That The Economist, a newspaper that we would love to love more than we actually do, has produced yet another perplexing article, is not perhaps in itself news, but Mediolana’s CSO was struck by the rather short-term perspective offered in the 25th February 2012 piece entitled Erdogan at bay: The Turkish prime minister faces new threats at home and abroad. Essentially, this article attempts to place the extraordinary popularity of the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, ‘AKP’), a movement headed by current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in a context that suggests more questions than answers. Pointing to such factors as a slowing economy, a possible fallout between the various factions within the AKP and potential trouble from the increasingly surreal regime of Bashar al-Assad, the publication as famous for its beautiful typography as its often woeful prognoses appears convinced that the Erdoğan era is about to turn sour.
The Economist has a point; it is quite possible and in fact probable that despite appearances to the contrary, Turkey’s ruling party will not enjoy anything like as successful a period in power in the future as it has done up to now. However, it is the following reasons which constitute the genuine challenges to AKP supremacy:
1. The End of the ‘Zero Opposition’ Era. Since the Justice and Development Party swept to power in the November 2002 elections to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, it has benefitted from being confronted with a broadly fragmented and ideologically bankrupt opposition which has been characterised by ultranationalist and laïciste dispositions; moreover, during this period the major opposition parties have singularly failed to put forward a charismatic and convincing leader figure. Yet in a multiparty system which has been dominated by coalition politics – the 2002 AKP administration was the first stemming from a single party since 1987 – this situation is an anomaly. When a coherent opposition emerges, it is unlikely that the AKP will receive anything like the stellar support that it has been garnering in recent years.
2. The Limits of ‘Management’. Countless acres have been penned about the AKP’s significance at the intersection of Islam and democracy, but as even the Turkish Prime Minister himself has noted, his party’s success is much more about ‘management‘, and The Economist’s own statistics illustrate why: The World in 2002 stated Turkey’s GDP as US$146bn, with a GDP per capita income of US2,180 and inflation of 53.1%; The World in 2012 records a GDP of over one trillion dollars in PPP terms, with a per capita income of US$9,760 in real dollars (US$15,000 adjusted for PPP) and inflation of 6.6%. This is an incredible transformation, and goes a long way towards explaining why the Justice and Development Party has won three consecutive elections (2002, 2007, 2011).
However, the irony of this success is that it has led to the AKP creating expectations that it may struggle to fulfil. For example, the promulgation of its stated goal of creating an ‘advanced democracy‘ in Turkey by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic, has in fact served to highlight how poor certain elements of Turkey’s polity are even by very average standards, let alone those of the truly advanced democracies of Germany and Scandinavia: the position in areas such as press freedom (as demonstrated not just by the jailing of a huge number of journalists, but by the not-so-subtle sidelining of eminently reasonable AKP critics such as former Milliyet columnist and Istanbul University Professor Nuray Mert), environmental protection and many other basic rights verges on the comically bad; the cognitive dissonance between economic change and democratic statsis is simply unsustainable and something which no amount of new consumer goods can compensate for.
3. Dynamism. The AKP itself is a prime illustration of the dynamism and responsiveness of the Turkish political scene: founded in the summer of 2001, it entered political office less than fifteen months later. It is therefore for a very good reason that another columnist, the unusually perceptive and always readable Şahin Alpay of Zaman, has opined that unless the AKP makes good on some of its more liberal rhetoric, ‘it is doomed to lose the next election‘. It is entirely feasible that one changed variable – a stuttering economy, the formation of a new and credible democratising party, or a split in the AKP – could yield an unrecognisable political terrain in as little as four years’ time.