It has increased its share of the vote with every general election since 2002, and according to recent surveys continues to enjoy the support of at least half of the electorate. During these 10 years in power, the AKP government has displayed at least two different faces. There is on the one hand the AKP government which has led the reforms that have to a large extent brought to an end the regime of military-bureaucratic tutelage established with the introduction of multi-party politics at the end of World War II. On the other hand, there is the AKP government which has increasingly shed its reformist character, and currently seems to be intent on nothing else than appropriating the privileges the old regime bestowed on the state elites, thus threatening to replace the authoritarianism of the bureaucracy with that of the majority.
In an article recently published in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “The Turkish Paradox: How the AKP simultaneously embraces and abuses democracy” co-authors Michael J. Koplow and Steven A. Cook have aptly pointed to the Janus-faced character of the AKP government. Providing examples, they argue that the AKP government is with one hand making Turkey a more open society by expanding personal, religious and economic freedoms, while clamping down on openness with its other hand (Foreign Affairs, June 27, 2012).
The paradox is there for all observers of Turkish politics to see, but the question as to why the paradox, why the AKP government is Janus-faced, remains to be answered. In this context it needs to be pointed to the fact that the AKP government has gone through three phases that do not exactly correspond to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's designation as “apprenticeship, foremanship, mastership” phases. The first phase, which roughly lasted until the end of 2005, is the period of political and economic reforms that led the European Council to decide on the start of accession negotiations with Ankara. Rightly dubbed a “Quiet Revolution,” these reforms earned the AKP government domestic as well as international acclaim.
The second phase, which lasted roughly until 2009, is the period when the proponents of the regime of military-bureaucratic tutelage tried to topple the AKP government by coup attempts and by initiating a closure case against the party at the Constitutional Court. In this period the AKP government struggled to retain power and won thanks to collecting close to half of the national vote in the 2007 general elections.
The third phase of the AKP government is the period roughly since 2009, when it managed to effectively limit the influence of the masters of the tutelage regime and consolidate its hold on power. In this period the AKP's conservative rather than democratic face gained prominence, while Kemalist rules and institutions remained largely intact.
There are surely multiple factors that explain the “Turkish paradox,” the AKP government's evolution from a reformist to a conservative stance, three of which need to be underlined. First, it can be said that the AKP to a certain extent adheres to Kemalism, that is, it has an “Islamic Kemalist” character. The statist, nationalist and secularist indoctrination carried out by the Kemalists has surely left deep imprints not only on Muslim democrats but also on Turkey's socialists, liberals and even Kurdish nationalists. (See my column “Is the AKP ‘Islamic Kemalist'?”, Today's Zaman, Jan. 22, 2012)
Secondly, the AKP government, convinced to have sufficiently taken under control the Kemalist bureaucracy, seems to have moved towards a tacit agreement with it in order to perpetuate and further consolidate its hold on power. Having purged the armed forces of coup plotters, and achieved the predominance of generals who are against the political role of the military that harmed the credibility and professionalism of the army, the AKP seems to seek peaceful coexistence with the military. It may be said that the generals are trying to stay away from politics, and the AKP government is trying not to meddle with the internal workings of the military. (There are indications that a bombing in Uludere at the end of last year, and an operation that led to the downing of a Turkish military plane by Syria last month may have been initiated by the military without government authorization.)
And finally, the AKP government's current behavior can also partly be explained by Prime Minister Erdoğan's determination and strategy to get elected as president in 2014 with or without powers in a semi-presidential system to be adopted with the new constitution. This is perhaps why the AKP government is so careful in maintaining peaceful coexistence with the military.