Where does ‘success’ take Turkey and the AKP?

The hybrid nature of Turkey's political regime and the relative lack of economic and democratic stability in the Arab world explains why North African politicians regard the AKP's governance as 'successful'. The party has been presiding over Atatürk's secular country for the past 17 years after all. So what constitutes the AKP's success?

For the past decade or so, Islamist parties throughout the world have been captivated by the idea of "success". The meaning of such "success" differs from country to country. Arab Islamist parties consider success is a particular light. But from the perspective of Tunisian, Egyptian and Moroccan Islamist parties in particular, Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) epitomizes this success. According to research I am currently conducting, this affinity still prevails, despite the fact that the AKP has fallen out of grace in the West as it failed to live to expectations that it would be the long-awaited political actor that "would marry democracy and Islam". The hybrid nature of Turkey's political regime – its not-so-subtle oscillation between sheer authoritarianism and majoritarian democracy – and the relative lack of economic and democratic stability in the Arab world explains why North African politicians regard it the AKP's governance as successful. The party has been presiding over Atatürk's secular country for the past 17 years after all. So what constitutes the AKP's success?

The reason why the AKP remains a success story in the eyes of Arab Islamists has partly to do with state capture after 2001. Since its ascent to power in 2002, the AKP has managed to shape the Turkish state's internal rules by building alliances both within the state apparatus and at a societal level. That allowed it to grant vast, illicit and opaque benefits to politicians, bureaucrats, business people and members of the military and judiciary alike. Whilst forging this clientelist system, the AKP also allied itself with the EU and Turkey's prominent liberals.

I call this first stage of AKP tenure ‘the legitimization era.’ The second stage was ‘the transfer of power era,’ as it involved crucial steps like the constitutional referendum or orchestrating sham trials along with the AKP’s then biggest partner, the Gülen movement.

Now designated as a terrorist group by the Turkish government, the Gülen movement (FETÖ – the Turkish acronym for Fetullah Terror Organization) had back then operationalized its cadres within the judiciary and police force to hollow out the institutions, via high-profile court cases. For instance, one such case indicted more than 350 high-level military personnel including the former commander-in-chief. The coup attempt on 15 July 2016 was the culmination of a fight between the AKP and the Gülen movement as to who would reign the captured state. 

The third phase of the AKP’s ‘success’ begins with the coup attempt and ends with the AKP’s loss of Istanbul in the 2019 municipal elections. In this most recent phase, the AKP allied itself with the hawkish nationalist party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), and adopted a more securitized domestic and foreign policy, while the sycophantic Erdoğan/AKP entourage enjoyed their privileged - and corrupt - poise. I call this phase ‘the delusions of grandeur.’ As seen in many textbook cases of authoritarian regimes, both Erdoğan and his loyalists lost touch with reality, and as a result, the most critical asset, both financially and symbolically to their regime, the Istanbul municipality fell into the hands of the main opposition alliance’s (CHP/Republican People’s Party – HDP/People’s Democratic Party – İP/The Good Party) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

This preamble is a prologue that is crucial to understanding what is currently happening in Turkish politics. Since last week, we have been witnessing a saga that allegedly involves one CHP member discreetly approaching Erdoğan and asking for his approval to lead the CHP to replace the current leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and who claimed that ‘during these dire days, the main opposition party must be led by someone like him.’ Unsurprisingly, the day following these allegations, that appeared in a pro-CHP newspaper Sözcü [caveat: I have serious doubts about this publication’s journalistic and nowadays even with regards to its pro-CHP credentials], it swept the Turkish political scene. Who was that CHP member who sought approval from Erdoğan to make a move against current leader Kılıçdaroğlu? Did such an encounter occur, or is the whole thing a mere fabrication? What has been exchanged between Erdoğan and this CHP person? According to several statements coming from the CHP, there has indeed been such an encounter, and the person in question could be a representative of a faction within the party that is against the current leadership and its political agenda. Still, the identity of this person or answers to the aforementioned questions do not necessarily provide a perceptive analysis of what is really happening.

As the renowned author and political commentator Oya Baydar argued in her column in T24, these developments are too important to be ignored as the antics of CHP’s internal strife. Especially when coupled with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli's comments regarding Kılıçdaroğlu. "the CHP leader has become a threat to national security", he said. "Kılıçdaroğlu has swerved out of control and plotting to push Turkey off a cliff." Bahçeli, who in the past decade has proved to be the most prominent figure inimical to democratic reform or political opening in Turkey, ratcheted up the game of targeting the CHP for the sake of the AKP. Why? Because maintaining the Erdoğan regime guarantees the MHP’s existence as well as the sustainability of its cadres within the judiciary, bureaucracy, and the security forces who flourished when these positions were vacated by FETÖ members in the aftermath of the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. A quid pro quo within the AKP-MHP alliance. 

One should always consider Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy through the lens of these alliances. Both this assault against the CHP and the inordinate attempts to criminalize the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) as well as the Syrian incursion are related to the AKP’s alliance with the MHP and its strategy to vanquish an opposition alliance. Allying with the MHP is antithetical to any peace process with Turkey’s Kurds and requires an urgent plan to reduce the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The military operation in Syria also served to create a wedge between the HDP and nationalist factions within the CHP and the Good Party. Forging alliances and undermining those on the opposition lie at the heart of the AKP’s success. There is a majestic political learning process behind this strategy – which will hopefully be the subject of another column.

The loss of Istanbul, where everything about the AKP began in the late 1990s with Erdogan becoming its mayor, triggered the AKP regime’s most recent phase, that is ‘the eventualities of a two-decades-long rule.’ I reckon Turkish politics will degenerate into madness and such episodes as the one we witnessed last week will reappear in our midst. This will distract and disrupt Turkey’s political landscape. I will get back to you when I come up with a silver-lining to all of this.