Over the last 13 years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has remained in power, despite losing its absolute majority in the June elections, quickly regained in November. Its politics however have not always been consistent. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is, according to many, the main cause of the government's authoritarian stance. A founding member of the AKP, from the beginning Erdoğan stood out for his leadership skills and aimed at including Islam in the party rising's political strategy. An Islamist inspired movement then took shape, the manifesto of which is titled Muhafazakar Demokrasi [conservative democracy]1.
Over the years, and especially after 2011, two currents emerged within the AKP: one more loyal to the initial liberal and democratic momentum, the most representative exponent of which is the former president Abdullah Gül, and one that has tended toward authoritarianism, following the leadership of Erdoğan. Opposed by the current president, Gül, a defender of liberal values such as freedom of the press and of expression, was not able to reappear on the political scene in 2015. In fact, Erdoğan prevented the strengthening of various forms of political opposition, starting with his old allies. Over the years, his authoritarianism has hindered anyone who has confronted his leadership, and has led Ankara towards an illiberal democracy, causing a drift that will be hard to reverse given the lack of an alternative, both within the AKP and in other camps. A policy shift could be implemented if someone emerged within the party who was capable of confronting the president. Others hope for the formation of a coalition of opposition forces, even if such an attempt already failed at the votes in November.
The regional variable
With Gül out of the game, many look at Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as a possible rival to Erdoğan. If there is a counterbalance within the AKP, it is still quiet, and there are those who admit that, with Erdoğan in the picture the victory was until now assured. The dilemma of the authoritarian and illiberal democracy is complicated by regional events.
The relationship with the West is one of the most fluctuating aspects of Turkish politics. In the first phase of the AKP government, Turkey had a strong desire to join the European Union. Despite the Turkish dossier being one of the slowest to proceed, the country was interested in all aspects of the integration process. Between 2010 and 2012, the Turkish government moved away from European, demands especially in the field of human rights with the censorship of the press, the introduction of restrictive laws on alcohol sales, and the armed suppression of the Gezi Park demonstrations in May 2013. At the same time, it lacked commitment towards resolving internal conflicts, as required by the EU. The peace process with the Kurds collapsed, for example.
However, due to the aggravation of the war in Iraq and Syria, the advance of the Islamic State and the increasingly important role of Turkey in the refugee crisis (almost two million in the country), relations with Europe have recently improved. Today, Ankara is an essential European ally on two fronts: immigration and the war in Iraq and Syria. No doubt the Turkish government is authoritarian, but not everything the president does is necessarily wrong. Sometimes, what is broadcasted by media is blear: the government and opposition both have their propaganda, but the picture is never black or white. For example, in terms of international politics in Turkey, some internal positions cannot be criticised. Initially, Turkey tried to mediate between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, for example. After the negotiations failed, however, Ankara made the mistake of supporting the opposition indiscriminately. Nevertheless, it would be unfair to accuse Erdoğan of financing Isis, or, as Russia claims, buying its oil.
The clash with Moscow
To complicate the situation, relations between Ankara and Moscow have worsen. The shooting down of a Russian warplane by the Turkish military in late November has sparked a debate in Turkey and abroad on the possible reasons for such a gesture. A clear answer has not yet arrived, but diplomacy from Ankara has taken steps to try to contain the mounting tension between the two countries. Now everything depends on whichever strategy Moscow will decide to adopt. A real risk is posed by Vladimir Putin's threat to cut off gas supplies from Russia to Turkey. Because of this, in recent weeks the Turkish government has been working on new economic and energy relations with countries such as Qatar.
Turkey's role in the current crisis in the Middle East could help the country regain democratic and liberal values. It would be an advantage for both Ankara and for Brussels, because on the one hand the country could move closer to Europe, including through economic aid, and on the other, Turkish moderate Islam could foster a relationship between the Western world and a non-fundamentalist branch of Islam.
Text collected by Francesca Miglio
1Emad Y. Kaddorah, The Turkish model: acceptability and apprehension, "Insight Turkey" vol. 12iv (2010), 113-129