BACKGROUND: 2013 was a “year of battles” for the AKP. Millions of people protested against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the “Gezi Park” uprising in June. The year ended with a graft probe that has shaken the government. The domestic challenges to the AKP also affect its foreign relations. The Erdoğan government and the AKP’s ruling elite have accused external actors of sponsoring what they describe as attempts to destabilize Turkey. Erdoğan and his inner circle argue that there is an international conspiracy organized by the United States, Israel and some European states against Turkey. Erdoğan defines his current struggle to stave off the graft probe as a “liberation war”, hoping to mobilize the conservative and nationalist base.
This rhetoric implies that Turkey is under attack and that the AKP is the only guarantee for the freedom of the country. This is a rhetoric that stands in stark contrast to the pro-Western agenda of the early years of the AKP. In order to understand the AKP’s paradigm shift the question of what “West” means for the AKP needs to be addressed.
“It is apparent that Turkey will not be able to join the European Union. Most prominent politicians of Europe contend that European philosophers posit that the EU is a Union of Christians. The Head of the European Commission [Jacques] Delors, the British prime minister and all others say this. When the EU’s interests are concerned, Turkey is asked to make concessions, but when Turkey’s interests are concerned the EU does not make any concessions.” The words belong to Abdullah Gül, and was uttered in 1995 when he was a member of parliament for the Islamist Welfare Party. Anti-Western discourse was part and parcel of the ideology of political Islam in Turkey and helped the Welfare Party to emerge as the leading party from the 1995 parliamentary elections.
The leader of Welfare Party, Necmettin Erbakan, often called for Turkey to turn its back on the West and form a “Union of Muslim Countries” under its leadership. Erbakan’s foreign policy was based on anti-Zionist and anti-American rhetoric and on ciriticism of Western institutions such as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Arguably, there was a causal connection between the anti-Western discourse of the Welfare Party and its election successes during the 1990s. Erbakan blamed the political system and its actors for producing political instability, social discontent and economic crises. And Erbakan emphasized that being pro-Western was the common characteristics of these actors. Thus, Erbakan aimed to explain the abject failure of the establishment politicians with their pro-western orientation. The Islamist Welfare Party deployed an anti-western foreign policy approach in order to gain ground in the domestic politcs.
Nevertheless, Erbakan was unable to implement his foreign policy agenda after his Welfare Party took over the government in 1996 in coalition with the center-right True Path Party. The military forced the coalition government to resign in 1997 and the Welfare Party was closed down by the Supreme Court in 1998. However, the military’s intervention in politics paved the way for a crucial political realignment; the arguments that were put forward by liberal circles presented an opportunity for the representatives of political Islam to revise their foreign policy.
IMPLICATIONS: The younger generation that split from the fold of Erbakan and founded the AKP in 2001 – the reformist wing led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç who redefined themselves as “conservative democrats” – abandoned the anti-Western rhetoric. This was in line with the adoption of a generally more inclusive discourse, which attracted the support of centrist voters and of liberal circles. In addition, the European Union accession process was seen as an opportunity to undermine the influence of the military.
The reformist wing of the Turkish Islamic movement reinvented itself as a promoter of liberal values, democracy, human rights and a free market economy; this ensured that the AKP gained international legitimacy. Building coalitions internally as well as externally – with liberals at home and the Western powers on the international stage – was a way for the AKP to gain power and secure its hold on it.
However, this harmony started to dissolve as the AKP consolidated its power and tended to pursue a more authoritarian policy after its third consecutive electoral victory in 2011. After his party had pushed the military out of the political arena and captured the state apparatus, Erdoğan no longer displayed any zeal to make democratic reforms. Critics of Erdoğan point out that his stifling control over AKP, media, intimidation of business and his attempts to order social life undermines the democratization process in Turkey. Liberal critics argue that Erdoğan has no qualms with the methods of the traditional Turkish state – with its desire to control and shape society – being different from the old Kemalists only as to what kind of society he wants to bring about.
The domestic criticisms and challenges that the AKP government has faced since 2011 are reactions to the rising authoritarianism of Erdoğan. According to the results of a survey of the Gezi protesters, only 4.6 percent were motivated by environmental concerns whereas a vast majority state that they joined the protests because they felt their civil liberties to be under threat. Meanwhile, the graft probe – although the workings of the judiciary has been thwarted by the intervention of the government – is sure to lead many to question the AKP’s moral credentials.
Faced with mounting internal opposition, the AKP has increasingly developed a siege mentality, blaming external actors for its troubles; this reaction has strained its foreign relations and has exacerabted its pro-western discourse as well. According to Erdoğan and his inner circle, both the Gezi protests and the graft probe are the products of an international conspiracy, which is supposedly organized by foreign powers to hamper Turkey’s development to a leading economic and political power.
Yiğit Bulut, a chief advisor of Erdoğan, argued that the Gezi Park protests were organized by some foreign secret services, that had also, he claimed, attempted to kill Erdoğan from abroad by the help of telekinesis. Similarly, Erdoğan has argued that the graft probe is an operation of foreign powers, which he claims are disturbed by Turkey’s achievements.
The psychology of the AKP, increasingly shaped by irrational and fantastic conspiracy theories, inevitably impairs Turkey’s relations with Western institutions and states. Commenting on the critical resolution of the European Parliament on the police buritality and excessive use of force during the Gezi protests, Erdoğan said that “I do not recognize a decision that the European Parliament will make about us” and accused the European Union of being hypocritical towards Turkey. He displayed a similar reaction after the graft probe shook his goverment. According to the prime minister, the graft probe is also an internationally organized “assasination attempt hidden in a package of corruption”; he implied that the American ambassador, Francis Ricciardione, could be expelled from Turkey due to his supposed role as the instigator of the conspiracy against the AKP.
CONCLUSIONS: The AKP’s pro-Western discourse has vanished as domestic opposition has mounted, clamoring for more democracy, liberty and transparency. The AKP has in a sense thus turned the clock back to the 1990s when the Turkish Islamists depicted the West as the enemy of Turkey.
This picture demonstrates that the Turkish Islamists’ discourse toward the West is dictated by the policies and rhetoric of their opponents more than by any principled enmity or amicability. The Turkish Islamists tend to view the relations with West as a tool of the domestic political game. When the establishment parties supported pro-European and pro-American policies, the Islamist Welfare Party deployed an anti-Western discourse in order to gain the support of discontended voters. Later, the AKP used the EU accession process and a pro-globalization discourse in order to undermine the influence of the military and the nationalist Kemalists, who had taken over much of the Islamists earlier anti-Western line; that had put them at odds with the majority in the country.
Then, the democratic aspirations of society was something that the AKP could instrumentalize, surfing on them to power. Today, these societal aspirations have on the contrary become an obstacle to the realization of the AKP’s power ambitions; unsurprisingly, the party is now accusing Western actors and institutions that lend support to the demands of the Turkish public for more liberty and transparency of threatening Turkey’s national security and development.
Thus, what the West is for the AKP – an enemy or a friend – is ultimately determined by what the West is for the opponents of the Islamists.
Burak Bilgehan Özpek is Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations in TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Ankara.