AKP and the Evolution of a New Brand of Populism in Turkish Politics

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Authors: Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal and Dr.Nanda Kishor*

The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has had several impacts on Turkish politics and Turkey’s foreign policy outlook. The political situation in Turkey today is largely dominated by the AKP. The recent conversion of UNESCO world heritage site Hagia Sophia into a mosque was one of the election promises made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His decision indicates AKP’s appeal to the people and the populism it resorts to with an assertion of religious pride and nationalism.

AKP’s initial rise in Turkish politics should be observed in conjunction with the context in which it came to prominence. The 2001 economic crisis of Turkey is recorded as one of the worst economic crises the country faced ever since World War II. Throughout the 1990’s Turkish economy largely relied upon foreign investments for economic growth. Since the government was already facing budget deficits it lacked the financial means to address the crisis. The political instability that was prevalent in the 1990s in Turkey became another factor for many foreign investors to reconsider their investment plans in Turkey. 

Several foreign business enterprises also withdrew billions of dollars during this period and it reflected in the dramatic plunging of the Turkish economy. However, the existing government pushed for several neoliberal policies that also opened the doors for privatization. Turkish economy faced serious challenges concerning its fragile banking sector and poor macroeconomic performance. This also largely led to the currency crisis. The country faced economic turmoil however some of the structural economic reforms and a successful debt-swap helped the country recover and improve investor confidence.

After the collapse of the fragile alliances, a new party came into prominence which changed the political landscape of Turkey significantly. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 with Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Prime Minister of the country. The election reflected a clear discontentment and dissatisfaction of people for the traditional political parties. The newly formed government absorbed the direction set by the predecessor and accentuated its efforts in further transforming the economy with neoliberal measures. The government also privatized state-owned enterprises and became more assertive in implementing these measures amid political oppositions and criticisms. The economy grew rapidly during 2003-2007 however the 2008 global economic crisis slowed down the growth. A year later the country showed positive signs of economic growth although in the later years the economic crisis and the corruption allegations did cause severe discontentment towards the government.

Some of the researches have shown that AKP voters are relatively less educated than the Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters. The traditional voter base of AKP also relies much on the lower-middle-class of the society whose income levels are just below the national average. AKP also receives a critical share of votes from people who identify themselves as religious conservatives. Evaluating the recent trends, it is clear that Erdogan is more conservative in terms of religious traditions and societal norms and values whereas liberal in economic measures which the AKP inherited to an extent from the early 2000 economic reforms in Turkey.

What AKP under the leadership of Erdogan also has managed to do overtime isto create a social assistance system that has received significant popularity among economically weaker sections. One of the most popular slogans from Erdogan’s election campaigns rightly captures the perception AKP has built around Erdogan. ‘Milletin Adamı Erdoğan’ (People’s Man Erdogan) resonates with the larger aspirations of the party to project Erdogan as the leader of the common people. However, there is much pressure on Erdogan now with rising unemployment rates and new challenges from his own traditional voter base. The reaction to incidents like protests post-Soma mine disaster indicates Erdogan’s intolerance towards dissent. Crackdown on protests and dissent has become a severe concern as the government now is vying for more control over social networking websites and apps as well.

The conditions for the rise of a populist leader remain conducive in contemporary Turkish politics. With high levels of unemployment, poverty, and religious conservatism– some populist appeal still can attract certain sections of Turkish society. With the foreign policy adventures of Erdogan and his with his strong anti-Israel stance he has also managed to garner wider popularity in the Muslim world. Hence, despite Erdogan’s decrease in vote share over several elections, the Milletin Adamı remains very popular not just in Turkey but among several Muslim societies across the Middle East and South Asia.

The democratic backsliding witnessed specifically in AKP and in the state as such may not sustain for a long time. The concept of Laiklik (Secularism) which served Turkey for a long time being sidelined will further push it to be branded as a religious fundamentalist state and an autocratic one worldwide. Unlike the understanding of AKP that existed till 2013 along with the Gülen Movement with a friendly approach towards the Western Powers, Erdogan has taken anti-Western move by playing to the gallery of Islamist groups such as Naqshbendi, İsmailağa, and Menzil. His policies were not impressive enough to steer through the economic and political challenges in 2019. CHP managed to win the elections in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu is seen as a serious threat to Erdoğan. Apart from these, 2019 September also saw defection within AKP by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan and their followers. This is precisely the reason why Erdogan thinks religion as a soft power that has the strength to cement his hard power.

The foreign policy challenges to Erdogan are manifold. Turkey’s role in Syria and Libya has been challenged in the region. Failure of any of these would give teeth for the opposition to further challenge him. His blackmailing of the European Union on the refugee issue may not work in the long run. After locking horns with the United States for over ten months, there seems to be some temporary respite with Erdogan and Trump both making certain amendments to their behavior. However, at the backdrop of the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the US expressed its “disappointment” in its statement. With respect to the situation in Libya, the US sees a faceoff between Turkey and Russia as Turkey supports the Fayez al-Sarraj government whereas Russia backs Khalifa Haftar with weapons. Egypt is gearing up for a showdown with its partners and allies against Turkey in the Mediterranean and warming up ties with Iran and Qatar may not help Turkey economically.

AKP faces serious economic challenges amid the coronavirus pandemic. While Turkey is now entangled in the conflict in Libya and AKP faces dissent within the party, Erdogan has taken refuge in religion once again and aspires to get the support from the conservative Muslim factions in Turkey and the Muslim societies in the larger Islamic world. The populism he and his party are resorting to indicate elements of an authoritarian regime. This can also cater to the arguments put up by scholars pointing out that political Islam often exhibits a high incidence of authoritarianism. Turkey was seen as a light in leading the Middle East reform movements after World War I. However, in recent years, that credibility is being destroyed brick by brick by Erdogan’s populism. The idea of using religion to ‘control’, ‘eliminate’, and ‘subjugate’ the society is leading to ideological hegemony that would threaten the very foundations of the modern Turkish republic envisaged by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

*Dr.Nanda Kishor is an Associate Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. His area of experience and expertise lies in the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia. 

Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal
Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal
Nadeem Ahmed Moonakal is a Dr. TMA Pai fellow and Doctoral candidate at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India. He is a former South Asia and Middle East analyst at Jane’s and a former researcher at Centre for Arab West Understanding, Cairo

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