Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party turns 20

“Election Campaign” by Travel Aficionado is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In August, Turkey's Justice and Development (AK) Party marked its 20th anniversary since it was formed in 2001. The Party has secured victory in almost all major elections since 2002, narrowly escaped being closed down in 2008, and has enjoyed wide support and popularity over the years. One of the AKP’s founders, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, served three terms as the countrys Prime Minister and since 2014, as the President of Turkey. 

Twenty years later, looking back at nearly two decades of AK party rule, the party’s popularity is dwindling and its ties with Western governments have deteriorated significantly as the country is facing an economic and democratic precipice.

The promise of economic growth and good governance

Much of AKP’s popularity in its early years was directly related to the economic stability that the ruling party delivered after winning the parliamentary election in 2002. Despite the global financial crisis between 2008–2009, the Turkish economy experienced a 4.5 percent average annual growth.

In 2004, Turkey received a formal invitation to kick off negotiations over its accession into the European Union. Triumphant Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, was determined to showcase that democracy was possible in a Muslim country.

This lasted only a few years.

In the spring of 2007, the Turkish military released a statement saying they were not in favor of the next presidential candidate (who was appointed by the parliament at the time according to national legislation) favored by the AKP. Somehow, police in Istanbul uncovered a network of plotters planning to overthrow the government. Among many members of the group were military, intelligence, business people, journalists, and academics. Known today as the Ergenekon case, and the Sledgehammer investigations, the operation led to the prosecutions of several senior military commanders. Years later, evidence emerged, suggesting that both the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer were fabricated

After these controversies, Turkey witnessed an emboldened party, arrests of government critics, and power consolidation in the hands of the ruling party and its leader.

It was a downhill journey on the democracy front after that. The constitutional referendum in 2007 replaced the election of the president by the members of the parliament with a direct national vote. The referendum in 2010, granted both the legislative and the executive branches of the government broader powers over judicial appointments. As a result, the AKP leadership was able to gradually erode the judiciary and the military branches of the government, ending any potential barriers to the government's preferred policies.

Protests and corruption

In 2013, Erdoğan’s AKP was faced with its first popular unrest and graft scandal. Known today as the Gezi Park protests, anti-government protests spread across 83 cities. Scores of people were arrested during and in the aftermath of Gezi Park protests for questioning police brutality, crony capitalism, and power inequality, all the while riot police used water cannons and tear gas across cities to quash the unrest.

That same year, three government ministers resigned as a result of a corruption scandal. Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, claimed the allegations were orchestrated by foreign powers.

And yet, despite the mishandling of the protests, the corruption allegations, and signs of a lagging economy, in 2014, Erdoğan was elected, as the President of Turkey. But AKP’s biggest selling point — the economy — was weakening. Unemployment and inflation were reaching double digits and the Turkish Lira was losing its value quickly. According to reporting by Reuters, the Turkish Lira, “shed 75 percent of its value against the dollar since 2013, more than half in the last three years.”

But the party continued to enjoy relative support. In 2015, AKP secured another landslide victory. Three years later, Erdoğan won his second term as president and his party secured an absolute majority in parliamentary elections that same year, as a result of AKP’s alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement (MHP) party. 

The following year, Turkey went through its fourth military coup. Turkey’s president rallied behind his supporter base, calling on them to take the streets, promising to “clean up” the military. “This attempt, this move, is a great favor from God to us,” Erdoğan said as he arrived in Istanbul from Marmaris where he was reportedly on vacation. “Why? Because this move will allow us to clean up the armed forces, which needs to be completely clean.”

Then the purges began. From the military and academia to the business world and media, thousands were rounded up and arrested in Turkey. These arrests continue to this day. 

In 2018 Turkey officially switched from a parliamentary system to a presidential system which AKP argued would make the government more effective, though experts disagree. Instead, they say the change has led to a weaker parliament, undermined the separation of powers, politicized the judiciary branch, crippled institutions, and prevalent authoritarian practices.

Meanwhile, the country continued to suffer a currency crisis and sharp recession. The ongoing political and economic turmoil resulted in AKP losing five of Turkey’s six largest cities in the 2019 local elections, including Istanbul and the capital Ankara. There was also rampant corruption, including 128 billion US dollars going missing from the Central Bank reserves that, until last year, was headed by Erdoğan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak. Not surprisingly, Turkey’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency has dropped 33 places in the last seven years, ranking 86th among 180 countries in 2020. 

Crackdown on civil society

Turkey's corruption index is not the only score that has declined under the AKP rule. Many international human rights and press freedom organizations have highlighted how in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016, a systematic crackdown on rights and liberties has negatively impacted the country's score on their annual country performance reports. Turkey was ranked “not free” on Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2021 report. PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index said Turkey was the world’s third-highest imprisoner of writers and public intellectuals, right behind China and Saudi Arabia. Reporters Without Borders, ranked Turkey 153rd out of 180, describing the country as a place, where “all means possible are used to eliminate pluralism.”

The current leadership also announced this year, its decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, an internationally recognized doctrine protecting women's rights, and has cracked down against the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) including ordering its closure and targeted LGBTQ+ community during Pride month this June. Erdoğan‘s government also dismissed binding European Court of Human Rights judgments ordering the release of some high-profile activists and politicians who have been behind bars on questionable terrorism charges. When students at the prestigious University of Bogazici protested against government-appointed rector earlier this year, they too were targeted.

Nearly eight years after the Gezi Protests, a court in Istanbul reopened a trial, with 16 defendants, some of whom were already acquitted, questioned on various charges including an attempt to overthrow the government.

In July of this year, the government announced plans to regulate foreign-funded media and misinformation. Last year, a new social media law came into effect that will have a lasting impact on digital rights and freedom of expression in Turkey.

With a new election just two years away, all eyes are on the ruling party and President Erdoğan as the party is experiencing a decline in support and potential challengers to the AKP. 

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