Was the AKP’s slide toward authoritarianism inevitable?

I have been chewing on the question whether the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) slide to authoritarianism was inevitable or not for some time. Many analysts believe that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was intent from the very beginning on dominating the political system and introducing an authoritarian regime if that was necessary to remain in power.

As a former member of the party and a deputy in Parliament, I thought — perhaps too optimistically — that an orderly leadership transition from Erdogan to former President Abdullah Gul could have prevented the current malaise. We will never know. However, we are likely to find out what prevented Gul from taking bolder steps to counter Erdogan.

Public opinion seems to have forgotten that there was a reformist and transformational spirit within the AKP that understood the significance of moving the party to the center of the political spectrum. It is difficult to ascertain how much of that spirit was due to an urge for legitimacy or was a reflection of genuine change. However, I still believe that there was a critical mass within the party who could be considered moderate and rational. Unfortunately, they were all purged.

Following the fateful referendum of Sept. 12, 2010, Erdogan concluded that he had defeated the “deep state” and no longer needed to bother about legitimization or satisfying the skeptical. The first purge of moderates and centrists occurred in 2011. A careful examination of who was purged and who entered Parliament on the AKP ticket in 2011 would have given us adequate clues. In view of the overwhelming election result, few had an interest in examining what had happened next. The next phase of the purge of centrist figures occurred at the fourth party convention, in September 2012. Almost half of the 50-member Central Executive Board (MYK) of the party was changed. Again, those who were let go were more centrist figures — including myself. Those who replaced them were marked by their unconditional loyalty to Erdogan — the person. Those who asked questions, were close to Gul or had more centrist inclinations were pushed put. They were replaced by younger, less experienced, more rural and certainly distinctly “Milli GOrui” types. I reported this change in this column only four days after the convention and consequently had to face the wrath of influential people in the party.[1][i]

A careful review of Erdogan’s steps since 2010 suggests that he intended to transform the party into his personal political machine even back then. It is said that Gul was warning his colleagues about Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies as early as 2009. Erdogan’s urge for absolute power replaced his earlier caution and tendency to compromise. One by one he sidelined all power centers within the party. When he was faced with wide societal discontent at the Gezi Park protests and the Dec. 17 and 25, 2013 graft scandals he turned towards authoritarianism. He ordered the brutal suppression of the Gezi protests and is responsible for the deaths of eight young men. When the graft scandals broke he chose to stop the legal process and disrupt the judiciary. Because the charges were based on very solid evidence, there was little room for avoiding prosecution if normal legal procedures were allowed to proceed.

The transformation of the AKP from a progressive political actor that put Turkey into accession negotiations with the EU in 2005 to a totally regressive force by 2013 is extraordinary. It remains a truly dramatic transformation many are still unable to understand. Erdogan’s one-man rule has become more risky and dangerous for him and the country since then. The earlier promise of a predominantly Muslim society with a functioning democracy and a growing economy has been wasted by none other than Erdogan himself. He has squandered a historic opportunity for this country and succumbed to his urge for power and material gain. That is exactly why he no longer has a normal exit strategy and continues to be a liability for Turkish democracy.

Was it inevitable? My heart says not necessarily, but given what makes Erdogan tick, perhaps it was.

[1][i] Suat Kiniklioilu, “The convention and the party”, Today’s Zaman, 3 October 2012 http://www.todayszaman.com/columnist/suat-kiniklioglu/the-convention-and-the-party_294164.html