What does the AKP mean for the future of Turkish democracy?

What does the AKP mean for the future of Turkish democracy?

Resumed political violence in Turkey started anew debates about deep-rooted problems in its political system. Terrorist attacks in the Turkish provinces of Şanlıurfa, Hakkari and Iğdır, efforts of the AKP to profit from the ensuing chaos and its reluctance to share power after the June elections impels to think about the prospects for a consolidation of the Turkish democracy and the future of the conservative political forces.

Turks are fighting with the Mountains again

It all started on July 20 with the barbaric attack of the IS on the Kurdish youth in the border city of Suruç. The nation was shocked not only by the boldness of the perpetrators but rather by the scale of destruction and visible confusion of the local authorities. The blast took 32 lives of the young people who were heading to reconstruction works in the dominantly Kurdish city of Kobani, “liberated” several months ago by the Kurdish armed forces from the rule of IS in Syria’s north. The battle for Kobani became the symbol of a struggle of the Kurds against the IS, who in turn had so far prospered due also to Ankara’s noninvolvement. All this sheds light on why Kurdish activists from the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) rushed to blame the Turkish government for the tragedy and retaliate for its passivity by killing several members of security forces in eastern Turkey.

The brutal retaliatory killings of police officers quickly opened the gates of hell. Though the Suruç bombing was carried out by the IS, Turkish government directed all the resources on the fight against the PKK, classified by Ankara as a terrorist organization (along with the IS). The low scale violence accompanied by the massive arrest of IS and PKK members swiftly turned into the open conflict between main forces of the PKK and the Turkish army. On September 6, using suitable weather conditions, PKK attacked a remote army base near Dağlıca killing more than 16 Turkish soldiers. Two days later, 14 policemen were killed in a road attack in the eastern province of Iğdır, thus marking the rapid escalation of violence in the long-simmering conflict and creating an atmosphere of the 1990-s, when the nation stood on the brink of civil war.

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Clashes between PKK and Turkish army resumed after several relatively peaceful years

Meanwhile, in the political arena the ruling Justice and Development Party (Turk. AKP) was struggling to come to itself after a sound defeat in the parliament elections in June where it lost its long held majority. The wrath of the conservatives and most importantly of the current Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was directed at the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (Turk. HDP), considered a main winner of the elections. The HDP succeeded in gaining an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote and thus secured its position the parliament for the first time as a political party and not as a group of independent candidates. Elections gurus pointed out that the HDP managed to broaden its appeal among the voters and more importantly among those discontented by the AKP’s stakes on the social division prior the elections.

The cherished dream of the AKP to get parliamentarian majority of the 400 seats so as to be able to unilaterally force through a new constitution was shattered by the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish HDP. No wonder that in the course of the escalating violence with the Kurdish PKK, HDP and its co-chairman and ambitious politician Selahattin Demirtaş were accused of the support for separatism and terrorism in the mainstream pro-government media. Demonization of the HDP, as calculated by the AKP, should diminish the chance of the repeated electoral success in the early elections in November 2015.

Divide, provoke and rule

Other political parties, a social-democratic CHP and a far-right nationalist MHP, were successfully used by the AKP during the coalition talks. Lack of compromise between the parties and primarily on the side of the AKP, who gained 40.8% of the June vote, shows that parties were in fact preparing for early elections. Indeed, despite his claims that the nation needs a government as soon as possible, Erdoğan is eager to try to regain majority in the November elections, deploying all available means to tilt the scales to its own advantage.

All available means include those exceeding the limits of the democratic process. Using its cadres with the state machinery and powerful network of activists, AKP resorts to pressure and violent attacks on the critical media outlets who try to reveal dubious dealings of the government. The political opposition is subjected to attacks. In the meanwhile, the current government is attemptingto impose a regime of special rule in the eastern provinces so as to limit the process of electoral campaigning and elections, making it impossible for the HDP to campaign in its stronghold.

