What lies behind the AKP’s success?by Ümit Kurt&Oğuz Alyanak*

If one aims to explain the fundamental reason behind the rise and success of Recep »»

If one aims to explain the fundamental reason behind the rise and success of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), one should be more aware of the historical context through which such change has taken place.

One should pay closer attention to the lack of a class-free system of any deliberation on class-based struggle and the prevalence of conservatism and traditionalism as elements substituting the empty morality of laicite. These two elements, coupled with transitions in the international context (e.g., neoliberal revival and the impact of globalization) contribute immensely to what can now be called a transformation of Turkish political culture. A clever alignment of these two elements paves the way for Erdoğan to decode the behavior of his Turkish constituents and orient the AKP’s rhetoric accordingly.

Change without class struggle?

As far as the Turkish context is concerned, it is pointless to speak of a continuation of a political culture constructed on class-based identities or a public space that promotes discussion of class relations. The use of the term “class formation” in Turkey is indeed more of an oxymoron than a reality. Turkey’s experience with classes has been curbed under the rubric of either an Islamic or national unity. Obvious exceptions are the 1970s when the Marxist winds of the Cold War carried ideologies, leading to the formation of different factions among the left and the right, and eventually to the coup d’état of 1980 which put an end to not only the nascent signals of a potential class-based system but also political activism as a whole, and allowed the military to monopolize power for two years.  Whereas the former, the Islamic rubric, divided society more or less on the basis of religious preferences, the latter imagined a conflict-ridden and classless society where each and every citizen acted in harmony to make the social organism, that is, the society, live and prosper. Not only was this Durkheimian narrative on social beings -- which was transmuted to Turkey by the pre-eminent ideologue of his time and the founding father of Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp -- adopted as a de facto founding principle of the Turkish Republic, but, throughout the entire span of modern Turkish history, it continued to be a principle organizing (and disciplining) Turkish society. Thus, in a society where contradictory voices were often repressed -- either through the administrative power of the government, juridical power of courts or the hard power of the army -- the ruling governments enjoyed a great space in which to maneuver and was checked and balanced only by the Constitutional Court or the army.

The role of the three institutions -- the military, judiciary and state bureaucracy (including civil-military bureaucrats) -- is worth a closer look for a very simple reason: Their intervention and impact on Turkey’s democratic experience, in the name of secularism, social order or the Kemalist legacy, has simply failed to circumvent a political party with Islamist roots claiming 47 percent of the votes in national elections and 39 percent of the votes in local elections, in 2007 and 2009, respectively. This tripartite structure, guarding the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, played an active role in suppressing previous governments with Islamist tendencies (such as the Welfare Party’s closure in 1997) and was almost successful in taking the AKP down in 2008. The referendum of 2010 came at a time when this structure was shattering, hence raising secularist fears and concerns about the implementation of the AKP’s “hidden agenda,” which would arguably lead to “bad change,” that is, change of the regime from an arguably democratic one to an Islamist one.

Furthermore, it was argued that the AKP’s victory in the constitutional referendum would undermine the power of the military and make the Turkish political system accountable to its voters and elected officials rather than to its soldiers. All these steps toward democratization manifested a fully fledged democratic transition, which enhances the role given to Turkish “political society.” This “political society” encapsulates, as prominent political scientist Alfred Stepan underlines, core institutions of a democratic political society such as political parties, elections, electoral rules, political leadership, intraparty alliances and legislature. In a nutshell, what the ramifications of this referendum have manifested are the consolidation of the aforementioned institutions of a political society rather than strengthening the appointed elites of the state. It is the instruments of the political society that are taking over the role corruptly practiced by the tripartite structure. Crystallization of “political society” transformed these institutions and agencies into subjects of political contention and paved the way toward a democratic system as the only game in (the Turkish) town.

Possibility of conservative change

At this point, we wish to start analyzing the second dynamic in effect, that is, conservatism. The current situation regarding conservatism in Turkey could best be described as an “opening of tradition” when indicators such as the following are taken into consideration: staunch support of conservative social classes to Turkey’s EU-bid, the new civil constitution initiative, democratic control of the armed forces and the civilization of the political arena. These examples would suffice to argue that in Turkey, the modernity paradigm is shifting, and the terms secular, conservative, progressive, backward Kemalist and Islamist are attaining new meanings. What secular Kemalists, who regard themselves as modernist and progressive, do not comprehend, however, is the fact that a conservative individual can act in a progressive manner and an allegedly progressive individual can, in return, act in a conservative manner. Hence, it would not be wrong to speak of Islamist progressivism and Kemalist conservatism. Both are hierarchical structuralized, and both employ tools repressing internal, dissident voices.

Moreover, this opening of tradition also brings increased visibility to economic and social spheres of public life. Conservative classes that have played a considerable role in the AKP’s rise to power are the “new-rising middle classes” of Turkey, which, in a report published in 2007 by the international organization European Stability Initiative, were also termed the “Anatolian Tigers.” These socio-economic classes literally encompass the new industrial, commercial and financial bourgeoisie in Turkey. They willingly espouse democracy by promoting active participation in civil society and defend the neo-liberal mechanism of a free market economy. Moreover, they also embrace Islamic conservative values in their lifestyle and bring further visibility of Islam to Turkish secular spaces. In doing so, they do not necessarily relinquishing their ties with modernity/modernization. However, they represent an alternative to modernity, which can at its best be considered a neo-conservative perspective vis-à-vis the mainstream secular modernity in Turkey. At this point, the AKP incarnates this modernity standpoint of these new conservative social classes.

The two dynamics this article focused on are perhaps the two most underestimated ones in discussions of Turkish politics. In fact, there is a plethora of discussion, especially on conservatism and traditionalism in Turkey. However, for the most part, the discussion of these two elements is often conducted on a superfluous level, where symptoms of social and political transformation is only linked with the conduct of one political actor and restricted to a limited time frame. In order to get a better understanding of the eight-year reign of the AKP, one must discuss it in relation to the two dynamics that color the patterns of Turkish political culture: the formation and sustenance of a class-free society and the prevalence of conservatism among all factions, including the secular Kemalist. From this perspective, the AKP’s continuous victory in consecutive elections since 2002 can be explained in terms of Erdoğan’s exceptional reading of these dynamics and his brilliant utilization of these dynamics in policy debates. This, from a rhetorical perspective, is what we can call “perennial populism” and the defining and distinguishing characteristic of the AKP and its leader.

A populist democracy?

The AKP benefits from Erdoğan’s perennial populism in terms of bolstered competence and enhanced will for policy-making. Presumably, this competence and will for policy-making in question enables the AKP to come up with convincing answers (so convincing in the eyes of the voters that it leads to landslide victories in each election) to challenging questions (e.g. Turkey’s membership in the EU, the Kurdish problem, secularization, the status of the Alevi community, etc.), thus leading to an expansion of the AKP’s political domain. What lies beneath what many academics and journalists call a democratic opening is in fact a pragmatic, and perennial populist, policy scheme.

*Ümit Kurt is an instructor in the department of political science and international relations at Zirve University. Oğuz Alyanak holds a graduate degree from University of Chicago’s department of  anthropology.