Nov. 3, 2012, will mark the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) 10th year in power as a single-party government.  

This is unprecedented in the sense that no other party in the history of the republic has been able to remain in power this long, having increased its share of the vote in three subsequent elections.

Naturally, the AK Party continues to be a subject of interest and debate for its economic success, and, interestingly enough, to those who have never stopped suspecting the party of having a hidden agenda, despite its 10 years in power, due to its relationship with the media, the unchallenged leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and its concerns about the lifestyle of secularists. Without doubt a single-party government in a rapidly changing and tumultuous country that has stayed in power for a decade with impressive economic growth rates amid a global financial crisis is worth analyzing.

In an effort to provide a multidimensional evaluation of the AK Party government, Today’s Zaman spoke to the party’s founders and leading members, representatives of opposition parties, political scientists and newspaper columnists. Given the challenge and improbability of covering every issue and debate that has marked the last decade of Turkey’s hectic agenda, this analysis should be considered a brief guide to understanding the key points of the AK Party’s performance and its perception by society. The rest will remain a burden on the shoulders of academics who specialize in the complex and often confusing nature of Turkish politics.

The emergence of the AK Party

In the national elections of Nov. 3, 2002, the newly founded AK Party won a landslide victory (34 percent) and became the first single-party government in Turkey since 1991. After the lost decade of the 1990s, full of political and economic instability that culminated in 2001 — particularly following a devastating earthquake in 1999 — with one of the biggest economic crises to hit the nation, the political actors of the time left the political scene after their parties were not elected to Parliament. Almost in an effort to respond to the poor governance, corruption and embarrassing record of the country in the fields of human rights and democratization, the people gave a mandate to the AK Party, founded not long before the elections of Aug. 14, 2001 and composed mostly of people who came from the National View (Milli Görü?) tradition but with a clear emphasis on a reformist agenda they had adopted with a commitment to democratic values.

In the words of one of the 64 founders, current Deputy Chairman of the AK Party Salih Kapusuz, “People who were suffering from the bitter prescriptions of previous governments punished those political parties by burying them in the ballot box and [instead] found hope in the AK Party.” By placing the “human factor” at the center of its axis, the AK Party gained the trust of the people, and this resulted in the “largest political base that a political party has achieved in the last 40 years,” Kapusuz, who has been among the party’s main policy makers since the beginning, told Today’s Zaman.

However, a problematic history between the National View tradition and the state had resulted in the closure of all parties established by the National View except for the Felicity Party (SP). Consequently, from the day it was established, the AK Party was considered by secular people on the ground to be run by Islamists, regardless of the fact that the party’s group of leaders defined themselves as “conservative democrats” and likened themselves to the Christian Democrats of Europe, and was kept under close scrutiny. In an effort to disprove these suspicions, the AK Party’s first and most surprising undertaking was an ambitious reform package that was in accordance with the country’s EU membership goal.

However, despite the historic start to the official EU negotiations on Oct. 3, 2005, the AK Party never became acceptable in the eyes of the staunch supporters of the official ideology. This caused a closure case to be filed against the party, which was still in power in 2007 following the AK Party’s determination to nominate a presidential candidate from among themselves whose wife wears the Islamic headscarf, not to mention the e-memorandum issued by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on April 27, 2007, the first effort by the Kemalist regime to prevent the election of a president whose wife wears the Islamic headscarf. The AK Party’s resistance to the e-memorandum was a turning point not only in the history of the party but also the country, mainly because it was the first time a civilian government had challenged the military and stood firm. Kapusuz says that at times, when they were portrayed as “reactionary” during the period leading up to the presidential election of 2007, they “did not take an aggressive stance, but we stood tall because we trusted in the nation.”

Similarly, Professor Mehmet Tekelio?lu, one of the founders of the party and chairman of the European Union Harmonization Committee in Parliament, says that he “admires the patience of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an during those tough times.” Indeed, according to Gülay Göktürk, columnist for the Bugün daily, the way the AK Party managed all these critical processes was “part of a well-calculated strategy that most of us were not able to grasp because making such a transformation regarding the nature of the regime without a societal clash requires expertise that should be studied in the future.” For her, “the greatest achievement of the AK Party is its elimination of the military tutelage in Turkey, which was suffocating the system.” Even if the AK Party does not achieve anything else says Göktürk, “it has written its name in the history of the country with this matter of life or death and the AK Party and its leader, Erdo?an, are the signatories of this irreversible gain.”

