Event Summary: Taking Stock of 19 Years under the AK Party
On Friday, August 14, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘Taking Stock of 19 Years under the AK Party.’ The discussion featured Ravza Kavakçı Kan, member of Parliament from the AK Party and President of Interparliamentary Union Group at the Turkish Parliament, Talip Küçükcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University and former member of Parliament from the AK Party, and Hüseyin Alptekin, researcher of strategy studies at The SETA Foundation in Istanbul. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
Kan began by describing the environment in Turkey that she grew up in, which included a military coup in 1980, the inability under law for people with different ethnic identities to express themselves, and the unequal treatment of people by the state. In the past, the state was not in place to protect the citizens but rather keep them in line. She explained that the richness of the Turkish Republic became something that was unacceptable, but the AK Party brought along the idea that the state was responsible for serving the people. The AK Party made its way to the public as a people’s movement with aspirations of better democracy, equal rights, and the removal of military interventions. These ideas and aspirations led the Turkish public to support the party. The relationship between the citizen and state changed, with people trusting their government to work for them, not against them. As a part of these transformations, the representation of women in government has increased, with labor laws passed to give them equal pay. In 2004, the concept of men and women being equal was enshrined in the constitution. She made it clear that one of the most important powers behind the success of the AK Party is the work of the women’s branch. In regard to the recent controversy over Turkey’s potential withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, she noted that Turkey is now in a position to develop its own model.
Next, Kucukcan highlighted the fact that the words “justice” and “development” serve a unique purpose for the party. The party seeks to provide justice and develop opportunities for all citizens in Turkey. Its first time on the ballot, the AK party received 34% of the votes, and since then, the party has experienced a gradual increase in support across ideological, religious, and ethnic divisions. Now, public support stands at 49%. Policies that promote educational opportunities and access to healthcare for all bolstered electoral support for the party as these developments impacted the daily lives of Turkish citizens. The AK Party has spent a significant amount of time negotiating with the EU, and in 2010, those who had previously described Turkey and Erdogan as reformists started to perceive autocratic tendencies. Turkish-EU relations have undergone a number of stages, starting with the EU pushing for Turkey to address its own democracy and human rights record. Europe also questioned the role of Islam in the AK Party. In 2005, Turkey was accepted as a candidate for full membership. He explained that as a politician, Erdogan has balanced civil-military relations in Turkey and challenged the status quo throughout his time in various official positions.
Alptekin started by speaking specifically about the Kurdish issue and the transformation of rights for this minority group within Turkey. Kurds were at the top of the list of groups denied rights, recognition, and their culture within Turkey. The AK Party has instituted a long list of transformations in the daily lives of Kurds which include increased political participation, economic rights, and the ability to express their culture. In particular, the Kurdish language was banned prior to 2002. With the AK Party’s rise to power, the language is now able to be practiced freely in both public and private settings. The removal of bans prohibiting broadcasting in the Kurdish language paved the way for TRT to operate a TV channel exclusively in Kurdish. In addition, the AK Party made it legal to give newborn babies Kurdish names. This was only 19 years ago, and now Turkish universities and institutions have implemented free education on the Kurdish language and culture. Alptekin noted that there is a misperception in the West that Kurds are losing their rights in Turkey, but he added that there have not been any steps back from progress listed above. But the PKK problem inherently brings about the Kurdish issue; it is impossible to mention the Kurdish question without addressing the PKK issue. These misperceptions largely come from the idea that Turkey reinstituted counterterrorism operations in 2015 without cause, even though the PKK made the first move.