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Root causes and consequences of the AKP’s victory

31 July 2007

The landslide victory of Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (<i>Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi </i>or<i> </i>“AKP”)<i> </i>marks a unique moment in Turkish history: a ruling party has hardly ever been re-elected. At 47 percent, their success is even more impressive and to the detriment of all other parties. This win gives Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his team a huge popular mandate to continue. The key reasons behind the AKP’s victory are analysed here and help form my forecasts of possible scenarios and policy options for the mid-term. My analysis is based entirely on open Turkish sources.
<p style="TEXT-ALIGN: justify" class="MsoNormal"><b>A) Root Causes<br /></b><br />As usual success has many fathers, yet the party’s performance over the past two years has not been so brilliant as to justify this outcome. The AKP was merely muddling through Turkey’s still impressive problems, preferring to defer and delay difficult decisions, such as the Kurdish issue. It did, however, implement many of the reforms as required by the EU. Hence, one can say the motor for reforms was the EU and not the party. Lastly, the first signs of unrest, cracks and fissures within the ranks of the AKP were evident in the run-up to the elections. And yet the party did so well. The following points analyse the possible reasons why.</p>
<blockquote><p style="TEXT-ALIGN: justify"><i>(1)&nbsp; The military’s memorandum<br /></i>It goes without saying the Military Memorandum of 27 April 2007[1] is one of the main reasons for the AKP’s success in these elections. The memorandum turned out to be a gross miscalculation by the General Staff, because Erdoğan has always done best as a politician when under pressure. The memorandum also made the party a victim of the military in the eyes of many, especially amongst the Kurds and in the eyes of the Western press. Even liberal-minded secularists were prepared to cast their vote in favour of the AKP in order, as a matter of principle, to check the military’s power. Equally important was the effect of the memorandum in forcing AKP leadership to act immediately and to take greater initiative, such as calling early elections. Thus the party appeared decisive and capable of resisting intimidation and was able to deploy its well-oiled and highly-efficient party machinery.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p></blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(2)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>The party machine<br /></i>The AKP has a highly-motivated and hard-working cadres, including highly-effective women’s branches throughout the country. Many of them can call upon more than a decade of valuable party work within the AKP and its predecessor parties like <i>Fazilet</i> and <i>Refah</i>. Most of them are ordinary people living in modest quarters of the big cities and in medium-sized towns. They are thus ideally placed to handle the social dynamics and informal networks within their respective environments. This strong base is underpinned by AKP-dominated local administrations. The AKP’s core historic strength is its reputation for efficient communal government and delivery on its promises in less favoured quarters. Hence the AKP’s ranks of party workers are clearly visible where the votes are.<br /><br />Over the last decade, the AKP has also climbed up the social ladder, achieving peer-level speaking terms across all echelons of society. The party’s leadership was even able to recruit to party membership people who are far from their own normal core electorate, among them many from long-established liberal and social democratic elite groups.</blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(3)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>The core electorate: members of the Islamic movement and modern conservatives</i> <br /><br />AKP is often referred to being a ‘party with Islamist roots’ or having an ‘Islamist’ past. At the bottom line, this assessment is correct. All leading figures of the party originate in networks that either directly embraced political Islam as an ideology, like the <i>Milli Görüş </i>mass movement, or were engaged in traditional, conservative networks that were highly politicised (Erdoğan for instance belongs to the famous <i>Nakşibandi</i> group). These networks, and the media and economic interests related to them plus some Islamic intellectuals, can legitimately be dubbed as ‘the Islamic Movement.’ Their membership numbers are very high. The <i>Fethullahçis</i> and <i>Nurcus</i>, for example, are estimated to comprise more than a million members each. <br /><br />Until now, only two politicians were able to rally the full support of this Islamic movement. Turgut Özal and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The fact that the party leadership could unite the Islamic networks and rally their support explains why the AKP could sideline its Islamic competitor, the <i>Saadet</i> <i>Partisi</i>. Yet even if one stretches the interpretation of the Islamic movement to its limits, all in all it would hardly ever have been able to muster more than 15 percent of the total electorate. <br /><br />This said, one has to add another element to the core electorate of the AKP, namely the Islamic-orientated middle class that has emerged over the past decade in tandem with the political success of the AKP and its predecessors. Admittedly, overlapping interests between the Islamic Movement and the Islamic middle class are many. Yet this socially conservative, but economically liberal and incredibly successful, class has become an important player in its own right. It must now be regarded as the second pillar of the AKP’s core electorate.</blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(4)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>The ‘homeless non-Islamists’<br /><br /></i>For all other groups in society that do not subscribe to the ideological hardline positions promoted by the main opposition party CHP and the ultra-nationalist MHP, the AKP now offers a much more attractive option. This holds true for the modern, newly-emerging secular middle class that takes a middle position between the Kemalists and the Islamic Middle class. For them, the economic programme and the party’s pragmatism on a wide range of non-Islamic issues has proven most attractive. To these one has to add the traditional constituencies of the mainstream right parties, namely the ANAP and DYP (now DP) that lost to the AKP. Of marginal importance as far as the electoral results are concerned, but of a highly symbolic significance, is the fact that almost all Turkish non-Muslims voted for the AKP, which is generally viewed to be more forthcoming on issues like religious foundations and community education than any other party in the country.</blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(5)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>The AKP’s opponents</i> <br /><br />In my introduction, I noted that the AKP had done nothing sufficiently outstanding to justify such impressive results. On the other hand, its opponents made so many mistakes and miscalculations that the AKP easily sidelined them. The failure of the moderate right to unite both parties, something that would have had allowed them legitimately to claim the heritage of the old <i>Demokrat Partisi</i> of the 1950s and combine it with the pragmatic and modern Özal record, is also remarkable. The AKP was therefore left with the chance to claim the rightful inheritance of these two important political conservative traditions and become the only moderate right-wing party. <br /><br />The CHP did only slightly better. It remains the main opposition party and the only left-wing party in parliament (perhaps in the country). However, the last elections are its third serious defeat (after 2002, and the 2004 local elections) and the party is still unable to assess its shortcomings. Contrary to its propaganda, the CHP no longer has any connection whatsoever to the former shantytowns, where they were once so strong and where, in the end, the election’s outcome was decided. Strangely enough, the party clings to a party leader who is reputed to be one of the most despised personalities in Turkey. Some local analysts have concluded his personality drove potential CHP voters to cast their votes in favour of the MHP. <br /><br />Be that as it may be, the CHP’s campaign was doomed because nobody bought its main argument that the AKP would undermine the country’s secular nature. Additionally, there was an element of self-delusion prevailing among the CHP cadres, which believed its own propaganda and saw the mass demonstrations as evidence of the emergence of a large secularist and anti-AKP backlash. <br /><br />Last but not least amongst key reasons for the AKP’s win, we note the Kurdish DTP’s success in sending 24 deputies to Ankara. Closer scrutiny of the results, however, reveals that it too lost— even dramatically—to the AKP in some districts. Part of the explanation may lay in the fact that some voters understood that Kurdish nationalists must now walk a fine line between the illegal PKK on one hand and their freshly gained status as deputies on the other. But many voters simply may have decided that a vote for the AKP—which has many Kurdish members in leading positions—would not be a lost vote. After all, the DTP may one day be chased out from parliament as has happened in the past. Still, as the Turkish media speculates, the Kurdish population’s desire for peaceful economic development and without a resurgence of terrorism have in all likelihood played a significant role in this outcome. <br /><br />Finally, the DTP made mistakes and displayed poor judgment at many turns. One of its strongholds, Bingöl, for example returned a 71 percent result in favour of the AKP. One reason for this particular success was linguistic; the DTP addressed the Kurdish population in Kurmandji, instead of the locally spoken Zaza. A similar <i>faux pas</i> occurred in Bitlis.&nbsp; </blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(6)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>Economy, governance</i> <br /><br />But the most convincing argument to vote in favour of the AKP was, of course, the strength felt from the recovering economy. Turks credit the AKP for the recent boom in the pro-entrepreneur attitude and commitment to economic liberalisation. Unlike other recent governments, the AKP’s <i>laissez-faire </i>approach coupled with its strategic investments in public housing, roads and infrastructure, and, of course, its social transfers, impressed the Turkish electorate. Besides, the party governs the country reasonably well apart from occasional cases of misconduct. The economy and good governance, plus the fact that the party did not make any serious mistakes during the campaign, are likely to be the most compelling reasons for the party’s success. </blockquote>
<p style="TEXT-ALIGN: justify" class="MsoNormal"><br /><b>B) Consequences and prospects<br /><br /></b>The reasons why the last general elections were called in the first place should be kept in mind: it was the standoff between the AKP and the military over the election of Abdullah Gül to the Turkish presidency. I will return to this point later in this report.</p>
<blockquote><i>(1)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>For the military and the 1982 framework<br /><br /></i>In this context, any strengthening of the AKP is tantamount to a weakening of the military’s position in society. In the 27 April Memorandum, one could sense already that the military had lost much of its former influence. Normally the population would have displayed a certain apprehension in response to a military memorandum expressing political caution. Hence, some papers declared that the outcome of the elections had been a responding memorandum to the military. At the least, the outcome clearly signaled that the military should stay out of politics, which is counsel they will be unwilling to accept. This in turn marks the end of the 1982 political and constitutional framework under which it has been assumed that the President would always be a retired general or at least a staunch Kemalist hailing from the bureaucracy. Therefore, with the AKP strengthened by popular mandate and the military still unwilling to accept anyone with roots in political Islam as president, the country is back in square one. The standoff continues.