The AKP went from relative obscurity to sudden authority in early November 2002. And even though a decade has passed since then, it still wields overwhelming power and enjoys widespread support among the Turkish electorate.
The policies of AKP leaders -- most notably Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül -- are of major importance not only for the country’s 74 million citizens, but also for people all across Middle East, where Turkey stands as a beacon of stability and democracy for majority-Muslim countries.
The 10-year anniversary of the AKP’s rise to power is cause for reflection. In one of the most tumultuous times since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923, how have Erdoğan and his peers used their mandate to promote growth and stability?
New to the Game
AKP held no seats in parliament before the general election of 2002, which is no surprise since the party had only been established the year before. But on Nov. 3 of that year, the bloc won a sweeping victory.
Even more amazingly, nearly every party represented in the pre-2002 parliament lost all of its seats in those pivotal elections. It was a new day in Turkey: AKP took 363 out of 550 seats, and the Republican People’s Party, whose roots went back to the foundation of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923, won 178. The other nine spots went to independents.
That vote evinced widespread public disappointment with the former ruling powers, including the powerful military, which had engineered a 1997 coup by whereby the AKP predecessor Welfare, an Islamist party elected to power in 1995, was disbanded and replaced with a more secular coalition.
By the dawn of the new millennium, the economy was in a state of crisis and corruption was rife, leaving many conservative voters disillusioned with the promise of secularism. The socially conservative AKP was the closest they could get to Islamist representation.
In one sense, things have gone well since then; the country has seen an encouraging economic turnaround under AKP leadership. Fiscal growth remained strong even through 2010 and 2011, when the rest of the developed world was struggling with debt-induced recessions. Though unemployment has long been a major problem, it has declined to a rate of 8 percent this year. Exports have diversified considerably over the past decade, and domestic consumer demand has been high.
Things are slowing down lately as consumer demand peters out, and this presents a new challenge. But AKP has, in general, proven itself a capable steward of the national economy.
When it comes of social issues, on the other hand, AKP is embroiled in controversy -- and religion is at the root of the problem.
Turkey has had no official religion since 1923, when Mustafa Kemal (commonly referred to as Atatürk, or Father Turk) led a secularist revolution and founded the Turkish Republic.
Atatürk remains an object of reverence; his portrait is especially ubiquitous in urban areas. But strict religious conservatism prevails in rural zones, where many communities are governed according to Islamic codes.
Since 1923, the army has been a staunch defender of Turkish secularism -- this led it to depose the popularly elected Islamist parliament in 1997.
That AKP has not yet been ousted is a sign of the party’s reformist success. It has taken a tough stance against the powerful military and overhauled the judiciary system, all the while walking a fine line between religious conservatism and respect for the country’s secular roots.
But change didn’t come without controversy. In all aspects of society, ideological clashes are evident. Public schools began offering lessons on the Quran this year, but secularists fought back hard in defense of math and science. Abortion has been legal for decades, but Erdoğan wishes he could abolish it. Headscarves are nominally banned for women in the public sector, but that law is hotly contested and rarely enforced; Gül is the first president of modern Turkey whose wife wears headscarves regularly.
Secular-minded Turks chafe at any hint of theocracy; for them, these collective developments are taken very seriously. But devout Muslims in the country have no problem with using Islam as a basis for social mores.
The broader context makes this domestic struggle even more heated. As violence erupts in neighboring Syria -- not to mention Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan -- and as other Middle Eastern countries work to find their footing after a tumultuous Arab Spring, Turkey’s stability is more important than ever. It has long pursued the “zero problems with neighbors” policy espoused by Atatürk, but that has been hard to implement in times of turmoil.
Turkey has solid ties to the West; it is a member of NATO and a candidate to join the European Union. But it cannot escape the influence of regional conflicts; as Sunni-Shia clashes drive a wedge between neighbors all across the Middle East, historically secular Turkey is becoming a reluctant power player on the Sunni side of the divide.
Amidst all the religious controversy, Turkey’s secularists are increasingly finding fault with the beleaguered AKP.
This became evident on Monday, when thousands of secularists marched to the mausoleum of Atatürk in the capital city of Ankara. It began as an anniversary celebration -- not for the 10th year of AKP dominance, but for the 89th year since the foundation of modern Turkey.
Nearby, a government-sanctioned celebration had been planned in a stadium. When it became clear that many people were headed for the mausoleum instead, the authorities took action.
As AKP officials accused the secular activists of stoking division, security forces confronted the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. But they were unable to stop the marchers from entering the mausoleum with Turkish flags unfurled.
The confrontation ended without any significant violence, but there is no denying that these are tense times for the AKP -- even though the past 10 years have been so successful, and even though a popular vote today would probably see them keep a strong presence in parliament.
Future national elections will be watched closely, both in Turkey and abroad. The next major poll comes in 2014, when a new president is selected. It is more than likely that Erdoğan will attempt to hold onto power by taking Gül’s place, and his victory would come as no surprise. But if the last 10 years -- and AKP’s own ascension -- have taught us anything, it’s that leadership in the Turkish Republic can be surprisingly quick to bend in new directions.