20 Years of AKP (1): The Equation of Infinite Power

20 Years of AKP (1): The Equation of Infinite Power
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What began as a hope and an alternative to the establishment in Turkey transformed into an authoritarian paradigm in its own right.

On last November 3, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated 20 years in power in Turkey. On November 3, 2002, the AKP came to power in parliamentary elections and has ruled Turkey ever since. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who could not run for president of his party at the time due to a political ban has made his mark on Turkish politics for 20 years, except for very brief interruptions.

In Turkey, where multiparty elections have been held since 1946, no party has ever held on to power for so long. So what has been the secret of this stability? Some attribute it to Erdogan's pragmatism, while others believe that the global circumstances have favored the AKP and Erdogan. Whatever the reason, the AKP and Erdogan have already become a phenomenon and will leave a big mark on Turkey's recent history.

Hope: The Early Years

Throughout the 1990s, Turkey was plagued by political instability and economic crises. The established political parties became synonymous with corruption. Moreover, Turkish politics was dominated by an older generation of politicians who had been around since the 1960s. All this mess culminated into the country's biggest economic crisis in 2001, and the AKP, led by its young leader Erdogan, took advantage of this crisis and was seen by large segments of the population as a way out.

Together with a circle of friends, Erdogan had just founded his own party after breaking away from the Welfare Party, which had been closed down because of its Islamist orientation. Coming from an Islamic movement that was seen as a threat by the establishment in Turkey, they felt vulnerable to many groups, especially the Turkish army. What saved them was the process of joining the European Union. EU membership was desired by large segments of the population in Turkey and it has been granted candidate status since 1999.

The prevailing global climate was also favorable for the AKP. The AKP, which came to power in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks when the coexistence of Islam and democracy was called into question, was an important litmus test for Western intellectuals. Aware of this perception, the AKP defined itself as conservative democrat and sought to prove that a moderate Islamic model was possible within a democratic regime. When the AKP first came to power, it therefore had both political and economic credibility in the West.

On the economic front, the AKP unswervingly adhered to the stand-by agreement reached with the IMF after the 2001 crisis. There were many aspects of the program that were anti-populist and would hurt the population, but the political price for this program had already been paid by the previous government, with all coalition parties falling below the electoral threshold. This paved the way for the AKP to implement the program at little social and political cost.

In the first period between 2002 and 2007, the AKP government introduced democratic reforms, improved its human rights record and facilitated the granting of a number of rights to the Kurdish minority. The AKP sought accommodation within the international system, but was under fierce attack by the nationalist and Kemalist opposition in Turkey, yet had the EU accession process as a shield. In the meantime, economic reforms continued and the Turkish economy gradually recovered with high growth and falling inflation. In 2002, GDP per capita was $3,688, while in 2007 it had risen to $9,791.

2007-2011: War begins

The AKP's tense but non-confrontational relationship with the Kemalist establishment broke down in 2007. The country was very tense before the presidential elections. Even though the presidency was largely symbolic, the establishment did not want to cede this symbol to the AKP. Abdullah Gul, the AKP's No. 2, one of the party's founding fathers and foreign minister, was nominated by the AKP. However, the military intervened in the elections and issued a statement against it. To overcome the political crisis, the AKP called early elections and won a landslide victory.

After Abdullah Gul became president of the republic, the establishment took up arms, judicial ones this time. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against the AKP on the grounds that it violated secularism. However, the proceedings were decided in favor of the AKP by a very small number of votes, and the AKP was not terminated. Meanwhile, the AKP launched a counterattack and began arresting bureaucrats and soldiers, especially those close to the Kemalist establishment, claiming that a coup attempt was being planned against them through an investigative chain called Ergenekon.

During this period, Turkey witnessed a fierce conflict between the AKP, the democrats, the liberals and the Kemalist nationalists. The symbolic result of this struggle was the referendum of September 12, 2010. The constitutional amendment package, which would abolish impartiality, particularly in the judiciary and at other levels of the state, and would eventually lead to full AKP hegemony, was approved with 57.88 % of the yes votes, with the contribution of the democrats and liberals siding with the AKP. In the 2011 elections, the AKP won a record 49.83 % of the vote and remained in power by itself.

Transformation of the Opposition

After the 2011 elections, Erdogan began to pursue increasingly authoritarian and Islamic-oriented policies. Unlike his first term, he was not respectful of the secular lifestyle and took many steps to restrict it, including restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages. When the political conflict turned into a lifestyle conflict, opposition circles, especially the youth, reacted with a social explosion: the Gezi Park riots.

The protest, which began with the uprooting of trees in the park called Gezi next to Istanbul's largest square for the construction of a shopping mall, quickly turned into a popular uprising. Riots and demonstrations broke out across Turkey, keeping the entire country on edge for several weeks. In the end, Erdogan renounced the construction of the shopping center, but there would remain a society polarized by identity politics: the conservative identity on one side and the democrats and secularists on the other, as their opposition. Thus, the cards were redistributed in the polarization that has characterized Turkish politics over the past decade.

As Erdogan was in the process of consolidating his power, he faced an obstacle: the Kurds. To neutralize the Kurdish opposition, he initiated a resolution process. A climate of peace emerged in the country as the Kurds were granted their rights and talks had begun with imprisoned former leader Abdullah Ocalan to get the PKK to drop its weapons.

From the beginning of its rule, the AKP was supported by an Islamic religious order, the Gulen movement. The Gulen movement provided the AKP with its own trained human resources and economic means to consolidate its power. In return, it prepped its own people for important positions in the army and the judiciary. However, when the old establishment faded away, the AKP and the Gulen order were left behind, at war with each other. Corruption operations carried out by Gulen-affiliated judicial officials and bureaucrats rocked the society. As such, the Gulen order entered the opposition ranks.

In 2014, when President Abdullah Gul's presidential term expired, a political operation was launched within the AKP. Prime Minister Erdogan resigned from his position as party chairman to run for president, leaving the party in the hands of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The same year saw the first presidential election held by popular vote, where Erdogan won in the first round. The candidate of the joint opposition was a failure.