AKP Party Turkey

Miting of AKP, Randam, 6 July 2007.

Miting of AKP, Randam, 6 July 2007.

AKP Party Turkey

In this article, we shall discuss the Justice and Development (AK Party) in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party (Turkey) is a political Islamist group that came to power in 2001 through democratic elections. We shall discuss their rise to power, their policies during their time in office, which will include a discussion of issues on religion and governance, as well as an analysis of more recent events in Turkey related to the party. We shall also discuss the leader of the AKP Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and not only his rise to power, but also, his increased authoritarian. As we shall see, Turkey is divided on Erdogan and the AKP, where, “To detractors he is a would-be sultan, implacable, cunning and reckless in his ambition. To admirers he is the embodiment of a revived national spirit, a man of the people elevated to worldly glory, a pugnacious righter of wrongs and a bold defender of the faith” (Rodenbeck, 2016). 

Early History of the Islamists in Turkey

The history of the AKP party in Turkey must be understood within the overall history of Turkey, and more specifically, the relationship between the secular government and political Islamist movements. Since, Ataturk, the Turkish government has been adamant about protecting the principles of Kemalism (which include secularism). It was even written into the Turkish constitution. But for many who believed in the Ottoman system, this new attention to secularism was un-comforting, to say the least. It must be remembered that while Kemalism clearly did change Turkey, much of the change was at the top (the national levels). Plus, even when there was change in civil society, much of this occurred in cities; the rural areas were less prone to accepting the new secular principles (Taşpınar, 2012). 

The rise of a multiparty system in the mid 1940s allowed for critiques of the Republican Party to challenge their rule. For the Islamists, where there were clear pro-religious positions and viewpoints within many in the opposition, as well as a number of those in Turkish civil society, the rise of political Islam in Turkey and the Middle East in general (for the most part) took off in the late 1960s and the 1970s (with exceptions like the Muslim Brotherhood, with a much earlier organized history in Egypt).

However, like other areas in the Middle East, Turkey saw the rise of Islamist parties in the 1970s onwards. But it was also in Turkey were the military–who was entrusted with ensuring that Ataturk’s principles were protected, on multiple occasions, intervened in what they saw as a government moving to far away from these ideals. Namely, the Constitutional Court banned the National Order Party in 1971, and then the National Salvation Party in 1980, both for going against the constitutional principles of secularism. Then, “The Welfare Party, founded in 1983, was banned by the Constitutional Court in 1998. The Virtue Party, founded in 1997, was banned in 2001” (Taşpınar, 2012: 127).

Interestingly, it is pointed out that these closures of Islamist parties, while splitting members within the groups, did actually lead to more moderate new parties. So, in the case of Turkey, the Islamists did not go away, nor did they turn to violent extremism. Rather, they believed that success in the elections would need to come from a more moderate position. What we see is that this, coupled with other factors, led to a more moderate, and quickly successful moderate Islamist party, the AKP (Justice and Development).

The Formation of the AKP Party

While Islamist parties have existed in Turkey as early as the 1970s (and of course the secular state (and military) was concerned about this), the secularists felt much more political pressure by the Islamists in the 1990s. Until then, the Islamists either had a poorer electoral showing, or they were quickly shut down by secular forces in Turkey. However, the newer manifestation of the early Islamist parties–the Welfare Party–in 1994, won local elections in Istanbul, and Ankara, which sent shockwaves to the secularists in government. Then, in 1995, “the Welfare Party won the largest bloc in parliamentary elections, putting an Islamist-led coalition in charge of the entire country” (Taşpınar, 2012: 129).

The military, feeling a wave of Islamism overtaking (or potentially overtaking Turkey), decided to stop the Welfare Party before they could change Turkey. Thus, they decided to ban the party in 1997. This left Islamists looking for a way to operate in the country’s electoral system. Thus, many of the younger members of the Welfare Party (and then Virtue Party) understood that to operate in Turkey’s elections, they would have to dial down Islam even more. But, for these members of the now banned Virtue Party, they were willing to do so. They went as far as even removing Islamic references from their name, calling themselves “Justice and Development.” In addition, they preferred to use the phrase “conservative democracy”.