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Pro-Kurdish HDP is targeted by the pro-government activits across the country

The spiraling chaos is a good background against which it is worth looking at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in more detail, the venerable leader of the conservatives in AKP. By all means, the veteran politician wants to avoid losing his grip within the parliament. The stakes are high, Erdoğan is about to reach a peak in his political career, as many predict - successful rewriting of the secular constitution, imposed by the military regime in 1982. Following his plans to acquire enough parliamentary seats after the November elections, Erdoğan seems to present the nation two alternatives: either continuing bloodshed or much needed 400 seats for the AKP. This is a too well-known tactic among authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and beyond, where once elected rulers craving for more power present themselves as the only solution in conditions on instability and violence.

However, it would be too naïve to consider the current problems of Turkey a direct result of one man’s ambitions. Thorough analysis of the political evolution of the conservative forces united around the AKP, of the present state of the party’s ideological creativity and the interparty relations makes clear that the AKP stands before a watershed. This would affect not just the future of the political conservatives but more importantly the very consolidation of democracy in Turkey – or its disarray.

A historic background

The history of governmental changes in Turkey was marked by both more or less successful democratic changes and military overthrows. The nation experienced highly explosive political conflicts and ensuing military’s meddling at least four times for the last 55 years, beginning in 1960 when the Turkish experiment with multiparty system ended with a coup d’état and the execution of leaders of the then deposed Democratic Party.

Remarkably, it was the DP that became the springboard for religious conservatives who started organizing themselves into political force. They did so by utilizing available democratic means within the radically secular regime of the Turkish republic to uphold their own values and principles. The political evolution of the mainstream conservatives in the AKP went through the activity of such influential parties as National Order Party (1970-1971), National Salvation Party (1972-1981) and Welfare Party (1983-1998). These parties with their active engagement in the Turkish politics contributed considerably to the debate over the secular character of the Turkish regime. Thus, it is no wonder the army, who had been positing itself since the 1960’s as a guardian of Ataturk’s principles (among them secular character of the Turkish state), didn’t shun from closing these parties when secular regime seemed to be under the threat. In this way, it could deprive the above mentioned parties in particular and Turkish democracy in general of important experience. Tellingly, no religious conservative government in the Turkish history had by now been replaced by democratic means.

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AKP's current political leadership started their career in the formerly banned Welfare Party (Refah Partisi)

The wind of change came with the rise of the AKP, founded in 2001 by young reformist politicians of the formerly banned Welfare Party. The emphasis of the party on human rights (primarily in the sensible issue of religious freedoms), promises to limit the influence of the army in politics, neoliberal views on economy and progressive views of its leadership on the EU, foreign policy and the secular character of the state contributed to its tremendous electoral victories in 2002, 2007 and 2011. The AKP was praised internationally as a party that sensed the current zeitgeist and managed to satisfy the needs, hopes and demands of people for a change.

Democracy at the crossroads

The fascinating success story of the AKP, alas and alack, quickly turned into a story of the rise of a power hungry leviathan. Partly due to the lack of further progress in its own ideological creativity, partly due to the volatile international environment since the 2011, leadership within the AKP started taking unpopular steps to curb the opposing voices in the country. Most prominently, the Gezi protests revealed not only the tendency of the AKP to ignore the discontented, but also showed the widening gap between the European democratic standards and Turkish realities. The Arab uprisings and further regional turmoil led to the failed foreign policy and resulted in the prolonged quagmire in the neighboring countries of Syria and Iraq. It would not be a mistake to ascribe current problems of the government to both the lack of experience, unpreparedness of the Turkish foreign policy decision makers and ideological inertness of the Turkish leadership.

While at the pinnacle of its success, the AKP was seen as the potent force capable to bring the effective end to the prolonged armed struggle with the PKK. And indeed having successfully limited the army’s influence in the decision making in the 2000’s through democratic means, the AKP got the much needed free hand in dealing with the Kurdish issue. Positive changes were made regarding the use of the Kurdish language and a state TV channel in Kurdish began broadcasting in 2009. By no means drastic, such steps nevertheless brought support for the party among conservative Kurds, hence contributing to further electoral victories of the AKP. In 2013, unprecedented negotiations with the PKK over the possible cease-fire agreement and subsequent talks over a final solution to the conflict nourished hopes inside and outside Turkey.

