AKP: Neither conservative, nor not conservative

AKP: Neither conservative, nor not conservative

Last Thursday during a TV interview with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, columnist Mehmet Barlas posed a question which revived the debate on conservatism. Barlas told Erdoğan: “You are not conservative because conservatives are pro-status quo and you have broken many taboos.” Erdoğan insisted that they are conservative since they defend the preservation of traditional values in Turkey.

Later Radikal columnist Koray Çalışkan defined conservatism differently, saying conservatives are not against change, but only against its speed. Hence, he agued, the AKP is not conservative since it makes reforms very quickly. The situation is as complicated as it seems. The AKP is both conservative and not.

The shortest and simplest definition of conservatism is as follows: It is a political and social philosophy which promotes retaining the order and institutions of the state. Yet, the AKP, to the contrary, has challenged the state ideology, integrated marginalized segments of the society into the political system, enacted many reforms on rights and freedoms, eroded the predominant status of the political, economic, social and bureaucratic cadres of the state, created its own elites and transformed Turkey’s state-centric political ideology. In short, during this process often dubbed a “silent revolution,” the AKP has transformed the state mechanism.

In economic terms, the AKP has pursued policies to promote a liberal free market economy and supported privatization, foreign investment, private enterprise and the integration of the Turkish economy with the world economy. These policies all comply with the definition of conservatism. Yet, the party’s welfare state policies are out of tune. Free healthcare services, free education, a rising schooling rate, free distribution of school books; these are all elements of a social welfare system. And this cocktail of liberal-social state policies excludes the party of conservatism.

Culturally and socially, however, the AKP is conservative by all means. It defends the preservation of traditions, religion, society and family. Its restictive attitude on abortion, use of alcohol and homosexuality, Erdoğan’s stance against mixed-gender student housing and his recent categorization of “legitimate” and “illegitimate lifestyles” are all manifestations of the party’s traditional-conservative mentality.

Blending all these different tendencies, the AKP is neither conservative, nor not conservative. It is only “socially/culturally conservative.” Conservative parties and leaders which similarly blend different trends are being given unique titles. For example former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, former American Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt defined themselves as “progressive conservatives.” While supporting capitalism, they stressed the importance of government regulation in the interests of all citizens. Again, current British Prime Minister David Cameron ascribes himself to “liberal conservatism” which combines the free-market economy with the importance of religion and traditional morality. The AKP definitely falls into this category.

The time has come to give this Turkish conservatism a unique brand name.