The AKP’s rise to become Turkey’s pre-eminent political party must be seen in a context of decades of enforced secularism, statist policies, nationalist militarism and unstable party politics. Whereas Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) astutely assessed and respected the geopolitical interests of the great powers when establishing Turkey, he also imposed his vision of socio-political order on the diverse territories and people that became Turkey within these great power constraints. This included the view that religious practices, especially religious influences in the public domain, constituted a brake on progress while a strong central state was key to accelerating Turkey’s modernisation. Being a military officer himself, he moreover made sure that a nationalist military would safeguard the Turkish state’s pro-Western and secular ideological orientation, as well as its national unity in terms of territory and identity. This formula proved effective in establishing and developing the Turkish state in its initial period, arguably even into the 1980s. Yet it also suppressed strong currents of Islamism and anti-Western sentiments in Turkish society, not to mention alternative identities such as the Kurds and Alevis. A strong central state dominated by the military and with a fixed nationalist, secular and pro-Western outlook also did not leave much space for competitive party politics and true popular representation.
In a sense, the AKP’s electoral rise in 2002 can be regarded as the point at which suppressed undercurrents positioned themselves with increasing forcefulness against decades of secularism, militarism and statism. The AKP initially packaged its ideology in a moderate, pragmatic and broad political platform that was attractive to entrepreneurs, the rural poor and Kurds. It appears, however, that from the start the authoritarian and statist features of the past were already grafted onto its majoritarian understanding of democracy – inspired by Muslim Brotherhood ideology. And so, paradoxically, by 2018 the AKP has reproduced some of the elements it militated against in 2002, such as a fusion between political and economic interests, a strong central state and an exclusive nationalist project. This is not to argue that all was planned in a grand master-strategy, but rather that past dependencies have played a greater role in the AKP’s development than might be generally appreciated.
The AKP was formed in 2001 by Islamic activists who freed themselves from the ‘clutches of Islamic ideology to appeal to larger groups of the electorate’. More precisely, the AKP replaced the ‘Islamism’ of the Milli Görüş Hareketi (National Vision Movement) variety with ‘conservative democracy’. This enabled the AKP to attract Islamist, right-wing and liberal voters and to pass muster with Turkey’s military. In a sense then, the AKP created a makeshift bridge between ‘Islamism, democracy and nationalism’. Its initial pragmatism, belief in open markets and attractiveness to millions of conservative Turkish Muslims brought the AKP significant electoral success in 2002 and 2007.
After coming to power, the AKP launched a diverse bundle of reformist, liberal and pro-poor policies that catered for different social groups. This represented a refreshing change from the state’s habit of prioritising and dictating collective interests to the masses. Erdoğan, the new Prime Minister, framed the Kurdish question as Turkey’s long-standing internal problem that needed to be resolved in ways other than through forced assimilation. He started enacting structural reforms, such as further democratisation, strengthening civilian oversight over the security forces, revisiting Turkey’s security paradigm and improving human rights. Whether he ever intended to really address the core demands of Turkey’s Kurds has been a matter for debate, but the years of negotiations with both political and militant Kurdish representatives indicate some seriousness. It should also be noted that desecuritising the Kurdish problem through political negotiations helped APK efforts to reduce the military’s role in the country’s governance. Today this is hardly necessary as the AKP has established firm control over the Turkish military, especially following several rounds of Gülenist purges that took place after the 2016 attempted coup (see below).
During its first term (2002–2007), the AKP also achieved considerable success in uplifting a moribund Turkish economy by bringing down the inflation rate to c. 9 per cent and by generating an annual economic growth rate of 7–10 per cent. On the back of a series of reforms towards liberal democracy, including AKP peace overtures towards Turkey’s Kurds, negotiations for European Union (EU) membership started in 2005. As a result of these developments, the US came to see the ‘AKP’s Turkey’ as a ‘beacon of democracy in the Muslim World’.
