Is AKP revolution devouring its own children too?

Is AKP revolution devouring its own children too?

It is the fate of all revolutions to devour their own children as they clear obstacles from the path. If you consider the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) time in power to be a “democratic revolution through votes,” (or the “AK revolution” as the official party line goes), you may conclude that history has started to repeat itself within the AK Parti.

When the AK Parti was established in 2001, there were 70 names among its founders - though the public did not know much about most of them. Almost all the most popular names were from the Islamist tradition - former members of the Welfare Party (RP) led by Necmettin Erbakan but closed by the Constitutional Court in 1998 - while a few others were from other right-wing and conservative parties. The 70 names included seasoned politicians like Cemil Çiçek, Bülent Arınç, Abdullah Gül, Mehmet Ali Şahin, Abdüllatif Şener, and Hüseyin Çelik, all of whom are now familiar to the public from parliamentary politics. There were also leading names from the state bureaucracy, like retired ambassador Yaşar Yakış, who was not even an Islamist or conservative, but rather a staunch democrat, which helped contribute to the image inside and outside Turkey that the AK Parti was something new and refreshing. Yakış went on to become the first AK Parti foreign minister after the party won power in 2002 election. 

Of course, another founder was the rising star of the Turkish Islamist/conservative wing, Tayyip Erdoğan, a former mayor of Istanbul who had spent time in jail for reading a poem with religious sentiments during an election campaign. Erdoğan was the key figure in the AK Parti’s leading triumvirate, which also consisted of Gül and Arınç.

All three demonstrated exemplary teamwork while fighting the decades-old barriers of the Kemalist and secular establishment, reaching the point where the AK Parti became the dominant party of Turkish politics. In that fight they also had a strong ally: Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamist ideologue living in the U.S. Gülen had many sympathizers in the education sector, the security bureaucracy, and the judiciary, and they were well-placed to put in years of patient effort to help the AK Parti clear the path. Part of this clearance involved Prime Minister Erdoğan himself putting forward Gül as the AK Parti’s first candidate for the presidency in 2007, at a time when Arınç was serving as parliament speaker. 

Still, the harmonious photo had already started to fade slightly by the time founding member Şener was pushed out silently in 2007, due to differences of opinion especially in economic and financial matters. Nobody paid much attention to the divides until debate started on whether Gül should use his constitutional right to stand again as a presidential candidate in 2014. When that was being discussed, a major conflict had recently broken out between the AK Parti and Gülen, after a group of apparently Gülen-affiliated prosecutors, judges and security officials opened corruption probes against ministers, party members and even family members of Erdoğan at the end of 2013. In the end, Gül gradually and silently withdrew from active politics after Erdoğan made it clear that he now wanted to oversee a systemic change in Turkey, from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system. 

Once Erdoğan hand-picked Ahmet Davutoğlu (a very close aide but not among the AK Parti’s founding members) to succeed him in the party and the government (after Erdoğan was elected president in August 2014), Arınç started to find himself pushed away from the party’s inner circle. He was not included in the candidate lists in the 2015 elections and was thus left out of parliament. Yakış was similarly left out of parliament, and was also sent to the AK Parti’s disciplinary committee for expulsion from the party – reportedly over his continued social contacts with Gülenist circles.

Today, after he contradicted Erdoğan in a recent TV interview regarding the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, which has returned to intense clashes since last summer, Arınç has been subjected to a harsh campaign in the pro-government media. After backing up Arınç through a Twitter message, Çelik has also been relieved of his duties.

There is nothing extraordinary in any of this if one assumes that history repeats itself. Now it is the AK Parti’s turn. At least in this case as yet there is no bloodshed or exile, only forced retirement from the party; for the figures involved it is not the end of the world.