Erdoğan’s dilemma on the AKP’s anniversary

Erdoğan’s dilemma on the AKP’s anniversary

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) celebrates its 16th anniversary in Ankara today, Aug. 14.

I was there when the party was founded by former Istanbul mayor Tayyip Erdoğan as an offspring of the Islamic-conservative Milli Görüş movement led by Necmettin Erbakan.

One of the men among the party founders particularly drew my attention. As a political journalist, I already knew most of the faces of the founders. I had known Abdullah Gül for many years as Erbakan’s foreign policy voice and I knew Bülent Arınç as a stubborn lawyer and parliamentary spokesperson. I also knew Hüseyin Çelik, who joined the AK Parti from the center-right True Part Party (DYP), and seasoned diplomat Yaşar Yakış. 

But I did not know the young man with a shy smile on his face, Ali Babacan, who was announced as being the AK Parti member responsible for economic policy. I remember thinking that none of the parties in the fragile three-party coalition trying to cope with a heavy economic crisis had such young people in their executive bodies.

Voters showed boldly in the November 2002 election that they had no confidence left in any of the five parties at parliament. They opted to elect the newly founded AK Parti as the government, with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as the opposition, (after the latter was punished and left out of parliament in the 1999 election).

Babacan became treasury minister and continued the ambitious financial program of Kemal Derviş, an international economist who was invited to Turkey by the previous government to save the country from the economic crisis. It worked.

The success of the AK Parti was in its difference from Erbakan’s line, particularly related in two main points:

1) For traditional Islamic movements in Turkey, the market economy was evil. But the AK Parti vowed to integrate Turkey more deeply in the market economy, both domestically and internationally.

2) For traditional Islamic movements in Turkey, the European Union was a “Christian club.” But Erdoğan vowed to do everything possible for EU membership, which he said would be good for the economy and for democracy, providing a shield against the political enthusiasm of secularists in the military and the judiciary.

That motivation enabled the AK Parti to complete nine constitutional amendments and three fundamental code changes within the framework of EU harmonization in 2003-2004, without the need to go to a referendum, thanks to the cooperation of the CHP in parliament.

As a journalist observing parliament’s general assembly back then, it was striking to see how the AK Parti rows were almost all dark-haired and the CHP rows were almost all gray or white-haired. Clearly, the AK Parti represented a younger generation of politicians. Women remained heavily underrepresented, though in number there were more on the AK Parti list.

Today, the outlook is quite different. It is true that a younger generation is coming and more women are on the lists of both parties, as well as on the list of the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). But there is a reason why Erdoğan has recently been complaining about “professional deformation” in his party among those who have “served in executive positions for too long.”

In fact, most of the key figures present at the establishment of the AK Parti are no longer in influential positions; indeed, some are no longer even in the party. For example, Yakış was expelled from the party as a columnist in – the now shuttered - Zaman newspaper, which was a voice of the now-illegal network of U.S.-resident Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who is accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt. Back in 2002-2012, Gülen was among Erdoğan’s closest allies against the secularist establishment. This alliance turned out to be Erdoğan’s biggest mistake, for which he has asked for forgiveness from voters.

Arınç, as the second name behind Erdoğan in the founding triumvirate, is now also out of the picture after serving as parliamentary speaker and deputy prime minister. The third of the triumvirate, Gül, is half-willingly retired from politics after serving as president.

Babacan has been out of the picture for a couple of years now, after his authority on the economy was curbed by politicians who wanted more populist policies that could be turned into votes.

Once the AK Parti’s alliance with Gülen started breaking down in 2012, Turkey’s economic and democratic situation started to deteriorate, mainly due to the expansion of energy on internal fights. Erdoğan started to be accused of shifting into an authoritarian mode – particularly with the effect of Turkish policy regarding the Syria civil war - and fewer investments started to pour in. A dialogue process in pursuit of a political solution to the Kurdish problem collapsed and the democratic picture deteriorated further due to the state of emergency declared after the 2016 military coup attempt. 

Under that state of emergency Erdoğan called a referendum with the help of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), in order to bestow the presidency with executive powers. The “yes” side prevailed by a narrow margin in the April 2017 referendum, despite objections from the CHP opposition, and Erdoğan is now the head of state and the head of the AK Parti.

But as a result of the same referendum, Erdoğan needs 50 percent plus 1 vote to get re-elected in 2019 and also to keep the AK Parti’s domination of parliament. In a recent speech, he recalled that in 2002 the AK Parti managed to get power with only 34 percent of the votes, but neither that nor the 49.5 percent won in the November 2015 would be enough to get power any more.

In foreign policy and the economy, Erdoğan has so far managed to cope with the situation by changing the tone of his rhetoric but largely staying in line with Western policies. 

There are a number of examples of this. For instance, Erdoğan continues to accuse Germany of trying to undermine Ankara, but has correctly accepted a NATO formula for a visit of German MPs to the NATO base in Konya. He also calls on all Muslims to visit Jerusalem in support of the Haram al-Sharif against the Israeli government’s measures, but by doing so he also promotes tourism from Turkey to Israel. The Foreign Ministry has slammed the U.S. over statements pointing at al-Qaeda activities in Syria near the Turkish border, but the government has also closed the border gate due to increased al-Qaeda activity on the Syrian side. Most recently, on Aug. 13 Erdoğan inaugurated a production plant in Turkey of Coca-Cola, which had previously been denounced by Islamists as a “Zionist brand.” 

If this pattern persists, the government’s recent flirtation with the Russians on S-400 defense systems may well end up in a strategic deal being struck for American or European systems.

However, maneuvering in diplomacy and investments is one thing, attracting votes is something else entirely. That is proving a difficult job, as Erdoğan says he is trying to “cleanse” the party of unwanted elements on the one hand while also trying to increase its votes on the other.

On the 16th anniversary of his AK Party, that is the task that Erdoğan finds himself engaged in.