan’s attempt to transform the system into his own one-man rule was left short of the necessary support in the new parliament. But even though the ruling AKP lost its absolute majority, the power balance between the parties has not changed dramatically. The AKP is still overwhelmingly the biggest party, while the opposition is hopelessly divided. The only substantial change was that many conservative Kurds, who in previous elections have cast their votes for the AKP, switched their support to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The so-called normalization of Turkish politics would require a determined stance by the leadership of the AKP. In fact, “system normalization” has been the catchword of the AKP all through the last thirteen years – it is only that what is understood by this is the “correction” of what is perceived as a historical mistake: the Westernization of Turkey.
From these premises, it is difficult to see how this same party could now function as a platform for a centrist coalition. If that kind of an AKP is ever to emerge, it will be so much transformed that even talking about the “same” party will be nonsensical. Therefore, instead of normal coalition negotiations, what is now taking place is a tactical maneuvering by the AKP leadership in order to prevent a situation where Turkey’s political agenda would be genuinely based on compromise. Rather than truly accepting the loss of its absolute majority and embarking on a constructive coalition negotiations, the AKP – still under Erdoğan’s unchallenged guidance – is elaborating various tactics to overcome the unexpected defeat.
The AKP has already declared that it insists on remaining in charge of the justice, interior, and education ministries. This means that even in the case of a coalition, the party would be in the position to pursue its long-term Islamic-conservative transformation project. The pro-government media as well as key figures of the AKP, including Erdoğan, have already on several occasions talked about snap elections, hoping they could do better this time. The problem for the AKP is that recent polls do not hold out any promise of an absolute majority in a repeated election.
IMPLICATIONS: “Normalization” is one of the favorite concepts of Turkey’s progressive circles. It has earlier been used to describe AKP’s overthrow of the regime of military “tutelage”. Today, the term suggests that the June 7 election has inaugurated a supposedly new political balance, where President Erdoğan becomes isolated in his palace, while re-emerging centrist forces, especially from within the AKP, will form a coalition government that puts a definitive break on the authoritarian rule and arrests the deterioration of democratic institutions.
However, the AKP is going to be the dominant force in any possible coalition government, and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has assured that the role and legitimacy of the president cannot be questioned by any possible coalition partner. This means that Erdoğan’s claim – according to which he cannot be impartial in his role as president, which the constitution dictates, because he is always on the side of the “people” – is duly legitimized by the AKP. Indeed, this is no surprise since challenging Erdoğan head on would almost certainly bring about an abrupt end to Davutoğlu’s political career.
But more importantly, there is nothing that suggests that Davutoğlu harbors any ambition to change the ideological orientation of the AKP. It is true that the prime minister has been far from enthusiastic about defending the presidential model; but otherwise there is no evidence that supports the assumption that Davutoğlu is a reformist in waiting, ready to turn the AKP into a moderate centrist party. Quite the contrary; as his academic writings since the 1990s amply show, Davutoğlu is an Islamist ideologue. In fact, he is the leading representative of the AKP’s anti-Western, Islamic conservative ideology that is fundamentally allergic to Western secular-humanism and thus also to political liberalism.
Davutoğlu has been the architect of what the AKP styles a “principled and value-based foreign policy approach,” which in reality is defined by its support for the Muslim Brotherhood forces all over the Middle East at whatever cost.
The talk of Erdoğan being isolated and the suggestion that the AKP, emancipated from the hold of the authoritarian president, is about to transform into a moderate and constructive center-right party, eager to continue Turkey’s democratization, speaks of an incredibly short memory. The AKP was supposed to democratize Turkey in the first place, and Erdoğan has been praised by EU leaders and others as the “great reformer” who ended the “tutelary regime” and established a functioning democracy. If that evaluation correctly described the reality, then the question arises how Turkey under the AKP could so suddenly turn from being a democratic force into a threat to the parliamentary system and the rule of law.
Conventional wisdom holds that Erdoğan shockingly “went mad” and became an autocratic Islamist almost overnight, during the Gezi revolt in 2013 and when the graft probe was launched against members of his government at the end of that year. The talk about “normalization” and about Erdoğan becoming “isolated” thus presupposes that Turkey’s democratic travails emanate exclusively from Erdoğan’s power hunger, and that once this factor is eliminated, the AKP can again become the “normalizing force” it allegedly was previously.
Yet this account is far from convincing. It is, first of all, important to notice how easily the Islamic conservative ideology advocated by the AKP was pushed in a radical direction by the current AKP leadership. This radicalization had in fact been prepared by the re-interpretation of Turkish political history that is by now, after more than decade of determined indoctrination, widely internalized by the AKP’s constituency. According to this historical narrative, Turkey was ruled by elitist Westernizers who suppressed the “common people” and always occupied key positions in the state apparatuses. While the liberal intellectuals who gave critical support to AKP imagined that they would be instrumental in domesticating the AKP, making the party an agent of their liberal-democratic agenda, the AKP leadership embarked on an altogether different project; its ambition was to return Turkey to a pristine condition, an Islamic conservative utopia, where the word adalet (justice) would have regained its traditional, Ottoman connotation: a morally righteous socio-political order where everyone “knew his or her place”.
In this context, those now hoping for the emergence of a post-authoritarian AKP would need to demonstrate that the organic link between party cadres, state institutions, and the “palace cabinet” gathered around Erdoğan can be severed and eliminated, and that there exists, within the party, a strong group that is willing to embark on such a risky project.
The political “normalization” and democratic consolidation that is now expected to be around the corner is similar to the “normalization” at the beginning of the 2000s, when the liberals put stock in the AKP as the agent of democratic consolidation. That project ended in a total failure. In order to prevent a similar failure from taking place again, an essentially different political articulation is needed within the whole Islamic-conservative constituency.
There is, no doubt, a certain layer of moderate and liberal-oriented potentiality existing within the Islamic conservative constituencies. But this has been a thoroughly marginalized layer all through the AKP years; and there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that even the reform policies of the AKP’s first years in power, from 2002 to 2005, were mainly instrumental steps to defeat ideological opponents in the bureaucracy and the armed forces, rather than real attempts to democratize Turkey. Thus, there is no real legacy of democratization to which any agents of “normalization” within the AKP could reconnect. For that to happen, the party would simply have to be reinvented, and not only “emancipated” from the hold of Erdoğan.
CONCLUSIONS: The June 7 parliamentary election did undoubtedly open up a window of opportunity for Turkish democracy. The election result at least temporarily halted President Erdoğan’s extravagant ambitions to rule Turkey single-handedly from his “Saray,” as the presidential palace is commonly referred to.
However, the AKP remains the dominant political actor, determining the political agenda and the formation of a new government. And the election result has not triggered any intra-party search for a moderate and centrist approach that would usher in a “normalization” of Turkish politics, speculated widely in mainstream Turkish media and in liberal circles. The normalization of Turkish politics under the AKP is nowhere in sight at the moment; in fact that would mean abandoning not only what President Erdoğan stands for but the very political narrative disseminated by the AKP during its years in power, and thus the mission of the party.
Toni Alaranta, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. He is the author of the recently published book National and State Identity in Turkey: The Transformation of the Republic’s Status in the International System (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). His previous publications include Contemporary Kemalism: From Universal Secular-Humanism to Extreme Turkish Nationalism (Routledge, 2014).
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Boris Ajeganov)