Since 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) faced two major challenges. The party successfully resisted efforts to push it out of parliamentary politics and proved capable of remaining in the political center with vast popular support.
Who wanted to push the AK Party out of parliamentary politics? The Westernist minority that considered itself the true owners of Turkey. In their view, the AK Party’s rise to power was a mistake. But time proved them wrong, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party transformed the country’s political landscape. A group of political elites capable of representing the people penetrated the center while the Westernist minority, fearing they were losing power, used their media outlets to question the elected government’s legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the Westernist elite encouraged the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to raise the same kinds of questions. Over the years, the test of legitimacy assumed new guises, but there was no shortage of tests and questions at any time. In this sense, the AK Party was confronted with two smear campaigns: That the movement had a hidden agenda and that its brand of politics meddled with people’s lifestyles.
Until 2013, the AK Party’s opponents regularly used the first argument to target it. Citing the religious-conservative background of the party’s founders, they fueled fears about the future of secularism. By extension, they argued that the AK Party’s main goal was to make Turkish society more homogeneous and religious. Hardliners even suggested that Erdoğan’s party wanted to replace the Republic with a theocratic state.
In truth, they were not just running a smear campaign against the AK Party. It was also a political strategy designed to keep the elected government in line, impose policies and deprive the party of its righteous power. The AK Party itself identified as a group of conservative democrats and it only made sense that it would seek to uphold family values and develop cultural and educational policies in line with tradition. But the smear campaign partially worked on the AK Party at the end of the day.
It was only after the AK Party leadership felt that it was in charge and believed that Turkish politics was normalizing that it started to implement social policies in line with its political perspective. To be clear, the steps that the government took in Turkey were similar to the policies implemented by conservative governments in the West.
It was around this time that the next smear campaign began. According to this new line of argument, the AK Party was interfering in the lifestyles of political opponents, which was the driving force behind the Gezi Park revolts. In December 2013, it was the same smear campaign that encouraged Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) operatives in the judiciary and law enforcement to target the government and promote anti-Erdoğan sentiment.
To make matters worse, the same argument was used by the coup plotters when they issued a statement announcing their takeover of the government last summer. To be clear, none of this had to do with facts at any point. It is therefore that Erdoğan keeps addressing the mainstream after each election victory.
Today, the AK Party no longer has to try and prove its legitimacy. After all, it was the party’s ability to survive the above-mentioned smear campaigns that shaped its brand of politics. Efforts to raise questions about the AK Party’s legitimacy and push it out of parliamentary politics effectively empowered it.
Moving forward, the party’s main challenge will be to speak to the social mainstream. It will have to adapt to changing circumstances and work harder to develop new projects that appeal to the social mainstream. This is the AK Party’s next challenge.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on June 7, 2017.