The Justice and Development Party in Turkey Menderes Cinar

The results of the November 3, 2002 general elections marks a potential turning point in Turkish politics, not just because only two of the eighteen competing parties managed to pass the 10% national threshold, but also because a recently established party with Islamist roots, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won a landslide victory. The AKP, founded as an offspring of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) on August 14, 2001, obtained 34.2% of the votes cast and 363 of the 550-seats in the parliament, while the center-left Republican Peoples Party (CHP) won 178 seats for its 19.4% of votes.

Both the AKP’s disproportionate victory and the failure of other political parties that ran the country in the last 15 years to pass the threshold are taken as evidence of a political earthquake that caused a major realignment of Turkey’s political landscape. In fact, the election produced the first two-party parliament since the beginning of the multi-party politics in 1946 and the first single-party government in the last 15 years. At first sight, this new configuration seems to eradicate what is usually believed to be the root cause of instability in Turkish politics, inefficient and ineffective coalition governments. It also provides an opportunity to rebuild the eroding political center around the AKP.

Yet, since the fundamental factor in attaining political legitimacy is to be accepted by the state elite, which holds a monopoly over the definition of such key issues as secularism and the nature of national identity, winning a decisive election victory does not necessarily mean more stable politics in Turkey. In this respect, the AKP’s Islamist pedigree and untested nature render it suspicious and create the risk of increased tutelage over politics by Turkey’s military-led secularist establishment, which ousted the Islamist RP-led coalition government in 1997.

The November 3 political earthquake cannot be understood without taking into account the prior top-down redesign of the political landscape since the removal of the RP-led coalition in 1997. The aftermath of that intervention was built on the assumption that with the establishment of the RP-led coalition government, Islamism had become a fundamental threat to the secular republic and that civilian politics had created a fertile ground for the spread of Islamism by diluting the principle of secularism since the beginning of competitive politics in 1946. Ultimately, the process was about making politics subservient to the security needs of the republic defined by the military only.

This attempt to redesign the political sphere has led to, what Umit Cizre called, “politics of inertia”, in which existing political parties do not even pretend to provide an outlet for the demands and hopes of society and politics cannot renew itself by even changing the incumbent government in the face of a major economic crisis. Thus, the so-called political earthquake on November 3 was anticipated because the electorate was highly disillusioned with the indifference of existing parties to societal problems.

By being new and reformist, the AKP has provided a channel for the impoverished Turkish people to vent their anger on the existing political class. Ever since its inception, the AKP denied being an Islamist party and employed a moderate and non-religious discourse that emphasizes the importance of consensus seeking. In its election campaign, the AKP claimed that the root cause of poverty is rampant corruption and mismanagement of the rulers. It presented itself as an honest party concerned only with the well-being of people and promised to eradicate corruption to ensure the efficient and effective utilization of the country’s rich resources so that economic development and social welfare can be achieved. The AKP had a pro-market, pro-EU agenda which abstained from direct reference to issues relating specifically to the rights and liberties of Islamic identity in Turkey. Thus, its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared that the ban on wearing headscarves at universities is not their first priority, while indirectly referring to it as “hindrance to education” that should be removed.

Although emerging from the remains of an ousted and intimidated Islamism, the AKP differs from the RP in a number of aspects. First of all, the AKP is not as hierarchical and leader-centered as the RP was. Secondly, the most important distinguishing feature of the RP was, paradoxically, its Kemalist outlook, which is basically an anti-political grammar that asserts the primacy of culture in development/modernization and that sees society as a homogenous entity and as an object of government only.

Thirdly, the RP defined the Westernizing elite/mentality as Turkey’s basic problem, for it prevented the people’s moral development, which was the prerequisite of economic development and democracy, and proposed the replacement of this elite with the more pious cadres. As such, Turkey’s problems were essentially one of government personnel and not the non-pluralist form of Kemalist state-society relationship. The RP picked out the secularist substance of the Kemalist state-society relationship as its focus of challenge. Moreover, the RP claimed that it alone represents the true essence and will of the society, which it defined as Muslim nation. Consequently, the RP seemed to be willing to utilize the Kemalist legal-political framework, which was instituted to enforce a Western life-style by the republican regime, to switch the secular bias of a non-pluralist state-society relationship to one that was Islamic. The RP’s failure to acknowledge the plural nature of society led to an exclusionary and polarizing political style. The RP government clashed not only with the secular state or secularist establishment but also with the large sections of the society as well, weakening its own legitimacy in the meantime.

Unlike the Felicity Party (SP), the other successor of the RP, the AKP seems to have drawn the conclusion that it is not only the state or the international context, but also the plurality of life-styles and beliefs in contemporary Turkey that deter an Islamist politics/agenda. This does not mean that the AKP does not problematize modernization as a culture shift to Western civilization. But, it does so, primarily by focusing on the institutions, instead of the secular values they uphold. In other words, while the RP downplayed the undemocratic nature of state society relationship by concentrating on its secularist substance, the AKP primarily emphasizes the institutional set up of Turkish politics and problematizes the top-down or “bureaucratic-statist” structures.

What kind of modernity does the AKP support? The party defines modernity as the development of the adaptive capabilities of society in a rapidly changing world. Hence, it aims at releasing the society from the strict control of the Turkish state by adopting free market liberalism and reducing the domains of state control. The AKP rationalizes its argument for “small state” as a “technical” necessity required by the ongoing globalization process, which shapes the societal institutions and political relations in such a way that consensus rather than conflict and civil societal participation rather than imposition from above become the rule of the game. In the process, the state also recedes back from its traditional dominions of control so as to leave a large sphere of discretion and initiative for the society. Contrary to the third wordlist and isolationist political tendencies that have been developing in the last five years, the AKP believes that isolation from these trends could lead to the devastation of the country.

