[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
In the past few weeks, the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and particularly Prime Minister Erdoğan have managed to alienate many liberal intellectuals who have been supportive of their cause.
This took place via a series of reckless statements. First, on the Kurdish issue, Erdoğan made a speech emphasizing the “oneness” of Turkey, neglecting the demands for political decentralization and more freedom for the Kurdish language. Then he bashed a statue in Kars – the “Monument to Humanity” – and called for its removal. His party released a confusing package of regulations on alcohol, and Erdoğan, while trying to say that his party respects all ways of life, spoke about drinkers in a way that sounded offensive to many. He also sued Ahmet Altan, the editor-in-chief of the liberal daily Taraf, which has been supportive of many of AKP’s policies, for “insulting” him in his column.
Meanwhile, AKP Minister Faruk Çelik made a quite illiberal remark on the Alevi issue. He said granting the status of “house of worship” to Alevi cemevis would be against “the revolutionary laws,” the laws imposed by Atatürk, which was a surprising thing for an AKP minister to say.
In other words, these days, the AKP looks both much less reformist than it used to be, and it sounds much less tolerant than it once was.
As disappointing as this is, it is also a bit understandable. This party has been in power for more than eight years, and it simply got tired of managing a very challenging country. Besides, since it is very likely to win the next elections decisively, it doesn’t feel the need to revise and renew itself.
Yet this is not the only explanation for the AKP’s recent tone. Instead of feeling all too secure about the upcoming elections in June, some commentators say, the AKP actually is very much focused on increasing its votes. And the whole retreat from liberal positions, they add, is in fact a plan to maximize the AKP’s support in the conservative camp.
This might be true, for most of the AKP’s liberal reforms did not sell well in the Turkish society. The “Kurdish opening” has certainly been appreciated by many Kurds, but it has disturbed the majority of Turks, which constitute the majority of society. The effort to mend ties with Armenia was appreciated by liberal circles and Western capitals, but not by the public, which believed that Armenia must de-occupy Azerbaijani territories first. And the “Alevi opening” did not grant any political capital to the AKP: Alevis remained quintessentially pro-CHP, whereas the Sunni majority remained uninterested, if not disturbed.
That’s why some believe that the AKP is acting in line with the prejudices of its conservative base these days. A parallel theory is that Erdoğan wants to get the votes of Turkish nationalists, minimizing the base of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP. If this really happens, the MHP will not be able to pass the 10 percent national electoral threshold, and thus not be able to enter Parliament. And the AKP’s election victory will be greater than ever.
An election strategy?
In fact, some pro-AKP commentators write openly about this strategy, and defend it as helpful not just for the party but also the whole country. The AKP’s next big mission, they say, is to draft a new constitution that will be in line with the EU’s criteria for liberal democracy. The AKP needs a huge victory next June, they add, to realize this goal. And the liberals, their story goes, should be patient with the AKP’s current rhetoric, which will give the party the power to move forward decisively.
I don’t buy that argument, though. First of all, I don’t think the AKP’s illiberal steps come solely from a deliberate election strategy. Erdoğan’s temper is a real problem, as well as the not-so-liberal attitudes in the party’s leadership and rank-and-file.
Secondly, even if the current rhetoric of the party is a deliberate election strategy to win nationalist votes, then, as liberal pundit Gülay Göktürk rightly pointed out, this is a dishonest strategy. A party is not supposed to give a different image of what it is going to do once it wins the next elections.
Thirdly, and most importantly, I dispute the presumption that the future of Turkish democracy will be secured by maximizing the AKP’s power. Granted, this has been the most reformist party in decades, and we still don’t seem to have a better option than keeping it power. But power is a corrupting force, and too much of it has never helped anyone.
Besides, the drafting of a new constitution might necessitate a powerful political actor such as a victorious AKP, but it will also need consensus among various political factions. In other words, the AKP’s capability to reconcile with the pro-CHP (Kemalist) Turks and the pro-PKK Kurds will be more important than the extra votes it will collect.
That’s why we need a calmer Erdoğan and a more levelheaded AKP. Whether we will see them will be one of the crucial questions of the months to come.