Since 2007, the core members and the founding fathers of the party, President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Erdo?an and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç, have become even stronger pillars of domestic politics. However, today, after many challenges and achievements, the AK Party is under scrutiny for the stalled EU process, the slowing rate of democratization, the changing nature of the discourse of the party in the face of the Kurdish issue, which seems more complicated than ever, the debate over new constitution and the inability of Turkish politics to go beyond “one-man parties” and generate a formidable opposition.

Tekelio?lu connects the emergence of the AK Party to the sociological developments from the 1960s in Turkey and says that “the people of Anatolia began to earn money during the Adnan Menderes [prime minister executed in 1960] era. Although interrupted by military coups in 1960, ’71 and ’80, the rise of the Anatolian people, particularly in the 1980s, disturbed the ?stanbul-based big capital owners.” According to him, “The media and the big capital provoked the military [to intervene] during the Feb. 28 process, which resulted in the 2001 crisis.” When Turkey was no longer able to continue with the status quo, “the AK Party emerged as a result of a quest for reform from the group known as Erdemliler Hareketi [Movement of the Virtuous].”

It is widely argued that the AK Party pursued a reformist agenda as a matter of “enlightened self-interest.” In accordance with such a view, Tekelio?lu talks about the “emergency action plan” of the AK Party when they first came to power to eliminate the legal ambiguities in the country to “make Turkey suitable for investment and respond to the needs of the Anatolian people.” He also emphasized the efforts of the AK Party “to abolish the system based on economic privilege,” which according to Tekelio?lu “is still a part of the social demand from politicians in Turkey.”

Ay?e Böhürler, one of the AK Party’s headscarved female founders, says in regard to the first days of the party that it “was founded on Aug. 14 2001, and on Aug. 21 it received a warning from the prosecutor regarding the presence of a member wearing a headscarf.” She continues: “We had a dream that was in large part about a more democratic Turkey. The party program was based on a consensus, neither entirely liberal nor nationalistic, but one that included even social democratic views,” adding that “the media invariably labeled us Islamists, although as a founder I always told them we are not.”

After recalling how the names of members who wore a headscarf were published in the papers every day during that era, Böhürler argues that “the media never liked Tayyip Erdo?an’s AK Party and acted like his enemy,” which according to her might explain Erdo?an’s sometimes harsh attitude toward the media. When asked whether the AK Party has failed to solve the problems of women who wear headscarves, Böhürler says: “The AK Party does not have a magic wand. The headscarf debate and the Kurdish question are 90-year-old issues of this country. This is a country in which the military attempted a coup just because the party nominated a presidential candidate whose wife wears a headscarf. Sledgehammer [a case in which a junta within the military was convicted for plotting a coup] is a similar case.” However, she adds: “The AK Party could have nominated women with headscarves to Parliament after the referendum. This is a threshold that we can pass, but we still need time.”

After a decade of AK Party government, today the headscarf issue is somewhat on the backburner, since in practice women who wear a headscarf can attend most Turkish universities. They are still deprived of their right to work in public institutions, however. Although no law prohibiting the headscarf exists, no legislation to prevent discrimination in practice has been enacted, either.

Love-hate relationship with the EU?

Although the AK Party is increasingly criticized for signs of waning commitment to the EU process as stated in the last progress report issued by the EU Commission in October, the EU itself seems like the number one source of resentment for AK Party figures. There is a consensus among the party rank-and-file that it is primarily the EU that is causing the lack of motivation. According to Professor Tekelio?lu, “There is no change in the EU perspective, only a loss of motivation because the chapters have not been opened.” He adds that most of the AK Party’s achievements are in line with EU values, such as the Law on Foundatinos (enabling the return of property to minorities in Turkey), the establishment of an ombudsman and arbitrator system, and the fourth judicial package currently under consideration. Tekelio?lu criticized the reaction of fellow AK Party member Professor Burhan Kuzu to the progress report, which Kuzu threw on the floor due to what he saw as its focus only on Turkey’s failures, as unconstructive.