Now, two years after, such hopes have vanished. The government is trying to rekindle the conflict anew while seeking political benefits from the chaos and uncertainty prior the coming elections in November. The electoral success of the pro-Kurdish HDP in June 2015 meant not only the challenge for the ruling party. With no majority in the Turkish parliament, Erdoğan’s dream to present a new constitution seems to remain just that. With all cards on the table after June 2015, the AKP has to cooperate with other parties, it has to make compromises including those that could potentially prevent them from achieving its ultimate goal.

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A new constitution is seen as an ultimate goal of the religious-conservative withing the AKP

The time for a new constitution, that had to symbolize a triumph in the prolonged struggle of the AKP with the radical secular regime, was as ripe as never before. On the one hand, the AKP has been trying to present everything as an attempt to create a new regime with greater stability and lesser uncertainty. On the other hand, conservatives and Erdoğan himself, who sees the new constitution as a personal cause in his political career, have long wanted to use an existing social consensus over the need to abandon a military imposed constitution. Moreover, broad satisfaction among the Turks with rising standards of living in the past ten years would enable the AKP to introduce a new constitution unilaterally. In this way, it could tear down a regime that has been hostile to them for so many decades.

If results of the early elections in November don’t change the present picture, the AKP will be forced to share government with other parties, which means a lot. So far, all major opposition parties stated the investigation of the corruption cases within the AKP government as a main prerequisite for their possible participation in the national government. If so, the AKP is going to be forced to start legal actions against its high rank members and thereby aggravating the on-going crisis within the party itself.

As Erdoğan has effectively eclipsed other founding fathers of the AKP like former Turkish president Abdullah Gül, personalization of the party leadership around one figure leads to the overall stagnation. The tendency to the one-man rule hinders creativity and emergence of new ideas that could potentially bring support for the party among the voters. Most importantly, the concentration of the power in one man’s hands contributes to further fragmentation and division, a peculiarity of the Turkish party system.

Between democratization and consolidation of democracy

Samuel Huntington in one of his seminal works, “The Third Way: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century”, pointed out the essential prerequisites for successful democratization. One of the crucial issues is the readiness of a ruling political force to give up power within the democratic process as a result of free and fair elections. Huntington suggests to use a so-called “turnover test”, when a political party after being elected and running a government faces the prospect of being replaced by another party through democratic ballot. Of course, it is hard to talk about the AKP being replaced as a result of the June elections. However, even simple compromising over the government might tell us a lot about state of the Turkish democracy today.

Photo: www.dunyabulteni.net
Turkey's democracy is witnessing a critical period in its evolution to more consolidation

Although the electoral victory of the Islamist AKP in 2002 was no doubt a victory of the Turkish democracy, in a way a revolution for Turkey, it is now, nevertheless, important to see if Turkey manages to nurture a consolidated democratic system. All its major players should not only share a consensus over the rules of a game, democratic system should be perceived not merely as a means for realization of their political ambitions but as an ultimate goal itself.

The Director of the Center of Turkish Politics and History at Bilkent University, Prof. Metin Heper, describing Turkish democracy prior the AKP triumphant emergence in his book “Political Parties in Turkey” evaluates the prospects for such consolidation. “The first prerequisite for the consolidation of democracy is a consensus among the members of the political class on the rules of democracy – freedom of expression, absence of restrictions on political participation, free and fair elections, and the like. Second, there must be national unity; political actors must act in unison when democracy faces a critical threat. For them to act in such a manner there would be need for trust and harmony among political actors. For the consolidation of democracy in Turkey, political actors’ acting in a responsible as well as responsive manner is also an important prerequisite. This means paying attention to the long-term interests of the country”.

The atmosphere after the June elections and following strategy of the ruling party to curb political freedoms and to resort to authoritarian methods demonstrates that AKP is not ready so far to compromise and share power, thus undermining the prospects for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey. Bearing in mind the authoritarian inclinations inside the party, the fate of the Turkish democracy lies in the hands of the AKP and depends on whether it will be able to overcome these subversive tendencies and placate its ambitions for more power.

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