Ideological Transformation of Turkey’s Politics

It has been more than ten years that Turkish ruling party (AK Party) presented as moderate Islamic administration to the world for the first time in political arena. Some countries wanted to set up an Islamic state on the Turkish model in the Middle East. However, it did not take long that the AK Party, the role model has failed in its democracy test with a great disappointment to international community and towering rages in Turkey. As a result of several incidents (Gezi protests), the AK Party has lost its dignity and plausible image both in internal and external political arena. Interestingly enough, the AK Party held its power by winning municipal election after the bribe and corruption probe scandal and although it has not been officially declared, the current Turkish Primer Minister, Tayyip Erdogan still remains as the most strongest candidate for the presidential election which will take in August. Why and how the AK Party still keeps its political power at legitimate level within Turkish and Islamic society, albeit its increasing authoritative and irreconcilable approach? There are basically three elements that the AK Party attaches a lot of importance to preserve the legitimacy of its political power at national level.

The first factor is ideology – as a matter of fact, in strict military and secular administration, Turkish Islamism was always as much about Turkish nationalism and Turkishness as it was about Islam and it has its own unique motive behind that called ‘Turkish-Islamic Synthesis.’ However, the nationalist-secular sensation and ideas have dramatically shifted into nationalist-religious ones. As many commentators have noted, nationalism and religious factors remain as important elements of the AKP’s approach to maintaining legitimacy.

At the risk of oversimplification, the party establishes the national interest, and then does what it can to defend that national interest in the face of what is depicted as a hostile west committed to preventing Turkey’s development.

The second is legitimacy through performance, with performance largely defined in terms of economic success. AK party states pursuing ‘goal rational’ legitimacy (2023 project is the most well-known). To put it very simply, the party set goals (the third airport project, the third bridge project, etc) mobilised the entire population to attain those goals, and ensured that the propaganda organs (partisan media, NGOs, etc) made sure that everybody knew when these goals had been realised (or more typically, exceeded ahead of time).

The third basis of legitimacy is stability. The party presents continued AKP rules as the only way of providing the political stability and personal safety that disappeared in other Turkey’s party administrations at previous times. Crucially, the stability provided by the party rule is seen as being a prerequisite for economic growth and prosperity by the vast majority of Turkish population. The AKP tolerates no challenge to its monopoly on political power, but calculates that the vast majority of the people will accept this so long as their economic wellbeing is improving, or at least not declining. What has emerged is an unwritten social contract between the party and the people whereby the people do not compete with the party for political power as long as the party looks after their economic fortunes.

The AK Party has appeared as an engine of the ideological transformation in Turkey however, there are different aspects including opposition parties and other political actors that have been as supportive factors to the Turkey’s political transition.

AKP rally - holding Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan's poster
AKP  campaign rally – supporters are holding Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan’s poster
About the Author
Originally from Istanbul, Turkey, Gurkan is an Oxford BA (Hons) graduated and pursuing a double master's in International Political Economy at Warwick & Strategic Studies at NTU in Singapore. He is also a published poet.