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Turkey's conservatives coalesce under Erdogan

The AK Party has united social conservatives and presided over a burgeoning economy, but also left the nation divided.

Last Modified: 11 Jun 2013 14:37
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Supporters see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party as saviours [AFP/Getty]

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has flexed the muscles of his ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party over the last few days at pro-government rallies across the country, as raucous protests by a wide spectrum of disenchanted Turks continue.

Turkey has been in a turmoil since late May after a sit-in protest against an urban development project in the heart of Istanbul, the largest province and financial capital of the country, transformed into country-wide anti-government demonstrations.

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More than two weeks into the uprising, reports of excessive force by police continue to surface, and peaceful protests occasionally turn into acts of vandalism and violent street clashes.

Erdogan, meanwhile, refuses to alter his position regarding the development project, downplaying and rebuking the so-called "Gezi Park protests".

"We won't do what a small number of looters have done - they burn and destroy," Erdogan said on Sunday from the southern province of Adana. 

In a separate speech, however, he called on the protesters to stop the rallies warning, "Or else I will have to speak the language you understand. Patience has an end to it."

AK backers

Supporters say the AK Party has taken the most earnest steps towards democratisation that Turkey has ever seen, a particular relief for the religiously conservative elements of Turkish society. The business elite, interested in a stable country and economy, also eventually joined in to support the AK Party-led government.

Democratic reforms, successful economic policies and removal of the military from politics have made me more affiliated with the party.

Sakir Dogan, 28, AK Party supporter

Etyen Mahcupyan, an Armenian-Turkish columnist for the pro-government Zaman newspaper, told Al Jazeera recent developments - such as the attempt to limit abortions, moves to restrict alcohol consumption, and the handling of the Gezi Park protests - could see AK lose a sizeable chunk of its political base.

"Five to seven percent of the AK Party voters who are not conservative or religiously sensitive might become swing voters," Mahcupyan said. 

However, Sakir Dogan, a 28-year-old master's student from the eastern province of Malatya, said he will continue to back Erdogan and his party, pointing to its conservative identity as the primary reason.

"Democratic reforms, successful economic policies and removal of the military from politics have made me more affiliated with the party," Dogan told Al Jazeera. 

Conservatives "were suppressed in this country since the republic's foundation, and AK Party ended the system imposed from top to bottom," Dogan said. 

The AK Party won elections for the third time in 2011 with 50 percent of the vote.

The self-proclaimed "conservative democrat" party first won power in the 2002 general elections, after Turkey was hit by a serious financial crisis, and the mainstream centre-right parties of the time were swept away from the country's political scene. Only two parties won seats in parliament in that election: the AK Party and the self-described social democratic Republican People's Party.

'90s tensions

Mahcupyan said the party's first election win was a result of the social tensions of the 1990s, years when the so-called "secular establishment" - including the army, mainstream media and NGOs - acted as the guardians of the republic.

The Turkish military inserted itself politically during a bloodless coup on February 28, 1997. 

 Turkey protesters reject political labels

Greater secular practices came with the 1997 military intervention: a stricter headscarf ban for university students; an eight-year mandatory primary school education, which prevented students from early entrance to religious schools; and the closing of private Islamic schools. However, these have been all revoked through legal challenges.

After the AK Party took power, the military was gradually removed from the political arena.

"The party's identity was in line with the periphery of the society which had Islamic sensitivities, so the rise of the AK Party is not surprising," Mahcupyan said.

"However, staying in power for three terms depended much on its economic performance and termination of the army's role in politics."

The AK Party took over an economy suffering from inflation and high unemployment, and transformed it to stability by pushing growth through trade and foreign investment. According to data from Turkish statistical agency TUIK, the Turkish economy recorded an average annual growth rate of 5.2 percent from 2002-11, but grew more slowly in 2012 at 2.2 percent.

Social divide

However, during the rule of the AK Party, Turkey's social divisions have grown.

Most secular, Western-minded Turks see the party as an existential threat to the republic's secular structure, believing AK is trying dictate its conservative values on the whole of Turkish society.

Recent restrictions on alcohol include: forcing stores selling it to close by 10pm, banning the advertisement of alcoholic products, and prohibiting alcohol licenses for businesses within 100 metres of places of worship or education.

The Turkish government has also suggested criminalising adultery and abortion, but stepped back after public uproars.

Koray Caliskan, a political scientist at Bosphrous University in Istanbul and a columnist at the Radikal newspaper, told Al Jazeera the AK Party has been increasingly "authoritarian", and the Gezi Park protests reflect public reaction to this trend.

"They repress any opposing voice either using political tools - even in the party itself - or the police forces on the streets," Caliskan said.

The AK Party is trying to shift public attention away from its mistakes by implementing controversial policies, according to Caliskan.

"They tried to disctract the public attention from killing of 34 Turkish citizens by the Turkish military in Uludere [in Sirnak province near the Iraqi border] by trying to impose restrictions on abortion. No one was found guilty, not even one soldier because of what happened in Uludere," Caliskan said.

A petrol bomb explodes in front of riot police [AP]

"As a result of AK Party's policy on the war in Syria, there were bomb attacks in Reyhanli [a district of Hatay province near the Syrian border] killing 51 people. Instead of finding out the forces behind the attack, they prohibited sales of alcohol after 10pm."

Conservative bias

All those interviewed for this article criticised the party on the way the Gezi Park protests have been handled, particularly the police.

But it's clear many Turks still support the government despite the recent events. For conservatives who say they have been pushed around by the secular state for decades, the AK Party is seen as a saviour. 

Esen Kose, a 40-year-old housewife living in Beykoz, Istanbul, said the party was her choice as a conservative.

“Erdogan has managed to unite conservatives under one roof with his charismatic personality,” she said.

Kose - who said she is affiliated with the women's branch of the AK Party - criticised the prime minister, however, for not using “moderate language” regarding the Gezi Park demonstrations.

Another AK Party voter said it's all about the economy. Muhsin Bilgic, a 25-year-old business owner from the southern province of Hatay - said the AK Party's policies to increase international trade have had a positive impact on him personally.

"We are commercially valued more, respected more, especially among Arabs," said Bilgic.

Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Thriceee

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Al Jazeera
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