Viewpoint: What now for Turkey's ruling party?

Supporters during AKP rally in Istanbul stadium in May 2012

It is 10 years since Turkey's newly formed Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power after a period of economic crisis. The centrist Islamic party has overseen a decade of transformation - but can it continue to hold on to power?

The AKP has much to celebrate as it marks the 10th anniversary of its coming to power. It has evolved from being a reformist faction of a minority Islamist movement into what many now regard as the natural party of government.

In 2002, the AKP came into power and into bitter confrontation with the self-appointed guardians of the Turkish establishment. A decade on, it has become the establishment.

The party owes much of its success to the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan - a respected former mayor of Istanbul whose political instincts and impassioned rhetoric spoke straight to the concerns of first and second generation urban migrants. Though reared in the religiously conservative and ultranationalist Welfare Party, he decided to make a dash for the political centre.

Turkey Direct branding

In this he was accompanied by current president Abdullah Gul, the brains to Erdogan's charismatic brawn. Together in 2001 they established the AKP, which rejected the notion it was Islamist or even "Islamic Democrat". Instead, it redefined a greater acceptance of religion in public life as part of a wider struggle to make Turkey more democratic.

Mr Erdogan travelled to Washington to declare his commitment to Nato. He convinced Brussels he was serious about EU accession, and he reassured financial markets he was eager to play by the rules.

And because the AKP had grassroots support, the promises they made were credible.

Elite's failure

Indeed, the party attracted support from many Turkish liberals who saw in Mr Erdogan's willingness to take on the Turkish military the best hope of removing the dead weight of the 1982 constitution left after a period of martial law. The hope was that a state which had put itself above the individual would start to see the world the other way round.

Many were never convinced, rejecting the notion that Mr Erdogan's conversion was a Nixon-in-China epiphany, accusing him instead of a cynical manoeuvre to outflank Turkey's aggressively secular elite.

Turkish Preisdent Abdullah Gul at an event in London in November 2011 Turkey's President Abdullah Gul has been an integral part of the AKP's rise to power

Yet in many ways it was the failure of that elite which brought the AKP to power. Throughout the 1990s, unstable coalition governments merely tinkered with reform, unwilling or unable to address spiralling public debt. Bank interest was high, which was fine for some, but the have-nots watched prices rise on average by 70% every year.

Turkey was like a man carefully sawing away at the very branch on which he was sitting, somehow confident he would be able to leap off in time.

The earthquake which shook the industrial northwest of the country in 1999 was the catalyst for collapse. Confidence in the government's ability to cope was buried under the rubble of ruined buildings, skewed urban development and municipal corruption.

The coup de grace for Turkey's old guard occurred in February 2001 when an argument between the president and his cabinet over corruption spilled into the press and sparked a contagion in the markets.

Economic upturn

The economy went into free-fall. Overnight interest rates soared to many thousands of percent, the lira halved in value, and more than 20 commercial banks went under.

So when Turkey went to the polls on 3 November 2002, no party which had been in the previous parliament managed to gain a single seat. The untested AK Party pulled off a win under Turkey's idiosyncratic system of proportional representation, just under two-thirds of MPs with just over one third of the vote.

The party did not squander its opportunity. While it could not claim credit for devising the 2001 rescue package, it did manage to stick to an IMF diet of fiscal austerity. In 2005, Turkey completed for the first time an IMF standby agreement (a case of 18th time lucky) which it then extended for another three years.

Antique Turkish banknotes in shop in Istanbul Turkey's inflating currency was revalued in 2005

Painful cuts in public spending were offset by the return of market confidence. Interest rates fell, the economy began to grow. With inflation under control, the Central Bank was able to slash six zeros off the currency so that it no longer cost a million liras to buy a loaf of bread.

The AKP was handsomely re-elected in 2007 with an increased share of the popular vote, albeit with a reduced parliamentary majority. It repeated that performance in 2011. Few doubt it would be elected again if there was an election tomorrow.

And yet the AKP may not be entirely immune to what pundits refer to as "the 10-year rule", or the sort of atrophy which affects governments as they grow old. Some suggest the decline began in 2007 when Gul ascended to the presidency, and Mr Erdogan lost a lone restraining hand.

Arab Spring upheaval

Certainly when it comes to urban development, the prime minister tends not to look before he leaps. In an increasingly centralised system he has been the instigator of a series of grandiose projects including a Third Bosphorus Bridge across Istanbul, and an underwater tunnel from Asia to Europe that would pump traffic into the city's historical peninsula.

At the same time the government has backtracked on many key areas of policy. A "democratic opening" to resolve the country's longstanding Kurdish problem turned out to be a Pandora's box that was quickly slammed shut.

And while Turkey prided itself on an ever more independent foreign policy based on its deep understanding of its region, it found itself unprepared for the upheavals of the Arab Spring. A growing friendship with Syria - the centre piece of a pragmatic strategy of "zero problems with neighbours" - turned out to be not so pragmatic after all after violence erupted in Syria in early 2011.

Prime Minister Erdogan after meeting Turkish Olympic boxing team in June 2012 Mr Erdogan may have a political battle on his hands to keep the AKP in power

There are problems ahead. Mr Erdogan will almost certainly be a candidate in the presidential contest in 2014, to be decided for the first time by a popular poll. Yet this means allowing the party he dominated for so long to fend for itself. And with the economy entering a lean cycle, it may face a more critical electorate.

Yet the greater problems may not be the AKP's weakness but its very success. For 10 years, the party has battled with courts venomously opposed to its very existence as well as sabre-rattling generals. It has taken on these opponents and won. The judiciary has been overhauled and the military tamed in a series of coup conspiracy trials.

The result is that the party's reforming zeal has wilted.

While it still maintains it will overhaul the 1982 Constitution, in practice the government has grown comfortable using some of its draconian powers. There are by some reckonings over 8,000 Kurdish dissidents in prison awaiting trial - a use of the stick instead of the carrot. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently awarded Turkey the dubious title as the country with the most journalists in jail.

The AKP has announced its conviction that it will be in power in 2023 to blow out the candles when the Turkish Republic celebrates its first centenary. If the country is to celebrate too, then the party must rediscover its reformist roots.

Andrew Finkel has been an Istanbul-based journalist for over 20 years and is the author of the recently published Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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