However, between the next two elections (in 2007 and 2015) the initial honeymoon period between the AKP and important segments of Turkish society and between Turkey and its Western partners progressively wore off. The 2007 elections saw the AKP winning 46.5 per cent of the vote, increasing its electoral support base by c. 12 per cent. This landslide emboldened the AKP to seek ‘ideological hegemony’ over the Turkish political landscape, together with its Gülenist allies (more below). To do so, they used their strong grassroots base, growing presence in the state apparatus and sizeable educational/social service delivery footprint. However, by 2015 the AKP stood once more at the crossroads of success and failure due to a deepening split with its erstwhile Gülenist allies, anti-Kurdish policies and electoral losses. In response, it employed street fighter survival strategies in a naked competition for political power that triggered the 2016 coup attempt, but also assured increasing AKP capture of the state, a change of the Turkish constitution in the party´s favour (and president), and yet another electoral victory in June 2018.
The shifts in the AKP’s politics and policies from 2002-2010 (‘regional economic cooperation’) to 2011-2015 (‘Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Sunni sectarianism’) and 2015 to 2018 (‘anti-Kurdish militarism´, can be explained by a mix of at least four key push and pull factors that are illustrated in Figure 1 and further analysed below. The figure also highlights the broad corresponding shift in Turkish foreign policy. Initially, the AKP was consolidating and testing its rule, as well as catering to its broad support base in a tangible manner via pro-business and pro-poor policies. This produced a largely ‘status quo’ foreign policy, which contained many previous aspects and was mostly predictable. In the following periods, after overcoming key consolidation challenges – mostly related to the Turkish military – the AKP grew more confident. Yet, it also faced serious new domestic challenges from the Gülenist movement and the Kurds, while at the same time becoming more and more a vehicle dominated by one man – Erdoğan. This resulted in a more issue-specific, sometimes revisionist, foreign policy with less connective tissue and hence less predictability – but more scope for abrupt turnabouts. It included both strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood and armed Sunni groups throughout the Middle East, as well as a harsh anti-Kurdish dimension after 2015.
On the push side, there was first the lingering conflict between the AKP’s Islamist vision for Turkish society and firmly entrenched secular notions of ‘Kemalism’ (modernization, secularism and Westernisation) – supported by the deep state. This conflict became more intense after 2007, in large part due to the party’s growing power. It was progressively settled in favour of the AKP and its ally at the time – the Gülenist movement – by deploying a mix of nationalist-conservative rhetoric, astute use of those parts of the state machinery the AKP/Gülenist movement controlled, political shows of strength, and judicial recourse or intimidation. Two key examples are the judicial proceedings against the Turkish military’s top brass – the Ergenekon trial (2008–2013) and the Sledgehammer trial (2010–2015) – which significantly reduced the military’s ability to supervise and intervene in the country’s politics. Irrespective of the judicial merits and demerits of these proceedings, it is vital to see them as political turning points in the process of Turkish state formation – away from the military and towards greater representative as well as populist politics. More or less in parallel, the AKP et al. also managed to gradually neutralise and then capture the Turkish judiciary as the last secular bulwark of the Kemalist state. As far as push factors go, this development ensured that the AKP came to dominate the strategic heights of the Turkish state as the pre-eminent political party by about 2010/11. In terms of foreign policy, an effect of this push factor was that it created more space for the AKP to pursue its own preferences, with less influence from the Turkish military.
However, without the support of the Gülenist movement, AKP may never have achieved such dominance (see Box 1). It was their partnership that proved essential in simultaneously achieving representative political power through the ballot box (playing to AKP strengths) and penetrating the institutions of the Turkish state through recruitment and promotion (playing to Gülenist strengths). It was this core alliance that slowly unravelled from about 2010 onwards, providing another push factor. In fact, the AKP-Gülenist victory over the Kemalist secular state fast-tracked the re-emergence of their differences, which have their basis in the different types of organisation they are. Whereas the AKP is a national political party with governing responsibilities and overt international Islamic ambitions based on a mix of Turkey’s Ottoman past and a Muslim Brotherhood-inspired ideology, the Gülenists are a transnational, moderate Islamist movement with global educational, financial and media networks that exercise covert influence based on a low political profile.
