In recent weeks, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been heavily criticized for focusing almost exclusively on trying to lift the ban preventing women wearing headscarves from attending university and ignoring the growing number of problems facing the country – including a cooling economy, rising unemployment, increasing corruption, a growth in violent nationalism, and Turkey’s stalled candidacy for EU membership.
Even if it had the political will, addressing such an array of issues would be a daunting challenge for any political party. Yet, six months after the party was returned to power with a landslide victory in the July 2007 general election, the prospects of the AKP being able to solve the problems facing Turkey are now almost exclusively dependent on one man, namely Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Indeed, in terms of decision-making and the implementation of policy, Erdogan not only dominates the AKP, but he also wields more personal political power than any Turkish politician in at least a generation.
In the general election of July 2007, the AKP won 46.6% of the popular vote, up from 34.3% when it first came to power in November 2002. Despite merging with another party in the run up to the polls, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which was the AKP’s closest rival, took only 20.9%. Opinion polls suggest that, over the last six months, popular support for the AKP has increased even further. It currently appears electorally unassailable. The opposition parties have not only failed to capture the public imagination, but their leaders are so uninspiring and uncharismatic that not even their most fervent supporters believe that there is any realistic prospect of another party replacing the AKP in government at any time in the foreseeable future. Nor are there any signs of new leaders or new political parties waiting in the wings.
Erdogan has always had authoritarian and autocratic tendencies. In February 2003, with the AKP firmly ensconced in power, he even changed the party’s statutes, replacing its original constraints on the leader’s authority with a centralized hierarchy in which virtually all power was concentrated in his own hands. Nevertheless, during the AKP’s first term in power, there were other individuals in high-ranking positions who either had personal powerbases in the party or an international standing. They included Bulent Arinc, the parliamentary speaker from 2002 to 2007, who had a strong following in the conservative wing of the party, and Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, who was one of the leaders of the AKP’s Kurdish MPs. Even if he did not originally have a strong following among the party’s grassroots, during his term as foreign minister, President Abdullah Gul acquired considerable international stature.
Under the Turkish Political Parties Law, the leader can effectively select all of a party’s candidates for parliament. During the period 2002 to 2007, there was considerable resentment among many AKP MPs at Erdogan’s autocratic methods and his tendency to surround himself with a closed circle of trusted advisors. In summer 2004, when a group of AKP MPs complained that they needed time to debate a draft law in parliament, Erdogan brusquely told them that all of the necessary preparations had been made, and their job as MPs was merely to approve whatever the party leadership put before them. Together with others who had voiced unease at Erdogan’s autocratic methods, the MPs were subsequently omitted from the AKP’s list of candidates for the July 2007 elections.
Gul was elevated to the presidency after the July 2007 elections. Erdogan’s new Cabinet excluded any individuals who, such as Arinc and Aksu, had strong personal followings in the AKP or who had demonstrated a willingness to oppose Erdogan. As result, Erdogan now has as much a monopoly of power within the AKP as the AKP does in country.
The tightening of Erdogan’s control over the AKP was vividly demonstrated in September 2007 when the party’s attempts to draft a new constitution collapsed in farce. AKP officials had repeatedly insisted that the new constitution was being drawn up by an independent commission without any party affiliation. But the members of the commission had been hand-picked by the AKP, the commission itself made no attempt to consult with other sections of society, and the contents of its draft constitution remained a closely guarded secret. When copies leaked to the press suggesting that the new constitution would lift the headscarf ban, AKP officials attempted to stifle the protests from hard-line secularists by declaring that the document was still in draft form and that Erdogan would make the final decision on the new constitution’s contents.
In recent months, a similar trend can be seen in almost every aspect of government policy, from energy to security to foreign affairs. It is not only that Erdogan makes all the decisions. Ministers increasingly defer even implementing policy until Erdogan becomes actively involved.
The most striking recent example occurred in January when Erdogan cancelled a planned trip to the World Economic Forum Summit Davos in order to stay behind in Ankara to try to push amendments to the current constitution to lift the headscarf ban. The Turkish business community had spent considerable time and money on presentations to promote Turkey to foreign businesses, believing that Erdogan would be there to support them. For many, his cancellation was more than just an insult. It was also regarded as Erdogan prioritizing his ideological agenda over the long-term interests of the country.
Erdogan will be 54 at the end of February. With the exception of his diabetes, which is continuously monitored by his doctors, he appears to be good health. However, there is little doubt that if, for whatever reason, he was to be debilitated, the government would grind to a halt and the AKP probably split. Even if he remains in good health, his insistence on trying to run the country almost single-handedly means that he simply does not have sufficient time to devote to the growing raft of problems facing Turkey. Perhaps, most critically, he has no obvious heir apparent, either in the AKP or in any other Turkish political party.