The 2001 Elections of the AKP Party (Turkey)

In 2001, the group the Justice and Development (AKP) won the most seats of any political party in the Turkish elections, thus ushering in a new period of what was now Islamist rule. Many were willing to support this party, given their attention to Islamic issues, but just as important, their attention to democratic reform

It should also be noted that these were not the only reasons that the AKP was successful in elections (which formed in 2001), there was also a rise in the business middle-class, which continues to push the Islamists towards the center.

However, understanding that Turkey’s constitution states that the military can intervene into a government–shutting it down if it does not adhere to the principles of secularism (first established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk)–the AKP has been careful in their advancement and implementation of Islamic-based issues. There has not been a significant push for notions of Islamic law in Turkish society, nor was there an overt demand for more Islam in government. However, the AKP did take up certain Islamic issues, such as advocacy for the hijab issue–the right to wear a headscarf in public buildings and schools.

Following the coming to power of the AKP, they began a series of democratic reforms within Turkey. This was important not only for positive political governance within Turkey, but also with regards to Turkey’s relations with the European Union. Democratizing has been one of the key conditions by Europe if Turkey is going to have any ability to enter into the international organization. Thus, in these early years after coming to power, the AKP put pressure to reform military actions. Namely, they worked to stop torture, extrajudicial killings, etc (Kocamaner, 2015).

Economically, Turkey grew at fast rates during the early and then later years of the AKP’s rule. In fact, many credit Erdogan and the AKP for some excellent economic (and other) indicators in Turkey.

For example, Rodenbeck (2016) writes that: “Mr Erdogan has presided over some startling transformations. In two short decades his country, and most dramatically its long-neglected Anatolian hinterland, has moved from relative poverty and provincialism to relative wealth and sophistication. An inward-looking nation that exported little except labour has become a regional economic powerhouse, a tourist magnet as well as a haven for refugees, and an increasingly important global hub for energy, trade and transport.”

He goes on to add that “In many ways Turkey’s 78m people have never had it so good. Since the 1990s the proportion of those living below the official poverty line has declined from the teens to low single digits, and the share of the middle class has doubled to over 40%. By every measure of living standards, the gap between Turkey and fellow members of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, has shrunk markedly.”

Now, the economy’s growth has slowed. Promises of GDP per capita in the mid 20s seems like a distant dream (with current figures around 10,000 USD). In addition, economic growth is now longer at the 6.7 percent increase that Turkey saw in 2002-2007 (it is about 3.5 percent today, and there have been almost no rise in export growth rates) (Rodenbeck, 2016).

Islamist Issues in Turkey

When the AKP came to power, they focused on trying to align Turkey with European Union expectations. This included increased discussions on human rights, a stronger judiciary, increased democratic practices, as well as a greater push for social services. 

Again, as mentioned above, many have been happy with the direction that Turkey has gone, when looking at it from an economic lens. However, tension between the secularists and the Islamists rose in these years after the AKP party in Turkey took power. 

For example, a few issues that concerned the secularists included “Erdogan’s brief attempt to criminalize adultery in 2004, his appointment of religious conservatives to bureaucratic positions, and AKP attempts to discourage the sale of alcohol” (Taşpınar, 2012: 131). 

But, the Islamists realized that this was causing friction in Turkey. They also understood that advancing too much of an Islamist agenda would not only raise red flags, but in the case of Turkey, as history taught them, could get them disbanded as a political party. Thus, they approached certain issues, all the while ignoring calls for other Islamist agenda points. For example, the AKP began promoting the importance of changing the ban on the hijab being worn in public buildings. There was also a great deal of support for this change in Turkish civil society, given that over half of all women in Turkey wear the hijab (Taşpınar, 2012).

