Turkey’s ruling AKP celebrates its 18th year

(Updated)


Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrated the 18th anniversary of its founding on Wednesday, the last day of this year’s Eid al-Adha holiday.

Politicians from various conservative parties joined forces to establish the AKP in 2001, while Turkey was in the throes of economic crisis after a decade of instability under coalition governments.

The Islamist politicians who made up the backbone of the new party, including the current president and party chairman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former president Abdullah Gül, had seen their previous parties prohibited during the late 1990s under pressure from the staunchly secularist military.

Eighteen years later, Erdoğan’s rise to the top of a system of one-man rule has seen many of his peers and co-founders side-lined, a situation that has led, for the first time, to the possibility of a serious split in the ruling party.

Gül has long been touted as a possible rival to Erdoğan. This year, the former president appears to finally be making a move against the president, with numerous news reports linking him to the party that is currently being set up by another AKP stalwart, former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan.

Ahmet Davutoğlu, who served as foreign minister and then prime minister under Erdoğan’s governments, is preparing to launch another party that has the potential to draw AKP renegades.

The names of both Davutoğlu and Gül were markedly absent from the graphics released by the AKP to commemorate its 18th year.

"Brothers, yesterday is over. Today we are neither going to lament the darkness of the past nor to write epics about our successes", Erdoğan said on Wednesday in comments interpreted in Turkish press as a reference to the wavering old guard in the AKP.

"Yesterday is finished, it's passed. Today is a new day. It is the day to take new paths for our future, and for an enlightened Turkey", he said. 

 

The AKP won the 2002 national elections with a 34 percent share of the vote, but thanks to Turkey’s high electoral threshold this translated to 363 out of 550 seats in parliament, as they swept up the constituencies where they had come second to parties that had failed to break the 10 percent vote share required to enter parliament.

This allowed the AKP to form Turkey’s first single-party government since 1987, a springboard from which it carried out a series of reforms that helped cement its popularity in coming years. The AKP won every national election until 2015, when it lost its majority in June elections, only to regain it in snap elections held in November.

The party’s initial drive toward European Union accession generated enthusiasm for its reforms, with many hailing the Islamist-rooted party as a model for other Middle Eastern countries to follow. The introduction of Kurdish language broadcasts on state media outlets was a first in Turkey, signalling a softening on the Kurdish issue that eventually led to peace talks in 2013.

Yet those talks broke down in 2015, the year the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) became the first pro-Kurdish political party to break the 10 percent electoral threshold. Seeking an alliance that would preserve its rule, the AKP turned to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), an alliance that has seen the authoritarian tendencies in the ruling party deepen further.

In the early years of its rule, the party had contended with secularist opponents, who accused it of infringing on Turkey’s secular constitution, and later with the threat of its erstwhile allies in the Gülen religious movement as well as rising civil discontent with its rule.

In 2013 the Gülen movement embarked on an open power struggle with the AKP after first helping the ruling party neutralise powerful secularists in the state and security services. This is widely believed to have culminated in a failed coup attempt in 2016 that has utterly transformed the country’s political life since.

The widespread purges that followed the coup under a state of emergency have seen hundreds of thousands of public workers dismissed from their jobs and tens of thousands arrested.

The post-coup period also saw a broad crackdown on freedom of expression, with media outlets shuttered, hundreds of journalists jailed or facing charges for alleged terror links, and simple statements of protest at state defence policies punished with legal action.

At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seized the opportunity in the aftermath of the coup attempt to stage a referendum – held under the strict conditions of emergency rule – that transferred vast authorities into his hands as Turkey’s first executive president.