Erdogan’s referendum victory confirms that the AKP tried to disguise its Islamist identity under the banner of conservative democracy all along.
The Arab Spring shook some societies to the core, precipitating their disintegration. But it was the rise of ISIS, and the ease with which it spread through Syria and Iraq, that truly laid bare the incoherence of the existing states in the Middle East. However, one can get a glimpse of this new Middle East, a chaotic one, from what President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) intend to do in Turkey.
Erdogan’s victory in a referendum on April 16 marks a new era for Turkey and the Middle East. Turkey will slide into an “illiberal constitutionalism,” which will allow Erdogan to appoint ministers, senior government officials and half the members of the country’s highest judicial body. He will also be able to issue decrees and declare emergencies. According to Erdogan and his supporters, this “Ottoman-style” political system will bring stability and economic welfare to a country divided by a failed coup in 2016 that left more than 200 people dead and 100,000 imprisoned. For his opponents – either pro-Kemalist, pro-Kurdish or simply secular democrats – this has a bad taste of dictatorship, with rights being repressed and freedoms being curbed, while the president receives powers to govern until 2029 with few checks and balances. However, if we look back, we can see that the guiding idea behind Erdogan’s winner-takes-all strategy has been multiple attempts to advance a sultanate form of constitutionalism that relies on Islamic principles.
What came to be known as “Turkish post-Islamism” after Erdogan’s victory in 2003, was actually the outcome of a long political confrontation between the secularists and Islamists in Turkey. The forceful dissolution of traditional religious orders during the 1920s – when the republic was established – led many Islamist groups to organise as underground religious communities. Despite this resurgence of radical Islamist movements by 1990s, the authoritarian conditions that strengthened radical Islamists in the late 1970s in Iran were absent in Turkey. Turkey’s Islamists failed to mobilise a broad coalition against the secular regime that had restricted public expressions of Islam. The failure was partly due to the diversity of Muslim responses to Turkish secularist modernisation.
In the pluralistic and competitive Turkish political environment, Islamists often favoured centre-right parties until the electoral victory of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party (RP) in 1995. In 1995 national parliamentary elections, the RP took 22% of the votes and in 1996, it formed a coalition government with the centre-right True Path Party. Erbakan became the prime minister. The RP originates from the National Outlook Movement, which constituted the Islamic political identity in Turkey on the basis of an opposition to the West and the Westernisation process. The political discourse of the RP was anti-liberal, anti-EU and to some extent anti-capitalist. Once in power, it tried to deviate from traditional Turkish foreign policy and tried to improve the relations with the Muslim world. The Turkish military – the fierce keeper of Kemalism’s secular-nationalist flame – saw the RP as a sign of Islamist ascendancy. In 1997, the military launched what was later called a ‘post-modern coup’, manipulating the courts and the parliamentary process to suspend Erbakan’s government. The RP was formally banned by the constitutional court in 1998.
In the meantime, the party activists had already established the Virtue Party in accordance with the National Outlook tradition in 1997, foreseeing the court’s decision. However, the military-bureaucratic establishment was also hostile towards the Virtue Party and the Supreme Court filed a claim to ban the party. These developments led to an intense internal debate within the National Outlook Movement about the movement’s future political strategy and agenda.
A growing philosophical and political rift emerged between ‘traditionalists’ centred on Erbakan and his chief lieutenant Recai Kutan, and ‘modernists/reformists’ led by Erdogan and Abdullah Gul. The reformists argued that the party had to rethink its approach to the fundamental issues of democracy, human rights and relations with the West. After the Virtue Party was formally shut down by the constitutional court in 2001, the movement also formally split. The reformists founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and the traditionalists, the Felicity Party. In the November 2002 national elections, the AKP gained a huge majority of the seats in the parliament and came to power, while the Felicity Party won only 2.5 % of the vote, short of the 10% needed for parliamentary representation. The AKP sustained its power by its success in the local elections and the national elections since 2003.
The literature on the ideology, character and the social base of the AKP has been growing, revealing its Islamist-conservative character. However, according to some analysts the AKP adopts a new Islamism under the guise of ‘conservative democracy’ which is different from the Islamism of the National Outlook Movement. This new political vantage carries it towards the centre-right of Turkish politics, embodied by the Democrat Party, Justice Party and Motherland Party. The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies (which is a very radical departure from National Outlook’s state-dominated planned economy) makes the party economically neo-liberal, but culturally and socially a ‘conservative’ party.
Just after its establishment, the AKP advanced a new political identity for the party, called “conservative democracy”. Not only the term was new to Turkish politics, but it also sounded somewhat like an oxymoron. The notion of conservative democracy has been contested ever since. However, there was a point in this expression which became clearer as time passed. It was argued in Turkish media circles that the AKP tries to disguise its Islamist identity under the banner of conservative democracy.
Today, this suspicion has proved true. We need to ask what is left of the liberal values of human rights and civil liberties proclaimed by the AKP in 2003. Time will tell if Erdogan will be able to govern with authoritarian measures, renewing violence with Kurdish militants, sending troops into Syria and straining relationships with Europe.