BACKGROUND: For many years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) remained an object of admiration, even adulation among educated Western audiences. Intellectuals, journalists and policy-makers in Europe and in the United States lauded the Turkish governing party as a prime example of Muslim moderation, democratic faith and attachment to free market economics. The AKP’s epic struggle with the military caught the imagination of liberals and social democrats in Europe. The narrative of democratic Muslims rising up and prevailing against authoritarian secularists had an immense emotional appeal on European liberals and progressives; here was the perfect antidote to the xenophobic and Islamophobic narratives propounded in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, in which Muslims were depicted as incorrigible fundamentalists.
The AKP’s timing could not have been better. The party was founded in 2001, the year when al-Qaeda struck at the United States, and it came to power a year later. The new party’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was granted the exceptional honor of being invited to meet the American president, George W. Bush, in the White House, even before he had been elected the leader of his country. Erdoğan was subsequently to become a privileged interlocutor of President Barack Obama, who in 2012 listed the Turkish leader as one of the five world leaders with whom he enjoyed the closest working relations. Obama echoed what passed for conventional wisdom among Western observers and policymakers until not so long ago when he expressed the hope that more Erdoğans would come to power in the Middle East.
Being endorsed by U.S. administrations and by opinion-makers in the U.S. and in Europe has obviously meant a great deal for the AKP. Strong Western support helped the party survive in power: one important reason why those among military ranks who wanted to get rid of the AKP government were never able to mobilize the support of the high command for any coup scheme was that the General Staff was well aware that a coup would never have been condoned by Washington.
The AKP regime has also benefited from Western support in a material sense; the fact that Turkey became such an attractive brand, being marketed as a “Muslim democratic model,” also put the country on the map of international investors, helping to make Turkey a much favored destination of foreign capital, which in turn has sustained what was until recently touted as the Turkish “economic miracle.”
IMPLICATIONS: Western admiration and support have evaporated since 2013, the year when the AKP regime responded to peaceful protests by police brutality and when a graft probe revealed widespread corruption among government circles. Paradoxically, the AKP’s loss of its absolute majority in the June 7 parliamentary election may offer the regime the chance to refurbish its tarnished image in the West; that at least, is how some of the leading representatives of the regime judge the present situation. In this perspective, a coalition government with the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) is perceived as a chance for the AKP to rid itself of the charges of authoritarianism.
A coalition between the party that identifies its historic mission as putting an end to Kemalism and the main political representative of the secularist legacy of Kemal Atatürk would appear to be an absurd proposition; however, that prospect has not been ruled out by either Davutoğlu or Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of CHP, and is assumed to have the backing of the Western-oriented business community of the country. As of this writing, coalition talks are ongoing.
There is also a historical precedent for an AKP-CHP coalition: in 1973, the CHP, then led by Bülent Ecevit, formed a coalition with the Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) of Necmettin Erbakan, the historical leader of the Islamist movement in Turkey. However, the political context was much different from today, and the parallel is far from being relevant, other than as a reminder that the unexpected can sometimes be expected to happen in Turkish politics.
Etyen Mahçupyan, who until recently served as the chief advisor of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and who is a prominent ideologue of the regime, is a strong advocate of a coalition between the AKP and the CHP. Speaking to the Turkey Analyst, Mahçupyan stated that “the AKP wants a coalition with the CHP.” But would not a coalition between the two conservative parties, the AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) be more natural? Mahçupyan answers that that would be the “easy alternative” since the bases of the two parties largely overlap and the party organizations have a familiarity with each other, which would ensure that coordination among the ministries in a government with the MHP will work more smoothly than in a coalition with the CHP. But a coalition with the conservative MHP, even though “easier,” more practical, would have an ideological disadvantage; it would confine the AKP to the right. And Mahçupyan, like other AKP representatives, refuses to identify the AKP as a rightist, conservative party. “The AKP is a reformist party, a party that is changing Turkey,” he says.
AKP representatives and the regime’s organic intellectuals have indeed always maintained that the CHP, the Kemalists, are the “right” in Turkey. Whatever the accuracy of such ideological labeling, the point with identifying the AKP as non-conservative is that it serves to impress that the party is in tune with the march of history, that the future belongs to it.
But the party has suffered a loss of legitimacy – and implicitly the source of AKP’s legitimacy is located in the West. Ultimately, the survival of the regime is seen to be determined by Western perceptions of its rule. “We lost the West,” laments Mahçupyan. And that in turn was a consequence of the loss of the Gülenists. The perception of the West changed, says Mahçupyan, when AKP took measures to counter the power challenge of the Gülenists. “We never managed to explain the struggle against the Gülenists to the West, where the issue was seen in terms of the independence of the judiciary,” explains Mahçupyan. “First we lost Gülen (as an ally); then we lost the West during the battle with Gülen.” “This in turn brought with it solitude in foreign policy, which in turn kindled a sense of being vulnerable,” he emphasizes.
Mahçupyan claims that what has been perceived as the AKP’s authoritarian drift since 2011 is simply “the reaction of an AK Party that has become increasingly lonely,” abandoned and challenged first by its erstwhile ally the Gülenist fraternity and then misunderstood and treated with suspicion by its international patron, the U.S.
According to Mahçupyan, “Erdoğan has been sending the same message since 2013: “I am not Morsi.” Erdoğan may have been psychologically too disposed to listen to peddlers of conspiracy theories – of whom there have “unfortunately” been many around him – but in this perspective, he is not guilty of authoritarianism; if the president is to be faulted for something, then that would be that he has overreacted to being besieged by real enemies and misled into imagining that there are others after him as well. “The Islamic circles share Erdoğan’s analyses, but dislike his style and his methods,” says Mahçupyan.
The loss of international legitimacy jeopardizes regime survival, and normalization is required to restore legitimacy: Mahçupyan points out that the AKP wants a coalition with the CHP because it would usher in “normalization.” “That would mean the end of the old struggle, between Kemalists and Post-Kemalists.” “Once the old fight has been ended, no one will be able to say a word to Erdoğan,” that is, accuse him of being an authoritarian despot. For the AKP a coalition with CHP would be a “rebirth,” and an AKP that has “regained its legitimacy is going to regain its voters.”
But the AKP is not about to abandon its ambition to remake Turkey in its image; “normalization” would only be temporary. Thus, Mahçupyan points out that “the discussion about the system is going to be revived.” And he does not hold out any prospect of compromise. Davutoğlu’s former chief advisor emphasizes that the presidential system that Erdoğan wants has not been shelved: “It is going to be introduced sooner or later”.
CONCLUSIONS: Forming a coalition with CHP would offer the AKP the opportunity to reinvent itself as a supposed force of societal reconciliation and normalization. It would above all refurbish the image of the party in the West, once and for all refuting the charges of authoritarianism.
However, what is envisaged is the “rebirth” of AKP’s plan to hold on permanently to power, not of any hopes of democratic pluralism. The logic behind a coalition with the CHP is that it would restore the regime’s international standing, by projecting an image of reconciliation, and thus help entrench it. The question is why the CHP would even contemplate lending itself to such a project.
Halil Karaveli is the Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Boris Ajeganov)