Because of an increased Islamist agenda, in 2007, the military began making threats about the possibility of acting against the AKP, saying that “if necessary, the Turkish Armed Forces will not hesitate to make their position and stance abundantly clear as the absolute defenders of secularism” (Taşpınar, 2012). Then, in response to this, Erdogan decided to hold snap elections. This attempt to show the military that he had public support worked: the AKP in Turkey won 47 percent of all votes, which was 13 percent higher than their vote total in 2002. However, the top military leaders were further unhappy, and then, in 2008, they went to the Constitutional Court claiming that the AKP had an anti-secular agenda (Taşpınar, 2012). The Constitutional Court heard the case, and allowed the AKP to survive, barely (with 6 judges voting to close the AKP, with five voting against disbanding the AKP) (Tait, 2008). However, the court did cut state funding for the AKP, as a sign that they believe some anti-secular activities were taking place (Tait, 2008).

Following this close call, Erdogan and the AKP made sure that the military was no longer a problem for them with regards to running the country. In 2010, through a constitutional referendum, the Turkish citizens approved changes which included, among other things, a shift in the number of judges on the Constitutional Court (the number increased to 17), and also who got to choose them (the President was able to choose 14 of the seats). Furthermore, following a 2011 dispute between the military chief of state and Erdogan, a series of resignations took place among top military post. Then, in 2012, the Turkish government arrested many military leaders for a plot to take over the state. In less than a handful of years following the military’s attempt to end the AKP, the Justice and Development Party–under Erdogan–have reduced the military influence in the country. 

Rising Authoritarianism of Erdogan and the AKP

Despite the initial democratic reforms, and strong economic programs (and development) under Erdogan and the AKP, events in recent years have suggested that the AKP Party has been moving towards more authoritarianism in the country. In fact, some have went as far as to call Turkey the increasingly controlled political system “Erdogan’s New Sultanate” (Rodenbeck, 2016).

Scholars argue that this shift towards authoritarianism in Turkey has especially been the case in recent years. In 2010, the AKP pushed for a constitutional referendum in which they looked to change elements of the constitution, which included but were not limited to altering the number of judges on Turkey’s high court. With the constitutional referendum, the President of the country would choose 14 members of the judiciary, with the Parliament choosing the remaining three judges. This significant shift (both in terms of increased judges, and also the change in selection of the positions) allowed the AKP to put in judges more in line with their political and religious interests, in effect minimizing the influence of the secular parties, as well as the military.

Then, in 2011, the AKP won their third straight national election. It was during this year that the AKP made a serious move on the military, attempting to reduce the power that it has had on the AKP (and on Turkey in general) for years. It was during this year that “The Kemalist military was effectively defanged through a series of court trials, referred to as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer (Balyoz) cases, which led to the imprisonment of hundreds of high-ranking officers accused of plotting a military coup. In July 2011, the chief of the general staff as well as other high-ranking commanders were effectively forced to resign en masse and replaced by officers more amenable to the AKP” (Kocamaner, 2015: 3).

Following the weakening of the military’s domestic influence in Turkey, the AKP has continued to move towards increased control in Turkey, all the while becoming less and less tolerant of political opposition. For example, in recent years, the AKP Party in Turkey has continued to criticize opposition groups, all the while looking to increase its hold on power, at the expense of other actors and institutions. In fact, “…the AKP government has strived to take control of the state bureaucracy, the police, and the judiciary, and attempted to use these institutions in service of the party’s interests. Most significantly, the independence of the judiciary, which is a key component of constraints on centralized state power, has been stifled under government control and intervention” (Kocamaner, 2015: 3).

 2011 genel seçimleri pankartı. Taksim, İstanbul, Myrat, CC 3.0

2011 genel seçimleri pankartı. Taksim, İstanbul, Myrat, CC 3.0

Taksim Square Protests

2013 Taksim Square, 15 June 2013. Fleshstrom, CC 3.0

2013 Taksim Square, 15 June 2013. Fleshstrom, CC 3.0

In the summer of 2013, the government faced a series of protests by those who were frustrated with the AKPs disregard for environmental issues, the horrible treatment of ethnic and sexual minorities, the continued move towards authoritarianism, among other issues. As Tastan (2013) writes: The majority of Gezi Park protesters cite restrictions on liberties, government interference in their daily lives, and the Prime Minister’s authoritarian rule as their reasons for joining the protests. Polling data also con- firms that many participants listed “liberties” among their reasons for protesting.” There was a growing frustration with the government’s disregards for civil liberties. 

