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Turkey's AKP: a skilful leader and a tightening grip

Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2011-06-12

The centre-right Justice and Development (AKP) party, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, is set to win Turkish legislative elections for the third time in a row. takes a closer look at the party's rise to prominence.

When the centre-right Justice and Development (AKP) party was created in Turkey in 2001, very few analysts expected it to have staying power. But nine years later, the party is poised to win its third consecutive parliamentary election, with the latest polls predicting the AKP to take 45 percent of the vote. Indeed, Sunday’s election will likely be another political victory for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Every election in Turkey is seen as a referendum on Erdogan. “There’s no AKP without Erdogan,” said political scientist and Turkey specialist Dorothée Schmid of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). “He has all the power, and once again he has largely dominated the electoral campaign.”

Born into a poor, very religious Istanbul family, Erdogan has succeeded in becoming a key player on both the national and international political stages. Moreover, he has transformed the AKP into an example for Islamist political movements in the Arab world.

The AKP’s Islamic roots

The party was founded in 2001, borne out of the defunct Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), an Islamist political party founded by Necmettin Erbakan, who is known as the architect of Turkish-style political Islamism. In power for one year, from 1996 to 1997, the Welfare Party was dissolved in 1998 by the Turkish Constitutional Court for violating the principle of secularism. Led by Erdogan, who was then the charismatic mayor of Istanbul, leaders of the Welfare Party formed the AKP three years later.

The party sought to break with the Islamist influence of its predecessor and to cast itself as an alternative for voters looking for reforms in Turkey. At the same time, the AKP managed to retain essentially religious values, and was therefore able to strike a chord in Turkey, which is home to a large majority of Muslims but is traditionally attached to the principle of secularism.

Working-class segments of the Turkish population very quickly gravitated toward the party, as did a portion of the traditionally centre-right middle class. In 2002, one year after its creation, the AKP won legislative elections handily. One year later, Erdogan became Prime Minister.

The party’s rapid rise provoked alarm in more secular Turkish circles, as well as in the West, where political leaders feared a radicalisation of the country. “As soon as the party was created, secularists labeled it as Islamist,” Schmid explained. “The AKP took a while to get rid of that stigma.

"It succeeded in doing so only once it was able to enter into negotiations to join the European Union.” Those negotiations have not been seen through; out of 35 conditions set out in order for Turkey to join the EU, only 13 have been examined and one fulfilled.

Promoting democracy in Turkey

In the years following its rise to prominence, the AKP carried out a series of reforms which caught the opposition off guard, attracting a part of their traditional electorate and winning the legislative elections – again - in 2007. “The AKP broached all the most taboo Turkish subjects, from the Kurdish question to the Armenian genocide,” Schmid explained.

“Above all, it managed as of 2003 to put an end to the army’s incessant interference in Turkish political life, which won the AKP support from a segment of the country’s progressive intellectual community.”

“Erdogan succeeded in establishing a viable model for political Islamism,” Schmid said. As Ami Lourai, a senior official from Tunisian Islamist party Ennahdha, told French daily Libération in January: “Turks showed the way: you can be religious and open to modernity and democracy at the same time.”

The AKP also revived a Turkish economy that had been struggling at the end of the 90s. In nearly ten years, the country’s GDP tripled and Turkey’s economic growth was among the highest in the world as Western economies were weakened by the economic crisis of 2008.

Furthermore, Erdogan has made a name for himself on the international stage, standing up to the US – especially on the Iraq war – and balking at a NATO intervention in Libya.

Thanks to skillful maneuvering on the part of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has become closer to countries in the Middle East, setting itself up as a mediator between countries like Syria and Iran and Western governments. Situated at a strategic geographic and political crossroads, Turkey is an essential voice in the region.

Secularists still worried

But the AKP’s successes have not managed to ease the worries of Turkish secularists. In 2007, the presidential candidacy of the party’s second-ranking official, Abdullah Gul, set off major street protests in urban areas.

The party nevertheless won the subsequent legislation elections with 47 percent of the vote – thanks largely to strong local campaigns – and Gul was elected president one month later.

In 2008, the AKP’s proposal to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities drew ire from the opposition, which referred the matter to the Constitutional Court. The AKP was one vote away from being dissolved.

Over the course of these nine last years running Turkey, the AKP has moved the question of religion back to the forefront of Turkish politics, much to the great displeasure of the secular camp. “Religious issues surged back into the political domain. The AKP used democratic tools to gain acceptance of the social values it was promoting, which were grounded in religious conservatism and Islam as a force for order,” Dorothée Schmid said. The old secular elite, meanwhile, has bristled at “what they see as an infringement upon individual freedoms”, according to Schmid.

Pushing back at what he calls “an authoritarian secularism” that bans any sign of religious faith, Erdogan has presented himself as a pious man who does not drink or smoke.

Following this example, several municipalities governed by the AKP have toughened the criteria for providing alcohol licenses, citing public health reasons. “The question has been raised of whether the authorities have gone too far, even within the party in power,” Schmid noted. “Without a strong opposition, the prime minister seems to have been tempted by a hegemonic style of leadership.”

It may come as no surprise, therefore, that Erdogan has indicated his desire to establish a political system in which executive power would be concentrated in the hands of a president – a reform that would be feasible if the AKP gets two-thirds of parliamentary seats in Sunday’s elections.

Date created : 2011-06-12


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