The AKP years in Turkey: the third stage

A near-decade of rule by Turkey’s governing AKP has reshaped the state and consolidated the party’s clear political hegemony. But this very success exposes serious remaining problems in Turkish democracy, says Gunes Murat Tezcur.
Gunes Murat Tezcur
20 September 2011

The coming to power of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) in November 2002 was a result of unique historical contingencies. Its successful record over the subsequent decade, however, has long transcended them. Now, the AKP, a party of “moderate” political Islam - and Turkish democracy itself - face new circumstances and challenges.

Turkey had in 2001 experienced its worst economic crisis since the end of the second world war, and the ruling tripartite coalition was fatally weakened both by corruption scandals and the sickness of prime minister Bülent Ecevit. In the 2002 election, the AKP received only 34% of the national vote, far short of a numerical majority; but it gained 66% of the parliamentary seats, thanks to an unusually high electoral threshold that eliminated parties receiving less than 10% of the vote.

Yet the performance of the AKP government since then has left little room for historical contingencies. The party easily won two additional terms in national elections (in 2007 and 2011), gained control of most municipalities in local elections (in 2004 and 2009), and sponsored two constitutional amendments in 2007 and 2010 that were endorsed by referendum.

Throughout this process, it is notable that the most serious resistance to AKP rule and policies has come not from parliamentary opposition but from three extra-parliamentary forces. The first emanates from autonomous and long-established institutions within the state (including the high judiciary and the military) that have sought to veto and restrict elected civilian governments. The AKP has managed gradually to erode these institutions’ political power.

The second is the state presidency, where the AKP has been able to end any block on the government’s preferred policies from this source (as well as to put one of its senior figures, former foreign minister Abdullah Gül, in the post). The third is the Kurdish nationalist movement, which remains a viable force despite the AKP’s concerted attempts to curtail its power.

The end of bureaucratic guardianship

The national vote on 12 June 2011 confirmed the AKP’s undisputed electoral hegemony in Turkish politics, and accelerated the decline of the Turkish armed forces (TAF) as an autonomous political body. The commanding generals, at the heart of the Turkish republic’s governance since the foundation of the state (with an authority they periodically wielded via  military coups as well as less overt pressure), have lost their formerly pivotal role.

The generals no longer have the power to veto governments they dislike; can no longer dictate “national security” policies that identify large groups as “internal enemies” of the elected civilian government; and no longer enjoy judicial immunity.

The last point is at the centre of Turkey’s recent political development. Since 2007, a series of criminal investigations has pointed to the involvement of a large number of high-ranking officers in conspiracies (the so-called Ergenekon) against the AKP. The resulting prosecutions had, by September 2011, sent more than 15% of all TAF generals to prison.

Two factors have aided the authorities in their efforts to dismantle anti-government conspiracies within the TAF. The first is the expansion of police intelligence-gathering, which has allowed crucial intelligence to be delivered to prosecutors. The second is the constitutional amendments endorsed in a referendum in 12 September 2010, which granted both the legislative and executive branches considerably more power over judicial appointments and led to an increase in the membership of the high judiciary (see "Turkey's referendum: a democratic dynamic", 15 September 2010).

The latter change has ended the insulation of the senior judiciary and made it more difficult for the military leadership to influence judicial decisions. It has also undermined the historic alliance between the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (Republican People’s Party / CHP), the military, and the high judiciary.

After the election of June 2011, the government squeezed the army by imposing new restrictions that prevented the promotion of generals hostile to the government. The resignation on 29 July of the chief-of-staff and the commanders of the land, air, and sea forces in protest at the continuing detention of high-ranking soldiers as part of the ongoing criminal investigations is a further striking symbol of the weakness of the TAF leadership vis-à-vis the AKP.

