As it heads for snap elections on June 24, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) holds the record as the longest-serving party in the nation’s democratic history.
Its 16-year rule is unparalleled in Turkey, which held its first multi-party election in 1946. During that period the party has become synonymous with its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose own rule as prime minister and president has seen him surpass the tenure of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
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The AK Party came to power in a 2002 general election as it won the country’s first parliamentary majority in 11 years. The victory was seen as the result of a public backlash against previous coalition administrations’ economic mismanagement.
The beginning of the rise
Since coming to power, the party has endured numerous crises – not least a failed military coup attempt in July 2016 – while overseeing significant changes in Turkish society.
It now faces the challenge of winning parliamentary and presidential elections – brought forward from November 2019 – in the face of an economic slump, entanglement in Syria and deteriorating relations with allies such as the US.
Lisel Hintz, assistant professor at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, said the circumstances of the party’s initial rise helped it consolidate power over the following years.
“Voters reeling from a debilitating economic crisis in 2001 demonstrated they were fed up with unstable coalitions, corruption and economic mismanagement by failing to help any of the parties of the previous ruling coalition over the [electoral] threshold,” she said.
The AK Party’s charismatic leader and its roots in political Islam, which was previously targeted by secular powers in the military and judiciary, also played a role in creating an enduring supporter base.
Hintz pointed to the “combination of tangible benefits such as impressive – if not unsustainable – economic growth and massive construction projects, along with a rhetorical strategy that portrays Erdogan as the ‘man of the people’,” as being at the centre of the party’s appeal.
Should Erdogan win the presidential vote, Turkey’s parliamentary system of governing will be replaced with a presidential model that will cement his hold on power for at least another five years. Polls show him in the lead but unlikely to secure the more than 50 percent of ballots needed to avoid a second-round runoff.
Ertugrul Gunay, who served as culture and tourism minister from 2007 to 2013, characterised two distinct phases of the AK Party’s period in office, with the first creating the environment for its electoral triumphs.
Before 2012, the party followed a path that led to growing prosperity and improved social services, particularly in healthcare and housing, according to Gunay.
As part of the drive to join the EU, the AK Party government passed reforms to harmonise the justice system, human rights and the military’s role in line with European requirements.
It also launched infrastructure improvements across the country and attracted foreign investment.
Through initiatives such as the “Kurdish opening”, Erdogan moved to address minority rights for Kurds and non-Muslims while in the foreign policy arena, the government backed a UN plan to reunify Cyprus, split into ethnic Turkish and Greek entities since 1974.
According to Gunay, these steps “can be written down on the success list of the AK Party” that helped secure votes.
Many people supported the AK Party even though they weren't supporters per-se because they were sick of pre-2002 Turkey
‘The greatest achievements’
Yasar Yakis, a career diplomat who served as the AK Party’s first foreign minister, described the early reforms as its “greatest achievement” and pointed to former EU Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen’s 2004 characterisation of changes in this period as contributing “more than the reforms that [Turkey] achieved in the last 80 years”.
It was these successes that saw Turkey achieve an average growth rate of 7.5 percent between 2002 and 2011, while falling inflation and interest rates boosted domestic consumption.
Through political and economic initiatives under the EU accession programme, the AK Party “effectively used foreign policy as an arena in which to contest its opponents and advance the interests of its supporters,’ Hintz said, as businesses in the party’s central Anatolian heartland reaped the benefits.
Baris Unlu, a former political science professor at Ankara University, was among many who saw the AK Party’s 2002 victory as a chance to break with the past.
“I was hopeful,” he said. “I supported the Kurdish opening, the Armenian opening. Old Turkey was bad in many ways. It was corrupt, it was dominated by the Istanbul bourgeoisie and the army.”
However, Unlu, who was among hundreds of academics dismissed from their posts for signing a letter in January 2016 calling for peace in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, said he had become disillusioned with Erdogan’s rule.
“Many people supported the AK Party even though they weren’t supporters per se because they were sick of the pre-2002 Turkey. People supported things like the Kurdish opening but it’s been a huge disappointment.”
Yakis, the former foreign minister, pointed to Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, in which it called for the removal of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and a landslide victory in the 2011 general election as turning points.
“The government moved away from its democratic goals [and] started to head towards autocracy, totalitarian, full control over media and state mechanisms,” he said.
Erdogan the defining factor
While many critics have noted this move towards autocracy, it is Erdogan’s own dominance of the AK Party and his “strongman” persona that has perhaps been one of the defining factors in the party’s electoral success.
The 64-year-old president comes from a conservatively religious background and was brought up in a tough working class district of Istanbul – characteristics that have appealed to a large segment of Turkish society.
His role as Istanbul mayor in the 1990s saw him introduce many reforms that benefited residents such as tackling pollution, traffic congestion and water shortages. A brief spell in prison for reading a poem containing Islamic imagery reinforced his image as an opponent of the secularist old guard.
“Erdogan came to fame as the Islamist Welfare Party’s mayor of Istanbul and establishes his reputation as not only a pious individual in a powerful political position but also as someone focused on providing tangible benefits that would motivate voters more than lofty promises,” Hintz said.
She added: “Erdogan’s charisma, appeal to those who feel victimised by previous secularist regimes and savvy ability to frame flip-flops on issues as victories matters ‘a lot’ but that doesn’t really do anyone any good.”
As elections approach, it remains to be seen if the economic successes of the AK Party’s early years and Erdogan’s personal appeal are enough to convince voters again.