Hence, the AKP’s more statist approach after 2007, its centralisation of power without wishing to share it, its growing criticism of the EU, and its more vocal foreign policy were anathema to the Gülenist movement. The AKP’s overtures to Turkey’s Kurds added another rift in view of the preference of the Gülenist movement for Kurdish assimilation over Kurdish autonomy. A protracted clash ensued in which the AKP gained the upper hand without, however, achieving complete victory yet. As far as push factors go, this development ensured that between 2010 and 2018 the AKP and Gülenist movement duopoly over the Turkish state gradually turned into a monopoly. In terms of foreign policy, an effect of this push factor was that it created scope for pursuing a more narrowly-constructed national interest approach as the transnational interests of the Gülenist movement had previously made this more difficult.
The Gülen movement grew into Turkey’s largest and most effective religion-based social movement in the 1980s and1990s by staying out of politics and providing essential services to large groups of Turks through its social, financial, media and educational networks. While it tapped a similar groundswell of support as the AKP – conservative and rural Islam – its ideological worldview emphasised religious tolerance, education and social mobility while opposing the use of Islam for political purposes.
While the AKP pursued a strategy of direct political contestation and the Gülenist movement one of grassroots-based socio-religious activism, these fundamentally different approaches proved both highly complementary and very effective in their joint struggle with the military-dominated Kemalist state. Once their common objective had been realised, tensions between the AKP and Gülenist movement grew in 2010/11 (e.g. the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 and the Oslo leaks in 2011), escalating into a naked fight for power over the direction of the Turkish state that continues today. Examples of AKP-Gülenist clashes in the active phase of this struggle include:
The 2012 arrest of Hakan Fidan (head of Turkish national intelligence) by Turkish (allegedly Gülenist) police. Mr. Fidan was engaged in Turkish-Kurdish peace negotiations at the time and the objective of the arrest appears to have been to foil the talks.
The 2013/14 Gülenist-inspired police probe into Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman suspected of secretly smuggling gold for oil from Turkey to Iran (under international sanctions) with the help of Turkish state-owned Halkbank. The probe led to the detention of the sons of three AKP Cabinet Members, the CEO of Halkbank and a number of construction tycoons. It also triggered prosecution in US courts.
The dismissal and/or relocation of c. 40,000 civil servants, judges and police officers in 2013/14 – on orders of Prime Minister Erdoğan – that were involved in the Zarrab-investigation and on the allegation that they were part of a Gülenist parallel state.
The 2014 AKP-sponsored legislation to close the educational network of private schools in Turkey that were dominated by the Gülenist movement and from which it derived substantial revenue, recruits and influence.
Source: Tol (2014), op.cit.; El-Kazaz (2015), op.cit.; Kandil (2016), op.cit.; Taş (2017), op.cit.; The Guardian (accessed 12 April 2018).
On the pull side, there was the AKP’s Muslim Brotherhood-inspired majoritarian understanding of democracy that is more inclined to see democratic practice as a reflection of ruthless party-political competition with a winner-takes-all result, rather than a system of governance underpinned by the rule of law, basic human rights, a free press and a level playing field for political competition. Against this background simmers the unresolved tension between Islam and democracy in the sense that Islam as a religion has clear political interests and aspirations as to how society should be governed which are at odds with some of the outcomes a democracy can produce. Although the AKP was founded as a conservative democratic party, the party has been incrementally promoting Islamist practices in everyday life and this has gradually seeped through its internal and external policies – especially after the party consolidated its position in 2007. Western countries have tended to attribute the AKP’s authoritarian practices mostly to Islamist ideology from the perspective that the politicisation of Islam is ‘inherently incompatible with much of the Western world’. In terms of foreign policy, an effect of this pull factor was a greater focus on the Middle East, greater hostility towards Israel (although the economic relationship was never truly disrupted) and growing antagonism towards the EU.
The 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul were illustrative of the AKP’s understanding of majoritarian rule. After the government authorised the construction of a shopping mall resembling Ottoman-era barracks, social unrest and demonstrations erupted and lasted for 15 long days. These were suppressed in a heavy-handed fashion and protestors were painted as criminals, provocateurs and traitors. The mall was ultimately not built, but it did put the AKP’s intolerance for dissent, discussion and compromise on full display.