The government response with police force. In fact, the response was clearly outside of what is understood as freedom of speech in a liberal democracy. As Amnesty International (2013) wrote: “The authorities’ reaction was brutal and unequivocal. Over the next few months [following the initial protests on May of 2013], police repeatedly used unnecessary and abusive force, including tear gas, water cannons, and beatings, to prevent and disperse peaceful demonstrations. By early July over 8,000 people had been injured. There is strong evidence linking the deaths of three protesters to the abusive use of force by police.”

Turkish Presidentialism

While the power in Turkey has historically resided with the Prime Minister, this changed in 2014, when “Turkish citizens voted in the first presidential elections ever held in the history of the Turkish Republic. Following the 2007 constitutional referendum on electoral reform, the existing system—which mandated that the president be elected by the members of the Turkish parliament—was replaced by direct election by popular vote” (Kocamener, 2015: 1). This shift to a presidential system was orchestrated by Erdogan so that he could have increased power in the position. Running in the 2014 elections, Erdogan won the majority of the vote (51.79 percent), thus more formalizing his personal political power within this position.

The idea would be that the elections would allow the President to directly carry out the will of the Turkish citizens. Following the elections, Erdogan spoke about the “new Turkey” that he and the AKP were going to advance. This language is quite specific, as it relates to a shift/change from the previous Turkey, one historically built on secularist and Kemalist principles (Kocamener, 2015). The AKP party has criticized this former structure, in part because they viewed this system under Ataturk as rather authoritarian (Ataturk did not allow opposition parties), and they saw overarching power by the military and secular judges. So, Erdogan spoke about the need to reform this “Turkey” into a “new Turkey.”

However, many have argued that this “new Turkey” ushered in by Erdogan and the AKP has been anything but democratic. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that Turkey is becoming more and more authoritarian and controlled under Erdogan. Again, this can be seen during the 2013 Gezi Park Protests, which, while they were initiated based on the government’s plans to build on green space in Turkey, they took on a much wider set of issues, which included but were not limited to calls for democracy, protection of different minorities in Turkey (the rights of the Kurds, the LGBTI community, etc..), amongst other issues. However, the police responded to these protests with violence. Furthermore, instead of recognizing the legitimacy of the protester demands, “AKP politicians have tended to depict the Gezi Park and ensuing protests as conspiracies against the nation or attempted coups aimed at toppling the Erdogan government. To them, Turkey has progressed to such an extent under the rule that protesters cannot possibly have legitimate reasons for wreaking havoc; therefore, they should be considered traitors engaged in an evil plot to hinder Turkey’s progress and disrupt the country’s political and economic stability” (Kocamener, 2015: 6).

Then, following the 2014 elections, the AKP leaders began making statements talking about the importance of having their own “national values” in Turkey–which are set on the foundations of the Ottoman Empire (these comments were a direct critique towards the European Union (Seufert, 2014) and their calls for universal principles of democratization and human rights). In addition, scholars argue that “After his nomination as party leader, Davutoglu accordingly defined the AKP as a “cadre movement” that had appeared on the stage to revive and resurrect a deeply rooted state tradition rather than as the representative of the interests of large parts of the population,” and also that “Davutoglu declared that Turks would in future have to exercise their civil liberties within the constraints of a particular “moral formation” that was apparently to be prescribed by the government” (Seufert, 2014: 3). The AKP, in an attempt to reconnect contemporary Turkey with its Ottoman past, has also been willing to play up this religious symbolism, all the while working towards furthering their attempts at centralizing control over the politics of Turkey (Seufert, 2014).

Weakening of the Turkish Prime Minister Position

For additional evidence as to Erdogan’s attempt to gather additional presidential powers in Turkey, look no further than to his attempts at weakening the prime minister position, currently held by AKP party leader Ahmet Davutoglu. Davutoglu was chosen by Erdogan to head the AKP party after Erdogan decided to run for the presidency (Fraser, 2016).  According to the Turkish constitution, the Turkish president should cut ties with their (or any) political party in order to show that they are outside of party politics while holding this post.

