Are the fortunes of Turkey’s AKP on the wane?
Turkey’s AKP represents one side of a deeply divided nation, but there are signs of shifts in the country’s political direction
For the past two decades, Turkey has been going through visible and deep-rooted political and societal cleavages between modernist and reactionary forces. Since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took the presidency from the nationalist Kemalists in 2007, the country has been heading towards increasingly authoritarian, populist and Islamist rule. How did the party that initially presented itself as pro-European, democratic, pluralist and libertarian become the polarising one we know today?
Between 2001 and 2007, the AKP presented Turkey as the most celebrated model of a ‘moderate’ Muslim state on the basis of it having been a secular republic for many decades and a NATO member state. But soon after the presidential election in 2007, it adopted a markedly authoritarian and Islamic agenda. This was made possible by the party’s increasing electoral strength in both local and general elections.
The shift was met with some opposition, including lawsuits by members of the Kemalist-militarist elite who had held power for decades before the AKP’s electoral win. In March 2008, the chief public prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals petitioned for the Constitutional Court to close the AKP down and requested a ban on 71 politicians, including the then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the president, Abdullah Gül. The argument was that, “The party has become a focus of anti-secular activities.”
The Constitutional Court, which took up the case against the AKP in March 2008, made its decision four months later, rejecting the chief prosecutor’s demand. However, the court also ruled that the AKP, having shown signs of being “a focal point for anti-secular activity”, should be deprived of 50% of the financial aid it received from the state treasury.
The case was perceived as a test for Turkish democracy and the decision was a relief not only for Turkey but also for the European Union.
After the court case, Erdoğan responded with a midnight round-up of suspects accused of plotting a coup against the government as part of a shadowy alleged organisation called Ergenekon. Whereas suspects arrested previously had largely been fringe figures, this time the net was widened to include some of the most prominent secular intellectuals in Turkey, such as Doğu Perinçek, leader of the Workers' Party, the editor-in-chief of the popular daily, Cumhuriyet, Ilhan Selçuk, and Kemal Alemdaroğlu, a former president of Istanbul University.
Eventually, after a long process of filing, Turkish prosecutors, mostly loyal to Fethullah Gülen, a cleric who has been living in exile in the US since 1999, and was an ally of Erdoğan between 2001 and 2013, issued a long indictment detailing an alleged plot to overthrow Erdoğan by an elaborate network of retired military officers, journalists, academics, businessmen, and other secular opponents of the ruling AKP.
The Ergenekon case made it possible for the AKP leadership to silence the Kemalist military elite. This was the first episode of silencing the opposition; the second would come in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016, orchestrated by Gülenist groups in the army.
The 2019 local elections
Since 2007, growing Euroscepticism and Kemalist military and judicial attacks on the AKP as described above, matched with developing political and economic opportunities in the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Africa and Central Asia, have encouraged the AKP leadership to adopt a Sunni Islamist conservative agenda and discourse.
This has revitalised a long-lasting ideological divide in Turkey between laicism and religiosity.
The resulting Islamisation of the state and society, as well as growing authoritarianism, led to increasing protests against the government, especially since the 2013 Gezi Protests, which began as demonstrations against a plan to remove Istanbul's Gezi Park and soon extended to a wide range of issues such as authoritarianism and Islamisation.
At the 2019 local elections, the AKP lost several big cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Antalya
The AKP’s rise began with Islamists winning local elections in the mid-1990s. However, the tide seems to be reversing for the party, especially after local elections in 2019, in which the party lost several big metropolitan cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana and Antalya. Ongoing economic crisis, polarisation, corruption, and the Syrian refugee debate are issues now haunting AKP members, whose attachment to their leader is weakening.
Economic crisis, unemployment, corruption, clientelism, pessimism, the COVID-19 pandemic and instability all seem to be precursors of political change in Turkey. If successful in future elections, the opposition – primarily in the form of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (İyi Parti), in a latent alliance with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – are likely to push Turkey towards more democratisation and reintroduce a fully-fledged parliamentary system.
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