&nbsp; </blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(2)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>For the political parties<br /><br /></i>The parties opposing the AKP face a series of important challenges. To begin with, it is likely that the moderate right will be “swallowed” by the AKP for a long time to come. The leadership of both parties—ANAP and DP—are demoralised and so are their respective rank and file. Assuming that the AKP does not commit any outrageous acts before the next elections, the chances of these two groups being able to woo voters away from the AKP look rather dim. <br /><br />The CHP will continue to play the role of main opposition party. If the CHP wants to regain its strength, it must address its main shortcomings, which are 1) the lack of contact or connection across the broader population and 2) the question of its current leadership. However, there are no apparent signs of a change in attitude and it is expected the party will continue to muddle along in much the same way as it has since 2002. Moreover, its recent unification with the DSP has not survived the elections; the DSP’s deputies will withdraw from the CHP and form an independent parliamentary grouping. <br /><br />While the MHP fared well in the elections, its success was less than expected. It will therefore enter the parliamentary opposition. Nationalist rhetoric aside, it is expected that it will certainly be ready—when asked—to lend its support to the AKP in exchange for trade-offs. The same applies for the Kurdish nationalists of the DTP; they too did well overall but suffered key losses, possibly marking a trend away from the DTP. Therefore, the party needs to come up with more grass-roots issues. It will also be interesting to see how the MHP and DTP deputies get along personally or whether ideology will lead to a poisonous climate between them. If so, parliamentary tensions could spill over into violent street confrontations amongst supporters. <br /><br />In any case, we must conclude that the AKP will continue to dominate Turkish politics and have sufficient power to change the Turkish constitution. If so, it will be obliged to muster support from other parties, of which the most obvious ones would be the DTP and MHP. In this scenario, the AKP could ignore the CHP. The first test case will be the presidential elections. </blockquote>
<blockquote><i>(3)<span style="FONT-SIZE: 7pt">&nbsp; </span>Presidential elections<br /><br /></i>The confrontation between the AKP and the military was only deferred by the elections and resumes now. With the general elections won, the AKP must decide how to proceed in the run-up towards the presidential elections. The only question here is whether the party would support Abdullah Gül again or choose to promote another candidate who would be less provocative in the eyes of the military.<br /><br />In the wake of such an impressive success, it is easy to understand that the party feels sufficiently confident to promote Abdullah Gül again. All the more so when the enthusiastic support of party members for his candidacy is taken into account. Gül’s first statements go in this direction. However, the most likely scenario would be that Gül waits until parliament convenes to establish contact with the DTP and MHP members of parliament first, although, in purely arithmetic terms, support from the independents would suffice. Gül will certainly try to avoid creating the impression that his claim to the presidency is in any way owed to the Kurdish nationalists. And only when he is absolutely sure that there will be enough support (the newly established threshold of 367 votes) for him, would he publicly declare his candidacy, and then be elected as president.<br /><br />A critical question is whether a constitutional referendum to establish a popular election of the president is needed in the eyes of the AKP or if the existing parliamentary election mandate will suffice, as Abdullah Gül’s selection seems likely under either scenario. Gül is, nonetheless, the candidate the army preferred to block but whose candidacy it could not prevent. Even worse, as seen from their perspective, the military has already played all of its cards and will be unable to do anything else against Gül becoming president. Unless, of course, the military were to stage a <i>coup</i> or otherwise intimidate the AKP leadership. Such a scenario seems highly unlikely at present. Nonetheless, any protracted fight between the AKP and the military would lead to stalemate and much politicking <i>vis-à-vis</i>, again, the constitutional court. In this situation a long and unnecessary political crisis would be certain. <br /><br />The renewed candidacy of Gül would serve to confirm the worries of those who question the AKP’s ultimate motives. As president, he would be responsible for promotions and appointments within the highest echelons of the armed forces and it is feared that Gül would install individuals far less fierce in their defence of Kemalism than the incumbent generals. It would be too easy to ignore this suspicion. A decade ago it was said in circles around Erdoğan that the objective was to get hold of the Higher Military Council, the very body that promotes and supervises vetting of the higher military echelons. Accordingly, it may be argued that should such a transformation occur the AKP would indeed have cleverly played down its “true”—Islamist—nature during its recent quest for political dominance. <br /><br />Such a suspicion is, of course, hard to prove. Anti-Islamist hysteria aside, the lack of checks and balances in the Turkish system has impressively empowered the AKP. Should they gain the presidency, too, they would control all political institutions: parliament, government and presidency and, via the presidency, the military too.&nbsp; Its legitimacy would be the popular electoral mandate. This is guaranteed only for as long as voters are comfortable with so much power in the hands of only one party. Policy failures and scandals surrounding any corruption could loom heavily over the AKP, as with any democratically elected government. </blockquote>
<p style="TEXT-ALIGN: justify" class="MsoNormal">My conclusion, however, is that the political stage in Turkey will remain dominated by the risks inherent to the standoff between the AKP and the Army, as both sides wait for the other to blink. The risk of a prolonged political crisis remains.</p>
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[1] On the so-called e-memorandum and the following crisis in Turkey, see Walter Posch, ‘Ideology and the ongoing crisis in Turkey,’ IESUE/COPS/INF (07)04, 13 June 2007 (available on this site) and idem ‘Crisis in Turkey: Just another bump on the road to Europe?’, Occasional Paper 67, EUISS Paris June 2007.