Why the AKP holds the centre in Turkey; By Raymond J. Mas

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Turkey has been plagued with multiple unwieldy coalition governments whose divisiveness has sparked regular military intervention. To understand the dynamics at the heart of Turkey’s current political landscape, and how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has established itself at the political centre, one has to go back to the roots of republican Turkey and the vision of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The Turkish nation owes its existence to the powerful personality of Ataturk (whose name means “Father of the Turks”), the military hero who rescued a broken and dispirited people from the abyss of the Ottoman Empire’s calamitous dissolution at the end of World War I.
While Ataturk devised a state that had a liberal constitution, he viewed party politics with suspicion and distrust, feeling that any real opposition would endanger his sweeping reforms.
Moreover, Ataturk plainly viewed religion as antithetical to progress. Marginalising religion has thus been among the guiding principles of Turkish secularists, including the military, which views itself as the guardian of the secularist civic ethic “Kemalism”, even though constitutionally it is meant to be non-partisan.
But the military was all but compelled to enter politics in the post-World War II era, when Turkey descended into political chaos and economic misery as a result of the political vacuum created by its quarrelling leaders, and never completely withdrew. Today it sits on the National Security Council that in effect makes it a permanent partner in any government.
This long period of unstable politics ended when the late Turgut Ozal became the prime minister in 1983. He is considered by many to be Turkey’s most influential leader since Ataturk, and is still a popular figure in Turkey.
Ozal, who had Kurdish roots, saw no contradiction between religion and modernity and sought to integrate religion into civic culture in a way similar to the United States. In January 1991, as President, his cabinet approved the deletion of three articles from the penal code that had banned politics on the basis of class or religion.
In this new climate, religion found a way to make its mark in a new, openly democratic political system and as a direct result, religious parties were formed.
In 1997 Turkey's first female prime minister, Tansu Ciller, cut a power-sharing deal with an Islamic political party, the predecessor to the current AKP. But in yet another of Turkey's coups, the military brought down that government. Thus, the chance for a religion-based party to prove itself was destroyed.
But a succession of weak governments plagued by scandals, spiralling inflation and political squabbles, coupled with the arrival of a younger generation of political Islamic leaders in the style of the European Christian Democrats, set the stage for the astonishing comeback of the AKP.
Today the secular parties, fractured by personality-driven cliques, are unable to field a unity candidate who can effectively challenge the AKP’s leadership. Large numbers of secular parties’ voters feel they have been denied an effective political voice. The danger is that they will turn to the military to do what their politicians cannot do and wrest control from the AKP through force, as suggested by recent revelations concerning the so-called Ergenekon secular group, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government.
In view of this, does Turkey have a future in stable centrist politics?
Currently, the AKP seems to be playing the closest role to a centrist party. The decline of the left-of-centre Republican People's Party, and of right-of-centre parties such as True Path Party and Motherland Party, means that there are no serious rivals to the AKP for the time being. Ultimately, the chief threat to AKP's dominance—if left unchecked—may be the AKP itself, and the temptation to overreach its political bounds as a result of its increasing popularity.
The AKP has gained support from a broad spectrum of voters who have been won over by its economic and social reforms, in addition to the personal charisma of its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Its strong EU accession policy has helped to counter claims that it would tilt its policies away from the West. What is essential for the AKP—and the country as a whole—is to continue in this centrist direction and move beyond the divisiveness of the past.

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* Raymond J. Mas is a freelance writer and editor. He lived in Turkey for four years and continues to make regular visits to the country. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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