The RP was closed down by the constitutional court somewhat later, and its successor, the Falizet or Virtue Party faced the same destiny in 2001. At this point, the party divided into two parts. Traditionalists loyal to Erbakan formed the Saadet or Felicity party, following the orthodox policies of the Milli Görus tradition or “national view”, the Islamist ideology that Erbakan’s policies rested on. However, a group identifying themselves as reformists founded the AKP in 2001. This group, disturbed with Erbakan’s ideological approach and his style of leadership, aimed to form a new party which would position itself more to the center of the political spectrum and embrace larger constituencies. The founders included Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul, Bulent Arinc and Abdullatif Sener. Erdogan, a skilled and popular orator, was elected as the party’s chairman as a kind of first among equals.
As he had been the founding father of the Islamist movement, Erbakan’s absolute authority within his party was legendary.
Though he appeared to listen politely to his advisors and deputies, in the end Erbakan did whatever he believed was right. The young and reformist wing of the party, growing desperate because of the repeated closures of the party, understood that they could come to power – and hold on to it – only if their approach was moderated and if they made their peace with the system and the world. With the establishment of the AKP, the new team also rid themselves of one-man rule, applying a more democratic approach within the party. This approach provided an important contribution by appealing to, and including into the party, individuals of other backgrounds including liberals, democrats, and nationalists, in other words those not tracing their political roots to the Milli Gorus strain of political Islamism founded by Erbakan.
Meanwhile, several events – chiefly corruption in successive governments, the 1999 earthquake, and the financial crisis of 2000-01 destroyed the standing of the existing parties in the Turkish political system. Hence, the AKP came to power in the 2002 elections, with 35 percent of the vote. Though the AKP had only roughly a third of the votes, the election threshold of 10 percent implied that only two parties managed their way into the parliament, and AKP won two thirds of the seats.
It is interesting to note that the AKP succeeded in this election although its nominal leader, Erdogan, was not on the ticket: he was banned from political office having served a prison sentence for incitement of religious hatred. Instead, the parliamentary group was led by Abdullah Gul, to whom then President Ahmet Necdet Sezer gave the mission to establish a government. A constitutional amendment was rapidly enacted to abolish the ban for the AKP’s charismatic leader, which the opposition Republican People’s Party also backed. After a by-election in the province of Siirt some months later, Erdogan was elected to parliament; Gul rapidly resigned for Erdogan to take over as Prime Minister, retreating to the position of Foreign Minister. Indeed, the collegiality within the AKP leadership at this time would make many western political ofparties appear top-heavy.
IMPLICATIONS: During this 59th government, the founding quartet – Erdogan, Gul, Arinc and Sener – distributed the key positions in the government and parliament among themselves. Aside from Erdogan and Gul, Sener became deputy prime minister responsible for the economy and Arinc became Speaker of Parliament. The first crack among the four occurred in 2003 when privatization maters were transferred from Sener’s control to Treasury Minister Kemal Unakitan, known for his close relationship with Erdogan. Sener, now separated from one of the most important elements of the economy, step by step withdrew from the rest. He did not put forward his candidacy in the 2007 elections. Indeed, he is now criticizing the party’s governance record on various financial and political issues.
As for Arinc, he became quite controversial during his term as the Speaker of Parliament, chiefly due to his many ideological statements, which made him appear the leading Islamist in a government claiming to have left political Islam behind. In the government formed after the July 2007 elections, Arinc did not receive a cabinet post: he had to be content with chairing a parliamentary committee. Though he maintains some personal influence over Erdogan, he lost much of his power and influence in the party.
In the 2002-07 government, Gul possessed an influence close to that of the Prime Minister. However, Gul was elected president in a tense environment in the fall of 2007. The Turkish Constitution provides that the President stand above party politics. This has seldom been the case: both Turgut Özal and Suleyman Demirel played a considerable political role Still, this has led to Gul losing much of his influence over day-to-day affairs of the party and government. Hence, his election minimized the effectiveness of the institution as a checks and balances mechanism with regard to the AKP’s policies. It also removed a strong force from the party internal politics, leaving Erdogan as the uncontested leader.
That said, relations between Gul and Erdogan may not be what they were; it is thought that Erdogan opposed Gul’s candidacy the second time around, and staunch Erdogan supporters considered him more worthy of the presidency than Gul.
These two factors combined – the electoral victory in summer 2007, when the AKP won 47 percent of the vote, and Gul’s transition to the presidency – made Erdogan the undisputed leader of the country as well as the party. The absence of serious political or institutional rivals in the political arena has further strengthened Erdogan’s position.
By now, the Erdogan who opened even the issue of salaries of ordinary workers in the party administration to discussion during the establishment process of the AKP, is long gone; instead has appeared another Erdogan, increasingly intolerant to criticism and deaf to advice and debate, whether inside or outside the party. Observers of the government and parliament note that most AKP deputies, with the exception of those close to the prime minister, even lack the courage to demand an appointment with Erdogan. Party group meetings are turned into a private stage for Erdogan, where deputies practically do not have the right to speak or ask questions. Increasingly, the same appears to be valid as concerns the council of ministers. AKP members increasingly say what they think Erdogan wants to hear.
This change in the AKP’s internal structure and in Erdogan’s leadership sheds important insights on the recent crisis over the constitutional amendment abolishing the prohibition of the Islamic headscarf in universities. Many liberal-minded deputies within the AKP – the number of which grew in the last election – did not approve of the timing, the context, or the manner in which this issue was brought to the agenda. Even Abdullatif Sener, no longer in active politics, found that this issue was put on the agenda too early.
Nevertheless, it appears that no one was able to affect Erdogan’s decision, and the Prime Minister continued to enforce his strategy. Indeed, this sheds considerable doubt on the practical implications of Erdogan’s much-heralded inclusion of many liberal candidates in the party lists for the 2007 elections, as they appear to have little influence over government policy.
CONCLUSIONS: During the five years since the AKP’s founding and coming to power, the forces balancing Erdogan’s position within the party were either removed from the party administration, or saw their power gradually diminished. At party events, the choreography has changed too. Erdogan’s coming to stage, and the arrangement and decoration of the stage, now seem to create a mystical environment, raising Erdogan’s position higher above the party faithful. Moreover, Erdogan seems to be adapting to his role with pleasure. Indeed, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a charismatic leader on the Turkish political arena that the country has not experienced at least since the time of Turgut Özal.
This position is clearly beginning to affect Erdogan’s view of his role in Turkish politics. He is intolerant to any criticism, and responds harshly to any critique directed to him from media. Indeed, his outbursts against secular-minded media outlets that criticized the headscarf amendment were unprecedented and led many observers to raise eyebrows.
This singular position and the psychology associated to it, should it continue to develop, could pose a threat to Turkey’s democracy, but also to Erdogan himself. Indeed, Erdogan lately appears to have tried to intimidate the secular media into self-censorship.
However, this policy might prove counter-productive. For the first time since the AKP came to power, mainstream, establishment media has actually taken on the task of questioning the governing party. The “defection” of large parts of the Dogan grup (Hürriyet, specifically) from the AKP’s alliance with the liberal elite, and not least the increasingly vocal attitude of prominent liberal editors and intellectuals, is one of the most striking features current developments in Turkey. A rift hence appears to be growing between the AKP and the liberal, pro-European intellectual circles within Turkey. It would be wise for Erdogan’s remaining advisors to discourage rather than encourage the cultivation of the image of a single and infallible leader.