Over the past decade, the Turkish “Justice and Development” Party [AKP] has achieved numerous successes, most prominently winning a third term in office this week, increasing its parliamentary share from 43 percent at the 2007 elections to 51 percent. Of course, this success stems from the fact that the party has made Turkey more affluent, and enhanced its ability to compete in global economic markets. Indeed, the UK based Financial Times newspaper claimed that global markets reacted with relief at the news of the Turkish party’s electoral victory, and its continued control of the Turkish economy until 2015.
Ever since the ruling party first came to power in 2002 it undertook a series of liberal economic reforms. These measures gained widespread appreciation, doubling Turkey’s gross domestic product and achieving a growth rate exceeding 11 percent in 2010. This distinguished performance was accompanied by diplomatic openness and strong Turkish diplomatic activity between 2002 and 2005, with the aim of securing Turkish membership to the EU. Following the 2007 election, Turkey exhibited a strong trend towards the Middle East, maximizing the AKP’s chances of remaining in power after the army and the nationalist/secular currents suffered a number of legislative and judicial defeats. In addition to this, the party has pushed through a set of legislative reforms that expanded personal freedoms as well as the rights of minorities, which is something that has earned the party great respect, even among the ranks of its [political] opposition.
However, despite all these successes, the AKP continued to raise doubts and cause national disputes with regards its attempts to change some “secularist” features of Turkey. This includes the issue of the hijab among female university students, support for religious schools, and the government targeting journalists and political opponents by launching media and judicial campaigns against them which is something that has resulted in Turkey having more political prisoners than China! However the major concern – especially in the West – is in Turkey distancing itself from its allies, Washington and NATO, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attempts to increase his popularity in Arab and Muslim countries by playing the “Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories” card, and defending Arab leaders like [Sudanese President] Omar al-Bashir, with regards to the International Criminal Court case.
Recently, Turkish foreign policy has been affected by the events of the so-called “Arab Spring”, with Prime Minister Erdogan rushing to call for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria to step down from power. This was seen as a sudden change by Erdogan, who had previously been awarded the Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights [by the Libyan regime], and had adopted a policy of rapprochement with the Baathist regime in Syria.
There are other causes of concern that pertain to Erdogan’s ambition to amend the Turkish constitution, which aim to transform the country into a presidential regime similar to that of France, particularly after he pledged to do this in the event that his party wins the required two-thirds parliamentary majority [required to implement a constitutional amendment in Turkey]. This is something that has increased fears that Turkey could become an authoritarian regime that would enable Erdogan’s party to tighten its grip on the country’s constitution and legislation. Perhaps this is what prompted The Economist magazine, which has long praised the party’s economic performance, to call upon the Turks to vote against the AKP, in order to protect Turkish democracy. The publication stated: “The AK party is all but certain to form the next government. But we would recommend that Turks vote for the CHP [the Republican People’s Party]. A stronger showing by Mr Kilicdaroglu’s party would both reduce the risks of unilateral changes that would make the constitution worse and give the opposition a fair chance of winning a future election. That would be by far the best guarantee of Turkey’s democracy.” (2 June 2011).
In the Arab world, admirers of the AKP were pleased with the news of the party’s electoral victory, indeed many demanded that Islamist parties [in our region] are given the same opportunity – as in Turkey – to prove themselves, or at least given the opportunity to participate in the political experience which may lead them to mature and become more moderate, rather than continuing this state of hostility that has existed for decades.
In fact, if Islamic parties in the Arab world showed the same level of intelligence and diplomacy as the AKP, they would not need anybody to grant them an opportunity [to participate in politics]. Yet Islamic parties, and the ideology they adopt, do not seem to produce positive results. Indeed radical movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and other groups in Jordan, Kuwait, and Yemen, are decades away from recapturing the intellectual and political experience of the AKP. In addition to this, the AKP’s success can be attributed to the existence of a civil environment, and the secular legacy of Turkey, which enabled this party to move towards moderation, which is something that its Arab counterparts have failed to do.
Here we must distinguish between the good and the bad aspects of the AKP’s experience. The economic performance achieved by the party has been as a result of following liberal Western economic policies, rather than transforming the Turkish economy into an Islamic one. As for foreign policy, the AKP has been successful thanks to its intellectuals and theorists, such as Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ibrahim Kalin, not thanks to any hard-line anti-Israel or anti-Western stances. These intellectuals have all stressed the necessity of diplomatic openness towards the Middle East and North African market, with the objective of consolidating Turkey’s investment and economic opportunities, rather than gaining popularity in Gaza, Kuwait, or Cairo.
In an interview with the Turkish “Hurriyet” newspaper, Professor Gün Kut argued that the AKP did not chart a new course in Turkish politics, but rather succeeded in following the path of economic and commercial openness with neighboring markets that previous fragile coalition governments failed to achieve during the 1990s. Perhaps the most notable proof of this can be seen is the reconciliation policy adopted by the AKP towards neighboring countries; from Armenia and Cyprus to the Kurdistan Region [of Iraq] and Syria. Indeed [Turkish Foreign Minister] Ahmet Davutoğlu’s rhetoric can be considered an extension of the same policy undertaken by [former Turkish Foreign Ministers] Hikmet Cetin (1991 – 1994) and Ismail Cem (1997 – 2002). As for Turkey distancing itself from the West, Professor Kut stressed that the West has also been distancing itself from Ankara, saying that Turkey has been dissatisfied with the US and Israel reducing their involvement in cooperative projects with Turkey.
The Arab world is misreading the AKP experience, attributing the party’s success to its Islamist identity or to Erdogan’s public stances and popular speeches. In reality, the AKP has been successful because it plays the game according to the political rules, and according to the constitution and the laws, rather than going against the state’s institutions. Indeed although almost a decade has passed since the AKP first came to power, the party has not moved to change Turkey’s secular constitution or impose religious guardianship of people’s freedoms.
If we compared this to the demands and slogans raised by Islamists in our region, we will see that there is a huge difference between the two. In Egypt, for example, we have seen calls for more than a million bearded Islamists to gather to demonstrate the presence of Islamists in the Egyptian [political] arena. Whilst in Kuwait, government operation has been thwarted for years due to the segregation of male and female university students. Whilst in Iran, there has been a governmental campaign to remove home satellite dishes under the pretext of protecting morality. So can the region’s Islamists be compared to those in Turkey?
There are two aspects to the AKP experience, one is positive whilst the other is negative. It is wrong to view the party’s failures – and the desires of some of its figures – as being a cause for its success. Islamist parties and societies in the region can benefit from the AKP’s experience by focusing on its positive elements, rather than by simply viewing the party as proof of the success of the Islamist political model. Erdogan’s public statements and speeches are not the party; rather there is an entire team of influential thinkers and administrators behind him who have all contributed to the party’s success. Erdogan’s own personal charisma has been important for the AKP, yet we have witnessed several occasions in which those behind him sought to remove certain content from his speeches should they feel that this might jeopardize the party’s interests.
These [AKP] figures were students of Necmettin Erbakan and other hard-line Islamists, and their success can be seen in their overthrowing of the old guard and their transformation of the party’s ideology and the manner in which it deals with politics to conform to the civil and secular requirements of the Turkish state. If the Islamists in the region are seeking to be inspired by the experience of the AKP in Turkey, then this is precisely what they must do.
Erdogan once appeared on Turkish television singing the AKP election campaign song in order to attract voters. The question that must be asked here is: Will the Arab Islamists follow the Erdogan model and sing to Arab voters?