Islamists, neo-liberals or authoritarians: Who are the elusive AKP?

By Darja Irdam

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on the cover of the Time magazine in 2011, the Western audience had been hearing about him for a while. What attracted most attention was his successful economic policies, his quest to reduce smoking and testosterone-fuelled fight with Shimon Peres over the Israeli-Palestinian question. He also was more successful than any of his predecessors in moving Turkey towards EU membership, even though that does not say much; this was not least by rebutting European fears of Turkish membership equaling hordes of impoverished Anatolian peasants suddenly being inside the Schengen border. But until the end of May, the West cared very little about Mr. Erdoğan’s behavior at home. The last month of popular protests and Mr. Erdoğan’s handling of them changed that. But what do we know about the prime minister and his mysterious party – the AKP?

Erdogan and Peres. Copyright:  AP photo/Keystone/Alessandro Della Bella

Erdogan and Peres – uneasy allies.

The AKP was formed by Mr. Erdoğan in 2001, after he was released from prison where he served a sentence for “anti-constitutional activities” carried out as a member of the  radical Islamist Refah, or Welfare, Party, itself a successor to several banned Islamic parties. As in other persecuted political movements, jail time gave Mr. Erdoğan some of the political credibility he needed with the most conservative political actors before leading them towards the more moderated policies necessary to align with centrist voters. The centre-right party he created immediately enjoyed remarkable succes. Already by 2002, the AKP won a majority of the vote, and formed its first government. Since then, the AKP has won every national election.

One of the keys to the AKP’s success is that from the very beginning it managed to pool influential people from a number of parties with different political orientations. Since politics in Turkey is incredibly focused on individuals even by the standards of contemporary professional politics, this was instrumental in addressing all of the different segments of the electorate that have since voted for the AKP. This segmentation again leads to a surprisingly mixed set of policies in different spheres:

In foreign policy, the AKP follows a pro-Western and a pro-EU course. At the same time they have been successful in maintaining a strong pro-Middle East agenda. The AKP tries to claim a very special role among its Muslim neighbors. Playing of conservative Muslim family values, the AKP tries to position Turkey not as a father of the Middle East, but rather as a favorite elder son: the guardian of tradition who bows down to religious leaders, but also secures the family interests in the world. The aim is to use Turkey’s good relationship with the West, to be the only guarantor of Muslim interests and diplomatic advocacy in the EU and the US.

Thus, the AKP pays great attention to regional cooperation and especially supports the poorer Middle Eastern and central Asian countries. To consolidate its success, the AKP has been trying to ensure the dissemination of its basic philosophy abroad. Thus, the AKP has been active in promoting Islamic religious knowledge and an “Islamic way of thinking” both regionally and globally, mostly targeting countries with major Turkish migrant populations. This has been important especially in securing the support of the most obvious segment of the AKP electorate, rural working-class voters, who like their counterparts in the West are generally conservatively minded. Being a major emigrant nation, targeting a foreign audience also makes sense: family networks are strong, and if émigrés come to see the AKP as a defender of their interests abroad, chances are that their families will reward the party at the polls.

The economic policy of the AKP is especially impressive when compared to the non-existent economic policies of the main opposition parties, the Kemalist CHP and the nationalist MHP. As opposed to the those two, the AKP has a modern and pragmatic approach to economic policy.

Whereas the opposition parties make grandiose, but empty claims like “We want to make Turkey competitive on the global market” (as the MHP likes to say), the AKP gets into the nitty-gritty of infrastructure, trade, research and investment. When, at times, it seems like the opposition have very little interest in how to actually improve the economy, the AKP provides tangible and often detailed solutions. The AKP seems to be the only comprehensive pro-business party among the heavy-weights of Turkish politics. This explains the second most important part of the AKP’s electorate – urban and rural entrepreneurs and leading Anatolian businesses.

A veiled elite - the first families of Turkey

The veiled first families of Turkey exemplifying decorum.

This alliance of business and conservative voters also generates paradoxes. For example, the AKP often talks about promoting female entrepreneurship, while at the same time, the official party website groups women-related issues with its policies for the disabled. Some years ago, the AKP was promoting fertility among the population of 70 million, by advising every family in the AKP electorate to have at least three children. As if this was not enough, last year the AKP officially declared that three kids is no longer sufficient, and instead every family should have five. Needless to say, same-sex families are completely out of the question in the family policies of the party. This is a clear indicator of how the party perceives the role of women in a country where there is almost no public financial support for children, only very restrictive maternal leave policies and women are still legally discriminated against in divorce legislation.

While no surprise to the Turkish reader, it might come as a novelty to the international audience that the AKP has been leading an ambiguous discourse on the role of religion in public affairs. On the one hand, they deny any claims of “Islamism” and AKP officials try hard to maintain their ‘mildly religious’, democratic image. On the other hand, the same officials often exalt the virtues of religion for AKP policy-making. Mr. Erdoğan himself argues that a compromise between Islam and secularism is unthinkable: according to the Prime Minister, those two forces create opposing magnetic fields and hence, cannot coexist. In a tribute to the most conservative voters, Mr. Erdoğan also publicly announced that authority does not rest with the people of Turkey; instead, state power “without doubt or exceptions belongs to God”. When it comes to humanism and his approach to his own electorate, Mr. Erdoğan describes his ideology in another powerful (if slightly cryptic) statement: “he loves the creations for them being created by the Creator”. If there has been any doubt in the West, the half of Turkish population who does not vote for the AKP is not in doubt that the AKP is determined to bring religion back, with a vengeance.

In other words, there seems to be no way around the fact that Islamic social conservatism is the very raison d’être of the AKP. Where the party is really different from its banned ancestors is in its professionalism and political pragmatism. Practically all of the ruling members of the AKP are married to veiled women and their daughters also wear the veil. In the Turkish context, this serves as a clear indicator of religious traditionalism, a symbol that is easily decipherable by any Turk. The ideological influence of the religious philosopher Fetullah Gülen on the AKP elite works the same way. Mr. Gülen, an exile in the US, is often perceived as a progressive Muslim thinker in the West, but like Mr. Erdoğan, seen very differently by Turks. The philosophical teachings of Mr. Gülen emphasize the danger of committing any of the cardinal sins, which include leaving prayers uncompleted, consuming alcohol, claiming the equality of men and women, gambling and women not covering their hair with a veil. ‘The other half’ of Turkish women, at least, are not in doubt: should Messrs. Gülen and Erdoğan continue their political winning streak, Turkey will soon no longer be a free country for them.

That seems to be a likely outcome, however, taking into account the party’s ambitiousness and professionalism, its ability to address surprisingly conflicting segments of the electorate, its international promotion of religious paradigms through education and its strong reliance on rather conservative schools of Islamic thought. The AKP was an instant success, a real people’s party led by a charismatic leader and a supporter of the public moral. The question that remains is whether the AKP is democratic enough to continue thriving in the 21st century, especially now that Turkish protesters see their anger met with sympathy in the international community? The next few years will show.

Darja Irdam is Darja Irdamcurrently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also  worked and studied for several years in Istanbul and Izmir.


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