The Kurdish dilemma

The AKP’s success in establishing authority over the military and senior judiciary contrasts with the its approach to the Kurdish nationalist movement, whose conflict with AKP policies now represents the greatest challenge to democratic stability in Turkey.  In essence, the movement demands the teaching of Kurdish in the national education system, and a form of territorial autonomy that will recognise the Kurds’ right of self-determination within Turkey’s national boundaries (see "Turkey's Kurdish challenge", 8 November 2007).

Both aspirations ultimately reflect the grievances of many Kurds who perceive that the marginalisation of their language and culture make them second-class citizens of Turkey. Yet the government is not prepared to accept either of these fundamental demands. This incompatibility fuels the persistent armed conflict between the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish security forces (see Turkey: Ending the PKK Insurgency, International Crisis Group, 20 September 2011).

The current situation is a stalemate. The militant Kurdish nationalist movement has survived military defeat, the capture of its leader, party bans, electoral setbacks, and reform attempts. It is too strong and multidimensional to be repressed or excluded. It now employs a wide repertoire of strategies: from armed attacks (including assassinations of Kurds suspected of collaboration with the state, and ambushes of security forces) to civil-disobedience campaigns (including human-shield marches to stop military operations) and holding Friday prayers outside state-controlled mosques.

At the same time, the Kurdish movement will be able to obtain significant concessions from the AKP government only if it establishes alliances with domestic and international non-Kurdish actors. That seems very unlikely as long as the insurgents continue to engage in armed attacks and to polarise Turkish public opinion. The dilemma confronting the Kurdish nationalist movement is that neither armed struggle nor non-violent contentious action can achieve even the minimum goals it seeks. Hence the movement continues to vacillate between armed confrontation and legal strategies.

The AKP made the promise of a new constitution part of its electoral campaign in 2011. In fact, all major political forces in the country agree to the need for a new constitution that would enshrine liberal and democratic principles. But the political reality is that the AKP actually achieved the changes it most desired in the referendums of 21 October 2007 and 12 September 2010. The party has, as has been seen, consolidated its power over the three forces that opposed its agenda after 2002: the presidency, the high judiciary, and the armed forces.

The real demand now for a new constitution comes from the Kurdish nationalist movement and the CHP, the main opposition party which is trying to move under the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu from defending the old state structures towards a more social-democratic stance.

The Kurdish movement seeks a new constitution that recognises Kurdish identity. The CHP, cognisant of its electorally weaker position, seeks changes that reduce the power of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature and executive and contribute to greater political pluralism. It also wants to reduce institutional discrimination against members of the Alevi sect, a substantial Muslim minority in Turkey. The willingness of the AKP leadership to respond to these demands will be a vital determinant in the success of attempts to create a new constitutional order.

The direction of political change

The advances and problems of democratisation in contemporary Turkey warrant two conclusions. First, the relationship between Islamic moderation and democratisation is more complicated than usually assumed. It is misleading automatically to associate moderation with progressive political change. The performance of the AKP, which is conventionally portrayed as the most successful example of “moderate” political Islam, over the last nine years demonstrates that democratic change is often a by-product of political conflict. The AKP managed to dilute the power of the bureaucratic forces that oppose its reforms only when it was willing to pursue - directly and unilaterally - confrontational policies of change.

Second, and even more critically, political change in Turkey defies easy categorisation. It is true that the AKP has advanced democratisation by entrenching the power of elected politicians over unaccountable and non-transparent bureaucratic forces. But its performance in promoting political equality, protecting human rights, and establishing a more level playing-field for political competition has been lacking.

After a near-decade of AKP rule, democratic problems persist in Turkey. The 10% electoral threshold undermines equal political representation; press freedom remains under threat from governmental and judicial restrictions; systematic human-rights violations continue; ethnic and religious minorities continue to suffer various forms of discrimination; environmental considerations are ignored in the name of economic development.

The consolidation of the principle of popular sovereignty in Turkey does not soothe the fears of historically marginalised and persecuted political, religious and ethnic groups. How political leaders and forces address these problems will shape Turkish democracy in the years ahead.

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