However, while this might “officially” be the case, Erdogan still seems to be calling the shots within the AKP party. In addition, “But he still commands deep loyalty in the party and has sought to maintain influence, regularly chairing cabinet meetings in his presidential palace and keeping the AKP’s executive committee packed with allies” (Reuters, 2016). Plus, it is believed the Erdogan expected Davutoglu to get out of the way as Erdogan continued his own policy interests in Turkey. As Suzan Fraser (2016) writes: “Davutoglu was largely expected to play second fiddle as Erdogan pushed ahead with plans to make the largely ceremonial presidency into an all-powerful position.”

However, while Davutoglu has not fully challenged Erdogan’s increasing move to power, at the same time “He has offered half-hearted support at best to an all-powerful presidential system and has also established himself as a moderating influence on an array of issues, by opposing, for example, the pre-trial imprisonment of academics or journalists. He has also addressed the possibility of the resumption of a peace process with Kurdish rebels. Some observers even call him the voice of reason in the party” (Fraser, 2016). Davutoglu not only spoke out against holding the journalists without them being tried, he has also suggested the possibility of peace with the Kurds in southern Turkey if Kurdish militant groups leave southern Turkey, whereas Erdogan vehemently opposes a solution that is not centered on military actions (Fraser, 2016).

And because of this differences between Erdogan and Davutoglu, Erodgan has found ways to weaken Davutoglu within the AKP. He has done so by “Removing his ability to appoint the provincial officials who make up the backbone of the party further” (Reuters, 2016). This ability to appoint provincial officials was first in the hands of the AKP’s Executive Committee (MKYK). However, this power was then given to Erdogan when he headed the AKP in 2002. Erdogan, while giving the power to Davutoglu in 2014 (after Erdogan became the President of Turkey), Erdogan has given the power back to the MKYK (Reuters, 2016). Because many of the 50 members of the MKYK have ties to Erdogan (including his son in law, Berat Albayrak (who is the energy minister), as well as Erdogan former lawyer), this shift in decision-making is believed to further bolster Erdogan’s power in Turkey (Reuters, 2016). Many have called these developments a “coup” because of the usurping of some of Davutoglu’s powers, and there are some who believe Davutoglu may step down, only to be replaced by someone who fully backs Erdogan (Fraser, 2016). 

In fact, right after this row between Erdogan and Davutoglu came the announcement that the prime minister would be resigning from his position later in May (BBC, 2016). According to reports, he did not speak out against Erdogan during the announcement, and was not angry at President Erdogan, although said that “The fact that my term lasted far shorter than four years is not a decision of mine but a necessity” (Malsin, 2016).  He also said that he believed Turkey would become more stable “”when a prime minister more closely aligned with President Erdogan takes office” (BBC, 2016), and also spoke about his continued friendship with the President (Malsin, 2016). Again, it is expected that whoever will be selected will be someone greatly supportive of Erdogan.

New AKP Prime Minister

On May 19th, 2016, the AKP voted to put forward Binali Yildirim as the new leader of the political party. In addition, they will put him forward as the AKP’s candidate for the Prime Minister position in Turkey (Soguel, 2016). Yildirim is currently serving as the minister of transport, maritime and communication. Yildirim was chosen on a consensus. He is backed by many within the part, and has played an instrumental role in the development of the party, being one of the original members of the AKP (Soguel, 2016).

Interestingly, shortly after the appointment of Yildirim, the AKP-led government looked to further bolster Erdogan’s position and voice within the AKP. Although Erdogan gave up his ties to the party when he won the Turkish presidency, in late May of 2016, the government is looking to a “mini-revision” of the current constitution which would allow the President to have connections to a political party as a “party-affiliate president” (Zee News, 2016). The proposal will go to a vote in June, but the AKP would need additional support from outside their party to approve this change (Zee News, 2016).

