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Sahin Alpay, Today’s Zaman, January 19, 2015

It is true that while the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey labels itself “conservative democratic," most, if not all, of its opponents call it Islamist. That label has been used with varying qualifications. Those I have come across include “hidden, mild, soft, radical, neo- or post-” Islamist, and some fanatical opponents call it “Islamofascist.” I believe a better understanding of the AKP's character is required if analyses about it are to make sense.

 

What really is the character of the AKP? In order to respond to that question, its evolution since its founding needs to be considered. The AKP is undoubtedly a product of the more or less democratic, multi-party regime, which has, with interruptions, existed in Turkey for nearly 70 years. It takes its roots from the National Vision movement (Milli Görüş), which was led by the late Necmettin Erbakan. That movement could rightly be qualified as Islamist because it staunchly opposed integration with the European Union, advocated withdrawal from NATO, championed the unity of Muslim nations and even flirted with the idea of at least partial implementation of Shariah law the event it achieved power.

That movement has, however, gone through a transformation that began in the 1990s with the rivalry between the traditionalist and renewalist factions within the Welfare Party (RP) and continued with U-turns Erbakan made during his brief time in office as prime minister, the founding of the Virtue Party (FP) upon the closure of the RP and the banning of Erbakan from politics for 10 years.

 

At the root of this transformation lies the realization by politicians belonging to the renewalist faction in the RP that, in a country where people demanded both welfare and freedom and where the reins of power were in the hands of the Kemalist military, it was not possible to achieve power on an Islamist platform. With the founding of the AKP in 2001, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared he had “taken off the Islamist shirt,” and the party he led put forward the most liberal political and economic party program ever in the history of the Republic of Turkey.

 

Thanks to the worst financial crisis in the history of the country caused by the coalition government composed of Kemalist parties and the 10 percent threshold, the AKP was able to come to power with just 34 percent of the national vote in the elections held in 2002. In its first term in power the AKP government focused on EU-inspired reforms, pursued inclusive policies and collected 47 percent of the votes in the 2007 election.

 

During its second term, the AKP government, after defeating coup plots against it by the military and the judiciary, continued until 2010 with liberal reforms that helped consolidate its power. Upon garnering half of the votes in the election of 2011, Erdoğan concluded that he could now rule as he wished, having neutralized the Kemalist military and achieved strong backing from the people. The period of Erdoğan I came to an end, and that of Erdoğan II opened.

 

How did the transition from Erdoğan I to II take place? There are various theories. According to Kemalists, Erdoğan's assumption of arbitrary and authoritarian rule was inevitable because this was his “hidden agenda." The liberal-minded tend to explain this with the “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” syndrome. Others turn to individual-level, psychological analyses to account for the change in the nature of the AKP's policies.

There is no doubt that the AKP, like all organisms, has through the years gone through an evolution. Where the AKP finds itself now, it is very difficult to talk about an ideology that defines its character. If it is necessary to do so, it may be said that the AKP displays Kemalist colors in its authoritarianism and its intolerance for civil society, utilizes Islamic populism to boost its support base and aspires to Putinism in Erdoğan's drive for one-man, one-party rule.

 

In practical terms, what defines the AKP currently is that it is nothing more than a machine using every and all possible means to prolong the power of a political and business clique -- nothing but an opportunistic, one-man (Erdoğan) party.

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