While not fully endorsing the existing political structures, it is not true to say that the AKP has come up with an alternative public morality or vision of a pluralistic society. The more the AKP distances itself from Islamism of the RP and from the existing political system, the less it takes a political/ideological posture. In other words, the AKP advances its criticisms and reform proposals as technical necessities of adjusting to a changing world. Hence, the AKP de-emphasizes ideology as belonging to the cold war era of a bi-polar world.

Presentation of a reformist outlook as necessitated by the globalization process assists the neo-liberal discourse in dismissing ideologies as redundant. There is, however, another reason for the AKP’s de-emphasis on ideology that springs from the peculiarities of Turkish politics. Historically speaking, political alternatives on thorny issues have often been charged by the state elite with being separatist or reactionary threats to the republican regime. In such a context, the most secure way of presenting reformist policies is to portray them as technical/non-ideological necessities to adapt to a changing world as part of an ongoing Westernization program.

The AKP’s de-emphasis on ideology and lack of a public philosophy are both reflected in its self-definition as a non-ideological party acting as a “transmission belt” carrying the demands of people into the political arena. Such a definition, naturally, makes it a duty of AKP to take up the headscarf issue when the time is ripe. Nevertheless, the simplistic definition of the political parties as functionaries making the state function in accordance with the will and wish of people in itself does not exclude an authoritarian rule, if the people wished.

Regardless of its inadequacies and deficiencies, the AKP’s seems to stand for a fundamental transformation of the state-society relationship in Turkey. This is especially true if “releasing Turkish society from both the authoritarian political structures and the stifling ideological dogmas of Kemalist modernity” is essential for a truly modernized Turkey.[i]

The AKP’s emphasis on consensus seeking and the supremacy of national will is noteworthy as well. One might think that this approach is just to allay suspicions of the secularist establishment. However, history tells us that downplaying the importance of consensus seeking has played a fundamental role in weakening the legitimacy of civilian politics and stabilizing the military’s tutelage over politics. Then, an opposite political style may strengthen the legitimacy of the elected governments and break civilian politics free from the military’s tutelage. The AKP’s own approach will not be conclusive in this respect, because the cooperation of the other political actors in strengthening civilian politics is essential.

Seventy days of the AKP government is too short a time to make a conclusive assessment. Yet, one distinguishing feature of the period has been the power struggle between the AKP government and Turkey’s secularist establishment, with which the opposition party, the CHP, is as always allied. This secularist community has maintained its pre-election suspicion and charged the AKP with being Islamist both explicitly and implicitly. Declarations made by the leading figures of various institutions such as the top echelons of the judiciary, the CHP, the military, the Higher Education Council and the President of the Republic have drawn attention to the protection of secularism as a fundamental principle of the republic. In the final analysis, the secularist establishment’s distrust of the elected government in terms of its allegiance to secular republic aims to immobilize the AKP government or restrict its jurisdiction. If this trend of intimidation continues, the AKP’s political identity/character and Turkey’s political development may suffer.

Does the secularist establishment use the Islamist pedigree of the AKP as a pretext to maintain its conservative grip on politics? The AKP’s declared intentions to enact a more liberal constitution, reform higher education to make universities more autonomous, change Turkey’s traditional stance on Cyprus issue and its impressive campaign in almost all EU-member states to get a date in the EU’s Copenhagen summit of December 2002 for the start of Turkey’s accession negotiations, can all be considered as demonstrations of its reformist stance. In terms of issues relating to Islamic identity, since elected the AKP has taken a few symbolic initiatives such as preparing an amnesty bill for the students expelled from universities for wearing headscarf. But when faced with criticism, it withdrew the bill by re-emphasizing the importance of consensus seeking. This does not mean that the AKP will not take up this issue later. This is so, because, although symbolic, these issues are important political issues for the party’s conservative constituency. They have also democracatic connotations for the non-Islamist liberal sectors of society, because Turkey’s rigid practice of secularism, which conceives the relationship between Islam and secularism in zero-sum terms, is mostly maintained at the expense of democracy and pluralism.

In all its deeds, the AKP has taken a non-confrontational and consensus seeking attitude, aiming at co-operation with the opposition party, the CHP, the civil societal organizations, and the military. Erdogan has often declared “politics to be an art of solving problems, but not creating them” to decrease the tension generated by the distrust of the secular establishment.

In terms of its economic policies, the AKP has to fulfill the IMF-imposed fiscal discipline, while trying to relieve the economic hardship of Turks through some salary and pension payment increases. The government also wants to amend certain laws enacted as part of the implementation of the IMF designed plan. In doing so it aims to correct, for example, the bias in granting construction contracts for big construction companies so that a better distribution of wealth can be achieved. Given the fact the support base of the AKP includes small and medium sized companies, such a policy can also be considered as an attempt to distribute the public funds through patronage. It seems the AKP government is trying to reconcile the conflicting requirements of the IMF criteria and the improvement of the economic conditions of the people by finding alternative revenue sources in an extensive privatization program, in careful use public funds and in fight against corruption.

All in all, as opposed to the immobility of the former governments, there is at least some political dynamism springing from the AKP’s intention to change the status quo and demonstrate some performance. Apart from a few symbolic gestures, the AKP’s policies have not been determined by “Islamist” intentions. Yet, on the basis of the Islamist identity attributed to the AKP, the secularist establishment in Turkey accuses the AKP government in an essentialist manner of intending to alter the secular foundations of the republic. In this context the question is whether the charges of Islamism made against the AKP is a pretext or reality.

[i] Dietrich Jung and Wolfango Piccoli, Turkey at the Crossroads, (London; Zed Books, 2001), p.209.