Repression of Journalists in Turkey

Since taking over the presidency, Erdogan (and the AKP) have embarked on a campaign of additional highly-authoritarian behavior. For example, there has been a heavy crackdown on free journalism in Turkey. In fact, Turkey is one of the most oppressive countries in the world when it comes to the issue of journalists. There are many reasons why Turkey is ranked so poorly.

For example, Reporters Without Borders, in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index report, ranks Turkey 149 out of 180 countries for its actions against free press. They write that: “Turkey’s rise in the index must be put in context. It was due above all to the conditional release in 2014 of around 40 imprisoned journalists who nonetheless continue to face prosecution and could be detained again at any time. Turkey’s “underlying situation” score – covering such areas as cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders – actually worsened, showing that freedom of information continues to decline. Rocked by major corruption allegations, the government has done everything possible to rein in the influence of its new Public Enemy No. 1, the Gülen Movement, to the increasing detriment of the rule of law.”

Also in 2015, the government went after two journalists who reported on the government supplying weapons to the Islamist forces in Syria. According to reports, “A court in Istanbul has charged two journalists from the opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper with spying after they alleged Turkey’s secret services had sent arms to Islamist rebels in Syria. Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, are accused of spying and “divulging state secrets”” (The Guardian, 2015b). They reported that a number of trucks were stopped by the Turkish security forces. The trucks were believed to be those of the Turkish national intelligence organization (MIT) (The Guardian, 2015b). In response, Erdogan said that Dundar would  thus pay a “heavy price” for this report (The Guardian, 2015b). (It should be noted that the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled their arrests as going against their human rights) (Vatandaş, 2016).

Erdogan has also arrested individuals who have posted anti-Erdogan or antigovernment comments on social media. And, in late March of 2016, The Turkish government summoned Germany’s ambassador to Turkey (Martin Erdmann) because of a video in Germany that make fun of Erdogan, bringing up his human rights abuses. The government was calling for the deletion of the video (The Guardian, 2016).

And in 2016, the Turkish government took over the news outlet Today’s Zaman. They were able to do this through the court system, where a court in Istanbul ruled that Zaman was promoting propaganda which could lead to the destabilization of the country (Melvin & Tuysuz, 2016). Turkey has tried to use the threat of terrorism to justify its actions. For example, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (also of the AKP) was quoted as saying that: “”A democratically elected government which gets its legitimacy from the people has the right to question the activities, whether they be economic or journalistic, of those who have openly acted to bring about a coup,” he said. “Turkey will never go backwards from where it has come in terms of press freedom but no one has the right to become a vehicle of a parallel structure within the state.”” Furthermore, “Another Turkish state official said, “This is not about clamping down on the media or press freedom. We are in a struggle against a terrorist organization””(Melvin & Tuysuz, 2016).

This previously credible news outlet is now being controlled by the state, running pieces that are very supportive of Erdogan, the AKP, and the Turkish government. This happened after the court ruled that trustees now run the paper. The takeover of Today’s Zaman was met with anger by human rights activities who view this as a clear violation of the fundamental right of free speech. Along with activists, the European Union leadership also spoke out on this issue, in which it “called on Turkey “to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices, including freedom of the media.” “Free, diverse and independent media constitute one of the cornerstones of a democratic society by facilitating the free flow of information and ideas, and by ensuring transparency and accountability” (Melvin & Tuysuz, 2016). In addition, other countries such as the United States leadership also criticized Turkey (Melvin & Tuysuz, 2016).

There are a few proposed reasons as to why Erdogan may have wanted to do this. For example, Vatandaş (2016) writes: 

Many believe one of the reasons for Erdogan’s decision to illegally order the takeover of the Zaman media group was to silence the rising opposition around the leadership of Abdullah Gul and leading figures from the Justice and Development Party, such as Bulent Arinc, Huseyin Celik, Sadettin Ergin and Nihat Ergun, who started to criticize Erdogan before the Constitutional Court’s ruling about Can Dundar and Erdem Gul.

Some also believe that Erdogan and his family members might face some international law suits and, on the way to executive presidency goals, Erdogan would do his best to silence critical media outlets in the country as much as possible. The possible international legal cases against Erdogan and his family members are allegedly linked to ISIL’s illegal oil trade issue.

