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15 years of Turkey's AKP: Is it a success story?

Turkey's Justice and Development Party has had economic and political successes, but the current state of affairs could threaten that legacy.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses during the enlarged meeting of provincial chairmans of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, on June 2, 2016. / AFP / ADEM ALTAN        (Photo credit should read ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which accustomed Turkey to tumultuous celebrations of any occasion it could think of, including to show respect for those killed in last month’s coup attempt, opted for a low-key observance to mark the 15th anniversary of its founding Aug. 14. The AKP came to power only 15 months after its establishment and has been the sole ruling party for 14 years. Has the party been successful?

To many, it might seem superfluous to ask such a question about a party that has won 12 consecutive elections. Also, let's not forget, Turkey's gross domestic product has increased threefold. Thousands of kilometers of highways, hundreds of schools and hundreds of thousands of dwellings have been built. Accession negotiations began with the European Union, the military’s political power was curtailed, and important advances were made in human rights and freedom of expression. The party also experienced a number of disturbing episodes during its years in power.

When the AKP first won power, in 2002, the party leader at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was legally banned from politics. In 2007, just before Abdullah Gul was elected Turkey's first AKP president, the military issued a warning to the party on its website. A year later, the AKP was confronted with a court case seeking to close it down. In 2012, the public prosecutor summoned the chief of national intelligence, Hakan Fidan, to account for secret contacts with the Kurdistan Workers Party. Protests that began at Gezi Park in Istanbul spread to 80 cities in 2013. That same year in December, allegations of corruption surfaced, with 25 graft probes resulting in the resignation of four government ministers.

The question of whether the AKP has been successful, however, is not how it has dealt with tough issues in the past, but what the picture is today. To free prison space for the tens of thousands of people detained after the failed coup, the government is releasing convicted criminals before their sentences are complete. Thousands of judges, scores of journalists, academics and businessmen have been jailed. Torture has made a comeback, and EU membership appears a distant dream.

Tensions with the United States have peaked. The Kurdish issue has reached an impasse, with related bloodshed from the past year being the worst of the past decade. Islamic State terrorists have hit city squares, the biggest airport in the country and now weddings. Unemployment is on the rise, and tourism, one of the largest sectors of the country, is in deep trouble.

Despite these negative developments, the popularity of AKP co-founder Erdogan continues to grow. Public support for him is estimated at more than 60%. Is this incredible amount of backing a success story?

According to Yasin Aktay, the AKP deputy chairman and spokesman, “No doubt, it is.” Aktay recalled that in November’s snap elections, the AKP received about 50% of the vote and maintained the trend of increasing its vote share.

“These are signs that our people support what we have been doing, and we are far ahead of all other parties when it comes to responding to popular demands,” Aktay said. “No matter from what perspective you look, ours is a success story.”

Journalist Ali Sirmen, however, believes the AKP's base is sufficient to win elections only as long as it steers clear of trying to find solutions to problems. Responding to questions from Al-Monitor, Sirmen said that the biggest obstacle to the resolution of the Kurdish issue is this constituency.

“The AKP’s lack of sufficient support to tackle problems, for example the Kurdish issue, prevents the AKP from acting independently,” he said. “The AKP base does not support autonomy and cultural rights on the Kurdish issue.”

The AKP had expedited the EU process after taking power, initiating full accession negotiations in 2005. Today, negotiations have been suspended, and things can only get worse, as Erdogan has repeatedly warned that unless Turkish citizens are granted visa-free travel to EU states by the end of October, Turkey will retract its agreement on controlling the flow of refugees to Europe.

According to Aktay, the Europeans are not responding to Turkey’s efforts. “We realize they don’t want Turkey, but they are not saying that explicitly,” he said.

After the AKP took power, its foreign policy goal was “zero problems with neighbors.” Today, although efforts have been made to resolve troubled relations with Russia and Israel, Turkey cannot point to a single problem-free relationship with any of its neighbors. Aktay blames the neighbors.

“You have to look at what these countries are doing themselves,” he said. “We have every right to blame them. Should we be on better terms with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, who has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Is the United States acting properly by sheltering a terrorist? The problem in Iraq is not only our problem. Turkey has lived through a major coup attempt and did not receive proper support. If the countries we want to solve our problems with are happy with the situation as it is, there isn’t much we can do about it. Nevertheless, our goal is still zero problems.”

Sirmen says the AKP is experiencing isolation because it has lost the support of Europe and the United States. This situation is forcing the party to seek reconciliation with the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Action Party.

Among the risks experts cited after the July 15 coup attempt was danger to the economy, but the uneasiness of the markets did not last long. The "hot money" that Turkey's economy came to depend on in recent years is coming back. There is no panic in the markets despite endless terror acts. On Aug. 25, the day after Turkish tanks entered Syria, there was an attack on the convoy of CHP opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and the Turkish lira made gains.

Economics expert Ege Yazgan told Al-Monitor that during the AKP's years in power, the party performed well in terms of the economy. Except during the 2008 global economic crisis, the Turkish economy grew. Growth stood at 6.5% for 2002-2007, 9% for 2010-2011 and 3.5% in the following years. Per capita income today is a little more than $9,000, but there were years when it rose above $10,000.

Yazgan attributes the AKP’s electoral support to economic growth. “People who couldn’t afford a glass of tea at a coffee house now go to malls,” he said. “This growth mostly benefited the low-income brackets, that is, the AKP’s base, its constituents. This is the real reason why the AKP still enjoys the formidable support of the people.”

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