In a similar vein, Kapusuz resents Europe’s lack of appreciation for Turkey’s efforts, calling the EU’s recent attitude “a double standard” considering that Turkey “established a ministry in charge of EU affairs and implemented over 300 laws and 1,800 regulations in line with EU membership.” According to Kapusuz, “The EU’s insufficient support for Turkey’s war on terror, its unjust and unlawful visa requirements and the emergence of Cyprus as an obstacle to opening chapters led to resentment [for the EU] among the Turkish people.” Yet, responding to charges that the party has shunned the EU agenda, Kapusuz reaffirms that the AK Party “has not been diverted from the EU goal,” saying the party “will continue their efforts towards membership in the union.” He added, “The EU needs a rising Turkey both regionally and globally.” Böhürler, on the other hand, admits that “the process stalls when it doesn’t receive support from the EU.” Böhürler also finds the EU to blame for slow negotiations in light of the AK Party’s reforms including “the prevention of torture and improvement on human rights issues.” However, according to political scientist Professor Tanel Demirel of Çankaya University, although the EU’s reluctance contributes to the current situation, “The government’s attitude towards the EU reports is not acceptable, and it deserves criticism for setting the EU issue aside.”

It seems that the EU issue will remain as is for the foreseeable future, given the deadlock caused mainly by the blocking by Cyprus of opening negotiating chapters, because there is no viable solution in sight.

Has the military submitted to civilian authorities or not?

In terms of democratization, the biggest debate that has dominated the agenda in the last decade has centered around civil-military relations in a country in which civilian supremacy was not consolidated even in the eyes of the people at large due to the deep roots of militarism in the political culture.

Turkey has witnessed unprecedented reforms, crippling the power of the military during the last decade, some of which were institutionalized with the constitutional amendments approved by 58 percent of the people in the referendum in 2010. Kapusuz states that the AK Party “democratized some parts of the current constitution, which was drafted after the military intervention in 1980, abolished the State Security Courts (DGMs), and turned the National Security Council into a more civilian authority by appointing a civilian head instead of a soldier,” but he admits that “not being able to draft a new constitution is our biggest failure, but we are working towards a civilian constitution.” However, according to him, “Even the fact that the perpetrators of the 1980 military intervention are now being tried is a huge step towards civilian supremacy.”

The fact that Turkey was able to bring past and present soldiers to court for plotting a coup (the Sledgehammer case) and convicted them, something which was unthinkable 10 years ago, clearly sets a historic example. However, many believe that unless these steps are institutionalized, there is always a risk of slipping back. A prominent political scientist specializing in civil-military relations, Professor Ümit Cizre from ?stanbul ?ehir University, says, “I would still feel uneasy if I were in the seat of civilian power where the legal-constitutional-psychological status of civilian supremacy is not fully established.” However, he gives credit to the AK Party because its “structural reforms of the military have lowered the TSK’s vanguardist and power-oriented role and lessened the likelihood of interventions in politics, to some degree.”

According to Professor Cizre: “The fact still remains that especially after the fading out of the flagship security project of the EU, the government chose to rely on the existing security structures [the police, national intelligence and the army] rather than change them. The appointment of a chief of General Staff, Gen. Necdet Özel, in 2011, who is compliant with the government, consolidated this trend of ‘not rattling the cage’ in the army and provided a false sense of security to the government.” In an effort to support her point, Cizre gives the reaction on the part of the TSK to the Sledgehammer verdict as an example when she says that “rather than reacting to the verdict by saying that they will initiate reforms in the institution so that such cases will not occur in the future, the online statement by the military voices the high command’s opinion on the fairness or unfairness of the trials in a civilian court, which is uncalled for in any normal functioning democracy.”

Similarly, Dr. Demirel from Çankaya University, who says that “power disrupts the perception of people” argues that the “AK Party is wrong to assume that a military intervention will never happen again because in the 1990s there were similar assumptions” while noting, “It is always small groups within the army that commit coups, and there is always such a risk in Turkey.” However, political scientist Demirel acknowledges that “Turkey is not the old Turkey; there might be the possibility of an increase in the involvement of soldiers if the government is weakened.” Diagnosing the AK Party’s problem as “Ankarazation,” Demirel believes that “bureaucrats, who have survived in every era, have had an impact on the AK Party as their source of information, and the party seems to think that they need the soldiers [in the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)].”

Göktürk, however, disagrees. She believes that “the AK Party is trying to consolidate its position after completing a partial confrontation with the military tutelage despite knowing that there are remnants of Ergenekon [deep state] within the army.” According to her, the biggest guarantee against another military intervention is the awareness created in society as a result of these trials. “The spread of the conviction that a military coup is a crime is the most important guarantee for preventing them,” says Göktürk. She also provides Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozda?’s remarks promising to abolish Article 35 [providing internal legitimacy to the TSK for intervention] as an example of the reformist nature of the AK Party, while she underlines that she acknowledges the shortcomings of the party.