In Turkey, the first election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) brought Turkish citizens hope regarding the democratization of the country. Two terms later, opponents are imprisoned because of their political ideas, power is in the hands of AKP, and religious values are emphasized more and more in the politics and institutions of Turkey.
Since the 2002 election of the Justice and Development (AKP), it has been a de-democratization journey for the Republic of Turkey. As stated by Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik in 2010, "It's clear now that Turkey is no longer the liberalizing, emerging democracy under the AKP that it was only a few years ago. It's time the US and Europe stopped treating it as such—both for their own sakes, and for the sake of the Turkish people."
From the time the Republic of Turkey was established, politics of Westernization were at the heart of Turkish policies. Such politics have been most visible with the adoption of secularism, acceptance of the Latin alphabet, the change of the dress code and the establishment of civil law based on the Swiss code. While the rise of Islamist political parties has continuously been a potential threat for Turkey’s secular establishment, the military took the role of "the guardian of secularism" and launched three military coups to keep such parties out of power through 1980. With the election of former Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1983, Turkey's progression in establishing inner stability and creating an open market economy brought Turkey closer to the West.
Nearly ten years after the Özal regime, in 2002, AKP, which explicitly expressed its religious beliefs, came to power. For many, such a regime indicated the compatibility of democracy with Islam, and for others, it signified an end to Turkey’s Western identity. But during the first term of AKP between 2003-2007, the party pushed harder than any former government for Turkey’s possible admission to the European Union. Economically speaking, the AKP government presented a friendly attitude to privatization, which helped in the recovery from the 2001 financial crisis.
The second election of the AKP in 2007 under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and the aftermath politics of the election showed that the stated political agenda of the first term was rubbish. In the post-2007 period, AKP has taken several controversial policy steps that have "modified" democratic institutions. Some of these policies were designated to restructure major secular institutions such as the constitutional court, the higher board of education, and the military.
The alarm bells sounded with Erdogan’s attempts to equalize the degree granted by Islamic schools to those granted by regular public schools, which are secular. Such equality would open the doors for students of Islamic schools to enter university and give them the opportunity to work in the government. While this may sound like freedom of religion to some, it is controversial because it opens the floodgates for religious principles to infiltrate different branches of the government over time. Furthermore, religious schools only teach Islamic studies to their students; such a one- dimensional curriculum does not adequately prepare student for jobs in a government of a country founded on Western principles.
This infiltration of religious principles continued as the government gained more control over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which is responsible for judicial appointments. This marked the penetration of the party into the judiciary, making it blatantly possible for the government to penalize those who opposed their politics. Furthermore, in 2010 a referendum for proposed constitutional changes was held. AKP claimed that the purpose of the referendum was to resolve the lack of protection afforded by the current constitution on liberal values and the protection of personal privacy, since it had not been amended since its establishment by the military in 1982. While the referendum package did include a handful of liberal reforms, it consisted largely of changes designed to minimize the military’s power and abolish any potential threat the military could pose to Erdogan’s party.
The trajectory of AKP’s policies is undeniably one leading to a less democratic Turkey where more power is concentrated in fewer hands. Perhaps the best evidence for this is AKP’s campaign to imprison, without public trials or evidence, military officers, journalists and writers who have expressed opposition to Erdogan. All one needs to do in order to see AKP’s agenda is to connect the dots along this trajectory. Let’s hope the West puts an end to its naïve vision of the AKP and treats as the potential threat it is to Western and democratic interests.
The author is a Turkish international student brought up in Istanbul and currently attending university in the United States. She asked to remain anonymous as a precaution against potential problems that may arise because of expressing her discontent of the Turkish government publicly.