Protests against Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government could end up strengthening his ruling Islamist party as his suspected desire to expand the powers of the presidency and assume it next year, a move that could have split the AKP, has been effectively scuttled.
Michael Koplow writes at the Ottomans and Zionists blog, “When Erdoğan stood the chance of becoming the president in a new presidential system,” which would have meant unseating his ally Abdullah Gül, “it would have led to a clash between the two men and the distinct possibility that the AKP would divide into two camps.” When the political system remains unchanged, a less prominent conservative could be elected president in 2014 and Gül assume the prime ministership after parliamentary elections in 2015.
In the last few days Gül has been distancing himself from Erdoğan, first disagreeing with Erdoğan’s contention that elections confer upon the government the right to do anything it pleases and then implying that he might not approve Erdoğan’s new law restricting the sale of alcohol. These are moves designed to shore up his support within the party and to appeal to AKP members for whom Erdoğan’s scorched earth approach is wearing thin.
A ban on alcohol sales between ten o’clock at night and six in the morning was one of the final straws for Turkey’s seculars who have regarded warily their country’s drift toward Islamism throughout Erdoğan’s ten years in office. Abortion rights were also restricted and headscarf bans in universities lifted.
While such measures have not raised alarm among the country’s majority Sunni population — Erdoğan got 50 percent of the vote in the last election — Alevi and Kurdish minorities as well as young and urban voters, who tend to be less conservative, have grown restless.
Even Erdoğan’s core supporters probably care less about his break with Turkey’s aggressively secular past than its economic success under his stewardship. Only 12 percent of Turks favors the imposition of Islamic law whereas the economy has boomed in recent years. Erdoğan depends for his majority on a growing middle class that is increasingly urban. A recent slowdown in growth — Turkey’s economy only expanded 2.2 percent last year after average growth rates of 9 percent through 2010 and 2011 — should worry him more than demonstrations from people who are unlikely to vote for him in the next election.
Even so, the AKP is still likely to win the next election, given the absence of an effective opposition.
“There seems to be a constituency of Turks who crave a more liberal party that will be a bit more humble and protect the rights of all Turks while keeping in mind that differences of opinion do exist,” writes Koplow. But there is currently no such party, he observes.
The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook pointed out in April that the two largest opposition parties, the leftist Kemalists and far-right nationalists, are geographically confined, respectively to the major cities in the west and Iğdır Province in the east, and lack a compelling alternative vision to Erdoğan’s, leading many centrist Turks to vote for the latter reluctantly.
Cook predicted that the Islamists’ monopoly on power would “not bode well for the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.”
When journalists are jailed, corporations are punished with huge tax levies because their owners are deemed unfriendly to the AKP and the courts are used to dole out political payback, it is the fault of Erdoğan and his party’s other leaders whose authoritarian tendencies are clear but it also the responsibility of Turkey’s other political parties who are all at once ineffective, insular and feckless, rendering them trivial in Turkey’s fascinating transformation.
Perhaps recent protests will prompt the Kemalists to unite and offer an alternative platform to the ruling party’s that a plurality of Turks can rally behind. For now, though, Erdoğan still has the upper hand.