AKP rewrites Turkey’s political playbook


This file photo shows President Gül (2nd L) and PM Erdo?an (2nd R)  with their wives celebrating the AKP's landslide victory in the 2002  general elections. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ
This file photo shows President Gül (2nd L) and PM Erdo?an (2nd R) with their wives celebrating the AKP’s landslide victory in the 2002 general elections. DAILY NEWS photo, Selahattin SÖNMEZ

In the eight years the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has held power in Turkey, it has engaged society in two ways. It sought timid consensus during its first term, which resulted in great success and a huge victory in the next general election. Since starting its second term, however, a wave of popular momentum has helped the AKP pursue decisive leadership and challenge societal taboos considered untouchable just a few years ago.
The party has tangled with the alleged “deep state,” proposed a controversial Kurdish initiative, avoided closure by the courts, won a referendum on constitutional amendments and entered frays over secularism.
Some of these fights the AKP won; others it has lost. On the key topic of removing the ban on headscarves at state-run universities and lifting parliamentary immunities, however, the ruling party has failed to make even an inch of progress.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and President Abdullah Gül formed the AKP in 2001, they agreed on two key points: that representing the public will at the highest level and achieving cohesion of the state with the people would be key to solving longstanding problems. Addressing the Kurdish issue, the headscarf issue, freedoms, human rights, obstacles facing democratization, the economy and military tutelage topped their list.
The eight years following the Nov. 3, 2002, general elections that brought the newly founded AKP to power with 34.26 percent of the vote can be divided into two periods. The first, timid period focused on internalizing power and getting to know the state and the bureaucracy, while the second, decisive period saw it begin exercising that power.
In the first period, the AKP was unable to take serious steps, barring a few timid moves on human rights and other issues to fulfill promises it had made before the elections. Instead, the party focused on the economy and foreign policy, setting aside for the time being the headscarf and Kurdish issues and conflicts between religion and secularism, democracy and freedoms. In fact, it adopted state policies on the Kurdish question, which had been dealt with since the 1980s solely as a fight against terror. Aside from a few minor steps here and there, the AKP was not effective until 2005, ignoring the headscarf issue, for example, until the 2007 general elections, when it gained 47 percent of the votes.
When leading party figures were asked when the headscarf issue would be prioritized, they answered, “When the time is right.” The AKP did not take a stand against the traditional statist anti-headscarf approach. Unlike its predecessor, the Necmettin Erbakan-led Welfare Party, or RP, it did not nominate any headscarf-wearing women to Parliament. Parliament Speaker Bülent Ar?nç, Erdo?an and then-Foreign Minister Gül did not attend any reception or official gathering in the company of their wives, all of whom wear the Islamic headscarf. They followed the rules.
In its first five years, the AKP created an impression of a political party trying to move toward the center, trying to shed the image of a “conservative Islamic party” born out of the National View. As its members gained experience in how to run state mechanisms, the party appeared in harmony with the system and highlighted consensus approaches. It challenged the military in only the smallest of ways, such as by making annotations to Supreme Military Council, or YA?, decisions and did not make any move to deal with coup attempts. Faced with negative reactions from the Turkish public and the European Union, the AKP even shelved a bill that would have made adultery a crime.
The first period of the ruling party was disappointing for its traditional base, but the AKP took what it learned during this era and used the experience to draw grassroots applause in its second period.
The second period: Fights with official theses
The AKP’s second period began as soon as President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s tenure expired, but in many ways it actually goes back to the May 17, 2006, Council of State attack. The perpetrator was initially believed to be an Islamic extremist, but the case was later linked to the alleged Eregenkon gang, the ongoing investigation that has been one of the hallmarks of the AKP’s second period.
When Gül’s selection as president the following year was challenged by the military, the AKP called for early elections and won a decisive 47 percent of the votes in the July 2007 polls. The victory bolstered Gül’s bid and he was subsequently made president, bringing a man whose wife wears a headscarf to the Presidential Office for the first time. The AKP also managed to pass a constitutional amendment to take future presidential elections to a popular vote. All the while, secular circles continued to argue that the AKP had a hidden agenda and was preparing for a showdown, claiming, for example, that the ruling party was using the Ergenekon investigation to smother dissent.
On March 14, 2008, the AKP faced a closure case, the first against a ruling party in the history of Turkish politics. Abdurrahman Yalç?nkaya, the chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, filed a lawsuit against the party, accusing it of being a center of anti-secular activities and demanding that it be closed and that Erdo?an and 70 of his associates be banned from politics. The AKP reacted fiercely against the closure case and though it was found guilty of anti-secular activities, it was not shut down.
It was time to do what was necessary to satisfy the 47 percent of the public that had voted for it in the 2007 election. The Kurdish initiative, constitutional reforms and the headscarf issue all needed addressing, and the AKP put its hands on some of the previously taboo “third rails” of politics, meeting with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, or DTP, to try to find solutions to the Kurdish question and welcoming members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who turned themselves in. The state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, or TRT, launched live broadcasts in Kurdish despite negative reactions from nationalists. Initiatives were launched to address issues faced by religious minorities, Alevis and the Roma, though none have yet borne much fruit.
The painful process of addressing such issues is part of a “transition period from a bureaucratic republic to a democratic republic,” as AKP Vice Chairman Hüseyin Çelik put it.
Others saw it differently. “The AKP is not an opportunity for Turkey to become more democratic, just as the 1974-1979 period was not an opportunity for the CHP [main opposition Republican People’s Party] to create a leftist Turkey,” said leftist intellectual Ertu?rul Kürkçü. “The only opportunity for democracy is through the acts of the people.”
In its quest to transform Turkey, the ruling party saw the Sept. 12, 1980, Constitution and the judicial institutions formed in the wake of that year’s military coup as its biggest obstacle. The AKP drew up revisions to some 30 articles of the Constitution, including those governing the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, or HSYK, and then lobbied heavily for public support for the changes. In the end, the reforms won 58 percent support in a Sept. 12 referendum – one the opposition campaigned against, accusing the ruling party of creating its own constitution that would lead Turkey in a more conservative, religious direction.
Still, the headscarf issue remained deadlocked. With the help of the president of the Higher Education Council, or YÖK, female students now seem to have more freedom to cover, but the AKP has failed to make a constitutional change on the issue. It attempted to do so in 2008 with Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, support, but the move was overruled by the Constitutional Court. The new CHP chief, Kemal K?l?çdaro?lu, recently tried to move in the direction of a solution, but the process stalled again when he asked for guarantees that the ban would remain for civil servants and elementary and secondary school students. Erdo?an has set the 2011 general elections as the target date for a solution to the issue – in other words, what he hopes will be the third period of the AKP government.

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