Another reason for this takeover in part is because of a greater political struggle between Erdogan (and the AKP) and Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet movement. 

Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen

The way that Erdogan and the AKP Party have attempted to do this is by going after those currents who have rival power in the country. One of the most influential civil society movements in Turkey is Hizmet (Service), which is an organization led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is one of the most popular religious leaders in Turkey, and Hizmet has been active in providing social services in Turkey for years. Gulen is most noted for the schools that he and the movement have organized, not only in Turkey, but throughout the world. Many individuals in positions of power have went through these Gulen-based schools.

It is for this reason that in recent years that Erdogan and the AKP has targeted supporters of Gulen. While the tension between the two has existed for well over a decade, and has been documented in academic works (Muedini, 2015), this rivalry became much more apparent in 2013, not only when Gulen criticized the government for their violent response to protesters in Gezi Park and Taksim Square, but also after a corruption scandal broke in Turkey in December of 2013. Some of this began “with a series of embarrassing leaks of taped telephone recordings of Mr. Erdoğan that highlighted his strong-arm handling of the press and seemed to indicate massive corruption” (Eissenstat, 2015).

It was then in December of 2013 where many supporters of Erdogan  were arrested for corruption charges. Namely, “on December 17, 2013, a three-year investigation culminated in the arrest of 24 individuals on corruption charges. Amongst them were three high level ministers, their sons, and the Chief Financial Officer of Halkbank” (Muedini, 2015: 16).

Erdogan accused Gulen-based judges of ordering the investigation and arrests of these individuals. As a response to this, Erdogan called for the removal of hundreds of judges and police that he believed were sympathetic to Gulen (it was at this time that Erdogan also accused journalists and others that he believed were behind this probe). But even before the corruption story in December, in November of 2013, Erdogan ordered a closing of the Gulen schools in Turkey.

To some, the reason that Erdogan responded so harshly was because of the threat that this posed to him and the AKP. Namely, this “…graft inquiry…represented the single greatest challenge to Mr. Erdoğan’s hold on power since he faced down the military in 2007. The Gülenists had, in other words, opted for a “nuclear option” that, if successful, had the potential to unravel the government by exposing wanton corruption among the party elite, including Mr. Erdoğan himself. The Gülenists had declared war” (Eissenstat, 2015: 2).

Then, following the accusations that Gulen was behind this corruption investigation, Gulen responded by not only denying this, but essentially calling Erdogan “a liar.” Yet, as mentioned, Erdogan responded by replacing many political officers, including the top police post in Istanbul–since Erdogan believed he had ties to Hizmet and Gulen. Then, on December 16th, in 2014, an Istanbul court issued an arrest warrant for Gulen. Gulen, who resides in the United States, was accused by the court of leading a terror organization. Erdogan continues to demand that the United States send Gulen back to Turkey to face trial. However, the United States government has been unwilling to do this.

So, despite the negative press that Erdogan and the AKP received with regards to this corruption scandal, it did not bring down the regime. In addition, “The prosecutions against his allies have been dismissed and their confiscated millions returned. Gülenist schools and organizations are besieged, while leading figures within the movement are targeted for investigation under the same anti-terror statutes that were previously employed against supporters of the military and Kurdish nationalists” (Eissenstat, 2015: 3).

However, these tensions between Erdogan (and the AKP) and Gulen (Hizmet) continue to this today. In fact, in early April of 2016, it was reported that “Sixty-eight people were detained on suspicion of links to the US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen who Erdogan accuses of running a “parallel state” aimed at usurping him.” In addition, “The coordinated raids on suspects, which came after seven months of investigations, took place in 22 regions across Turkey including Istanbul, Ankara, the resort of Antalya and Gaziantep close to the Syrian border. A total of 120 arrest warrants were issued and several of the wanted suspects are believed to be abroad. Those detained include business people, charity executives, lecturers, teachers and municipal officials, it said” (Yahoo, 2016).

