Polarization is instrumental in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party’s emergence and continuance as dominant political forces in Turkey and it is hurting the country’s democracy.
Polarization as Passport to Politics
The country’s polarization is manifold between the dominant urban, modern, secular, “center” and the bulk of the population which belong to the rural, traditional, religious, “periphery.”
Owing to the fact that Turkey is a conservative country, the vast majority of Turks have traditionally voted for center-right parties . The secularists have questioned the Justice and Development Party’s political identity upon entry in politics. Although AKP had Islamic roots, they claimed that the party had changed politically and now represents the conservative democracy with a moderate Islamic ideology meaning that their members are Muslims in person but the party upholds the free market based liberal agenda.
With the rise of the middle class who are pious and provincial, this group which supported the AKP’s entry in politics challenged the middle class supported by the military and civilian bureaucratic elites.
The people suffered much when Turkey was hit by economic crisis in 2001, putting the blame to the status quo’s inefficiency. Voters preferred reform and change, economic growth and political stability and the AKP was seen as the only party to deliver such expectations. Thus, the election results in 2002 backfired to the traditional parties and the AKP became the new voice of the population. AKP capitalized on anti-elite, anti-status quo sentiment.
Populist Prime Minister and President
Former Prime Minister and incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considered a right-of-center populist. He was an outsider in the mainstream political community and became famous after having served as mayor of Istanbul. He was imprisoned for anti-secularist act with which this sentence allowed him to present himself as a victim of the political establishment. Erdogan and the AKP leadership have manifested majoritarian tendencies wherein their mandate and legitimacy is placed on the pretext of popular will of the people even to the extent of undermining the liberal rights of the opposition.
Erdogan had caused polarization in Turkey. His rhetoric and style has divided the country into two camps: the conservatives who support him on one side and the seculars who oppose him on the other. The polarization between these two sides is treated almost as a given both inside and outside the country.
Political Party Predominance
This will trace how the Justice and Development Party and former Prime Minister and incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dominated Turkish politics for the last 15 years and how they undermined democratic institutions.
The AKP’s success in achieving rapid economic growth since electoral victory, in 2002, won the party vast political support propelled it to a spectacular reelection victory in July 2007. Between 2002 and 2007, Turkey’s real GDP grew by an average of 6.8 percent annually.
- Military – The army as the guardian of this ideology has significant role in Turkish politics. It is endowed with political, economic and financial power. Turkey has cycles of democracy; four times since 1960 that the military have intervened to overthrow civilian governments but have resisted change themselves. The harmonization laws in compliance with EU’s accession changed civilian-military relations. The National Security Council (NSC) is now dominated by civilian and more transparency measures have been adopted thru parliamentary scrutiny. The AKP continued to eviscerate the military by making them more accountable and subject active-duty soldiers to review by civilian courts for crimes not related to their military duties. With the harmonization laws and constitutional amendments, the military’s power and legitimacy began to wane transferring it to the civilian especially the AKP.
- Executive – Before the term of Prime Minister Erdogan expired, a transition of government from parliamentary democracy to presidential republican was put forward. Under the approved constitutional amendments which will take effect after the 2019 elections, the president will be the head of the ruling party, head of the state and head of the government. When Erdogan was popularly elected as president in 2014, instead of merely functioning as ceremonial leader, he usurped power from the prime minister. This is feared by opponents as it will make Erdogan an authoritarian. It was indeed proven in the failed coup in 2016 for it authorized him to place the country under state of emergency and took advantage by issuing emergency laws which paved the way for the arrest of government opponents and also by issuing decrees even bypassing the parliament.
- Legislative – The AKP had the hold of parliamentary majority in the Grand National Assembly except for one occasion but was able to regain in the subsequent snap election. As Erdogan relegated power to the office of the president, through the constitutional amendment, the office of the prime minister will be abolished. In 2017, a decree was enacted which disabled opposition in the parliament. AKP has also marginalized the parliamentary political opposition. This marginalization led to polarization not only in Turkey’s political system but also among opposition-party voters.
- Judiciary – The institution which was previously occupied by hardline secularists are now being displaced by AKP-supporters. Likewise, the president was empowered to appoint fourteen of the seventeen Constitutional Court judges. This only manifests a clear-cut example of undermining judicial independence.
AKP and Erdogan’s recipe in maintaining their power and popularity: first, they laboriously worked on the country’s economy to ensure their reelection then started to transfer military power to the civilian; undermined judicial independence then created a more powerful office of the president alongside with the abolishment of the office of the prime minister.
The party and the person which helped build democracy in the country are also causing its democratic backsliding and destroying the legacy of Turkey’s founding ideology.
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