Towards domestic hegemony: Push and pull factors

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.[24] This conflict became more intense after 2007, in large part due to the party’s growing power.[25] 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.[26] 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.[27] 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).[28] 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.[29] A protracted clash ensued in which the AKP gained the upper hand without, however, achieving complete victory yet.[30] 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.

Box 1
The Gülenist movement

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.[31] 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.[32] 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’.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] 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 2015 electoral calculus and the Kurdish issue

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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] Fighting even resumed inside major Turkish-Kurdish cities, which was followed by the arrest of the HDP politicians on charges of incitement of terrorism.[41] 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).[42]

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.[43] 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.[44] Nearly 160,000 people were arrested and 152,000 civil servants dismissed.[45] The 2017 referendum that turned Turkey from a parliamentary into a presidential system represents the institutional conclusion of this process for now.[46]

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).

Cleveland, W. (2004), A history of the modern Middle East, 3rd edition, Boulder: Westview; Kandil (2016), op.cit.; Mandaville (2014), op.cit.
Mandaville (2014), op.cit.; Kaya (2016), op.cit.
Heper, M. and Aylin G. (2000), ‘The Military and the Consolidation of Democracy: The Recent Turkish Experience’, Armed Forces and Society, 26 (4), p.649.
The NVM is a religious-political movement founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1969 and is part of a much larger transnational Muslim Brotherhood network. Although Erdoğan and Gül (President of Turkey 2007–2014) used to support the NVM, they founded the AKP by renouncing NVM´s agenda.
Öktem, K. (2011), Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, London: Zed Books.
Bilici, M. (2006), ‘The Fethullah Gulen Movement and Its Politics of Strategic Representation in Turkey’, The Muslim World 96, p.4; Onis, Z. (2007), ‘Conservative Globalism at the Crossroads: The Justice and Development Party and the Thorny Path to Democratic Consolidation in Turkey’, Mediterranean Politics: 14 (1), p. 22
Tezcür, G. Murat (2016), ‘Historical and Contemporary Trends in the Turkish Political Party System’, The AKP and Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East, Middle East Centre. Vol.5, p.9.
T.C. Başbakanlık Kamu Düzeni ve Güvenliği Müsteşarlığı (2013), ‘Sessiz Devrim Türkiye’nin Demokratikleşme ve Dönüşüm Envanteri 2002-2012’, online: (accessed 18 April 2018).
Balta, E., ‘The pendulum of democracy: The AKP government and Turkey’s Kurdish conflict’, in: Kaya (2016), op.cit.
Kandil (2016), op.cit.
Keyder, Ç. (2004), ‘The Turkish Bell Jar’, New Left Review, 28, p. 84.
Close examination of several elections casts doubt on the perception that the AKP’s electoral support stems mostly from rural areas. For instance, almost 50 per cent of Turkey’s major cities like İstanbul and Ankara voted AKP in the general elections of October 2015 and in the referendum of April 2017. Moreover, AKP mayoral nominees were elected in 7 of the 10 most populated cities in Turkey’s 2014 municipal elections. Detailed election results can be found here: link (Turkish) (accessed 29 June 2018).
On the notion of hegemony: Schwarzmantel, J. (2015), Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, London: Routledge.
Anderson, P. (2009), ‘The New Old World’, New York: Verso, p.447; Kandil (2016), op.cit. Their growing presence in the police and judiciary was largely a result of efforts by the Gülenist movement.
These periods serve mostly to organise data and structure thinking. Obviously, AKP politics and policies did not change overnight in 2007, so in that sense the periods are somewhat artificial.
The ‘deep state’ refers to powerful parts of the state bureaucracy, nearly always including the security and intelligence services, that dominate much decision and policy making on the basis of their loyalty to the previous status quo and that do not necessarily obey the elected political leadership supposedly in charge of governing the state.
Mandaville (2014), op.cit.
The ambiguity of the Sledgehammer proceedings was well expressed in The Guardian (2012), online: link; also: Aydintasbas (2016), op.cit.
Taş, H. (2017), ‘A history of Turkey’s AKP-Gülen conflict’, Mediterranean Politics, online (paywall).
The term ‘Gülenist movement’ is used here for easy recognition, but it should be noted that the group calls itself a ‘service movement’ (hizmet hareketi), while the Turkish government dubs it a ‘parallel state structure’ (paralel devlet yapılanması) in its political discourse and a ‘FETO’ (Fethullahist terrorist organisation or Fethullahçı terör örgütü) in its legal indictments.
Taş (2017), op.cit.; El-Kazaz, S. (2015), The AKP and the Gülen: The end of an historic alliance, Massachusets: Brandeis University, Middle East brief no. 95.
Tol, G. (2014), The Clash of Former Allies: The AKP versus the Gulen Movement, online: link; El-Kazaz (2015), op.cit.; Jenkins, G. (2014), Falling Facades: The Gülen Movement and Turkey's Escalating Power Struggle, online: link; Aydıntaşbaş, A. (2016), The good, the bad and the Gülenists, ECFR, online: link (all accessed 8 April 2018).
Wickham, C. (2013), The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist movement, Princeton: PUP.
Rabasa, Angel and F.Stephen Larrabee, (2008), The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, Santa Monica: Rand Corporation
Roy, O. (1998), The Failure of Political Islam, Cambridge: HUP.
For example: link (accessed 8 April 2018).
Nationalism and authoritarianism make agreeable bedfellows because a nationalist worldview emphasises threats to the all-important national identity, which then often require decisive and centralised counter-action to ‘save the nation’. See for instance: Wolf, N. (2007), The end of America: Letter of warning to a young patriot, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Göksel, N. (2018), Turkey’s siege mentality, Istanbul: ICG.
Kandil (2016), op.cit.
Hakyemez, S. (2017), ‘Turkey’s Failed Peace Process with the Kurds: A Different Explanation’, Middle East Brief, No.3.
Kandil (2016), op.cit.
See for example: link or link (both accessed 9 April 2018).
The no-holds-barred framing of the PKK and YPG as terrorist organisations in a recent Foreign Policy article by Mevlut Cavusoglu is a telling indicator of the 360-degree change in the AKP’s approach of Turkey’s Kurdish question. Cavusoglu, M. (2018), The meaning of operation olive branch, online: link (accessed 9 April 2018).
See this public speech: link (accessed 20 March 2018).
Gurcan, M. and M. Giscon (2016), What is The Turkish Military’s Strategic Identity After July 2015, Istanbal: Istanbul Policy Center; Aydintasbas (2016), op.cit.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2018), Report on the impact of the State of Emergency on Human Rights in Turkey, Including an Update on South-East, Geneva: UNHCHR.
Akyol, M. (2015), ‘Is Erdoğanism a Threat to Turkey’s Islamism’, Online: link (accessed 6 March 2018).