Also on the pull side was the extensive tacit legacy of authoritarianism and nationalism that permeates the Turkish state. While this topic has not benefited from extensive research, decades of suppression of political manifestations of religion and anti-Western sentiments through illiberal democratic rule have left a legacy in the form of a strong central state and a nationalist-authoritarian discourse that provided the mould into which the AKP stepped and that proved too inviting and too compelling to discontinue. In fact, the AKP has been quick to recognise the usefulness of past nationalist and authoritarian practices as effective ways to maintain popular and political support, either by using them to suppress dissent or to frame itself as defender of the nation. President Erdoğan used the latter tactic to good effect on 18 March 2018 by turning the defeat of the British and French navies against the Ottoman Empire in the straits of Çanakkale into a national celebration of Turkish military heroism on a par with the recent ‘liberation’ of Afrin. Moreover, one could argue that the AKP has taken this legacy of authoritarianism to new heights by enshrining an executive presidency into the Turkish constitution. In terms of foreign policy, an effect of this pull factor has been to enable an almost regal approach – dominated by President Erdoğan – with mercurial edges. In addition, this pull factor enabled a renewed emphasis on the use of military assets in Turkish foreign policy, especially in northern Syria and northern Iraq, but also by constructing a Turkish military base in Qatar and in the form of purchase(s) of advanced Russian weapon systems.
The June 2015 general elections cost the AKP 9 per cent of its electoral support as well as its absolute majority in Parliament. The party lost most seats to parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum: to the left-wing Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, mostly Kurdish-oriented) on the one hand, and to the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (MHP, ultra-nationalist) on the other. This development can be understood in part through the AKP’s rift with the Gülenist movement, which eroded its core support base; in part through the collapse of the AKP’s formal peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) between 2006 and 2011 (‘the Oslo talks’) and the inherent electoral contradiction of the peace process; and in part through other factors such as the declining space for civic/political activism. The ultra-nationalists naturally opposed peace negotiations, while the Kurds had high expectations of constitutional reform that the Turkish government could not meet. Although the levels of violence between the Turkish armed forces and PKK were negligible between 2013 and 2015, it rapidly became evident that the AKP was unable to deliver the liberal and autonomous solution the Kurds envisaged. When the Turkish government also refrained from helping the Kurds in Iraq and Syria during their fight against Islamic State (IS), Turkey’s Kurds turned away from the AKP. Meanwhile, the HDP entered Parliament with 12.5 per cent of the vote.
As the combination of the ‘Gülenist rift’ and the HDP’s electoral success threatened both AKP party political dominance and Prime Minister’s Erdoğan’s plans for an executive presidency, AKP discourse and tactics shifted rapidly. The peace process ended with a securitised narrative about national union and with hard-line measures aimed at regaining the right-wing vote. Fighting even resumed inside major Turkish-Kurdish cities, which was followed by the arrest of the HDP politicians on charges of incitement of terrorism. It was largely through such shifts that the AKP managed to regain its parliamentary majority in November 2015. Since then, the AKP leadership has persisted in its anti-Kurdish rhetoric, which culminated in its invasion of Afrin (Syria).
The coup attempt by elements of the Turkish military in July 2016 can be regarded as the proverbial crossroads where many of the developments discussed above intersected. Blamed on both the Gülenist movement and the military, it allowed the AKP to make the case for a further centralisation of the Turkish state – naturally with itself in charge – based on a strong nationalist-religious-conservative ideology and the person of President Erdoğan. He himself defined the coup attempt as a ‘gift from the God’ to pacify or punish those parts of society not (yet) loyal to the AKP. With this aim in mind, the government declared a state of emergency and suspended the European Convention of Human Rights to enable a massive crackdown on the Gülenist movement, social democrats, Kemalists, Kurds and ‘Atlanticists’ alike. Nearly 160,000 people were arrested and 152,000 civil servants dismissed. The 2017 referendum that turned Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential system represents the institutional conclusion of this process for now.
On balance, this analysis supports the view that the AKP has led Turkish society from a liberal and market-oriented beginning – with aspirations to be regional peacemaker and regional economic soft power – into a more nationalist, conservative and illiberal period under a mix of internal pressures (e.g. its fight with the Kemalist state and its split with the Gülenist movement) and opportunities (e.g. its 2007 and 2015 electoral victories, the 2016 coup d’état, and the undiminished popularity of President Erdoğan).