Then, in late May of 2016, the Hizmet movement was labelled a terror group by the Turkish government (Reuters, 2016). Erdogan not only referred to the group as the “Gulen terrorist group,” but was also quoted as saying that “We will not let those who divide the nation off the hook in this country,” and “”They will be brought to account. Some fled and some are in prison and are currently being tried. This process will continue”” (Reuters, 2016b).

Erdogan recognizes that many in Turkey not only voted him in, but keep him in power, whether it was through the Prime Minister position, or more recently through the presidency. And there has not been mass movements against him, despite all of his repressiveness.

2015 Elections in Turkey

Two important elections took place in Turkey in 2015. The first elections to note were the June, 2015 parliamentary elections. These elections were were the AKP was hoping that they would be able to secure a super majority in government, so that they would be able to pass legislation on their own–without any coalition support. However, the results of the elections were not what the AKP hoped for. Not only did they not win the supermajority, but they did not even win the majority that they had prior to the elections (Al Jazeera, 2015). This meant that the AKP would have to form a coalition with another political party in order to run the government. But this never happened. Unable to form a new coalition rule, another round of elections were to be held in November of that same year.

In these elections, the AKP was able to win a majority of seats (The Guardian, 2015). This allowed the AKP to form the government on their own, without needing to work with any other political party. This was a big victory for Erdogan and the AKP. Thus, Erdogan and the AKP are feeling quite comfortable with their power. Despite the increased authoritarianism in Turkey, citizens continue to show support for the ruling Islamist party.

Failed Military Coup in Turkey

On Friday, July 15th, 2016, in the early morning hours, some members of the Turkish military attempted to stage a coup, hoping to take over power in Turkey from Erdogan. While Erdogan was on vacation, military forces took over some media outlets, the airport in Istanbul, as well as strategic bridges. However, they were unable (or just did not) shut off all media and communication, and thus, this allowed Erdogan to use social media to send a message to supporters to go into the streets to show the military what people thought of this action. Supporters rushed to confront the military at several locations, including the airport in Istanbul.

Erdogan then called on the police forces to challenge those part of the coup attempt. Following a long and deadly night (in which over 290 people were killed (and many more injured)), Erdogan, coming back to Istanbul, was able to withstand the coup attempt. Following the re-establishment of power, thousands of coup backers were arrested. Erdogan spoke about the ‘treason,’ while also saying that those who attempted to carry out the act would face punishment. 

In the chaos that was the coup attempt, and in the days that followed, Erdogan blamed Gulen and his supporters as the culprits behind the planned coup. He called on the US to extradite Gulen, to which Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US would be happy to help investigate who was responsible, and would also look at all evidence the Turkish government has (although it is important to note that Turkey has never submitted a formal request for the extradition of Gulen) (Jamrisko, 2016).


With the continued conflicts in Syria and southern Turkey (we have written a separate article on the government-PKK issue (in the Kurds in Turkey)), as well the history of recent terror attacks inside the country, Erdogan and the AKP are more set than ever to ensure that they stabilize Turkey. Sadly, what this has also meant is that they have been willing to suppress journalists and human rights activists who have condemned their tactics and strategies. Erdogan’s security has even fought with protesters in places like Washington, D.C. during his visit to America.

Moreover, there are some who also suggest this behavior may be problematic for Turkey’s economic growth. For example, Rodenbeck argues that these internal problems may also impact their future economic growth. Continued authoritarianism against opposing parties has not helped matters, and continued domestic instability will make it tougher for much-needed capital to come into Turkey.

Again, yet, due to high popularity of Erdogan and the regime, and a want of domestic security and stability, many within the country have been willing to allow the AKP to continue their polities of control and intimidation within the state, in exchange for their response towards the Islamic State and the PKK. So while Erdogan continues to receive high levels of support, all of this is coming at the cost of losing a democratic Turkey. As Howard Eissenstat (2105) recently wrote: “The once popular idea that contemporary Turkey could serve as a model for Middle Eastern democracy is no more. Its authoritarian slide is now plainly evident…” (1).

This seems to be even more the case following the July 2016 failed coup in Turkey. 


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