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Samuel F. Mueller: Turkey’s Disappearing Opposition

Since the religiously-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002, Islam and secularism have become particularly controversial topics. Political and academic debates are now more often than not framed by questions such as whether a religiously-based party can seriously support a secular democratic order, or even whether Turkey might become a second Iran. Questions about the relationship between religion and politics and the ideology of the AKP are surely important, and many AKP policies must be seriously critiqued. However, these debates do not address the key issues in Turkey’s democratization process. The basic and most crucial problem for Turkish democracy is not political Islam, but the lack of a serious political opposition—a must for every democracy. The recent local elections on March 29 brought no substantial change to the dangerously unsettled balance of power. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the AKP, is a goal-oriented pragmatist who knows how to use religious political language to reach the masses. Islamic symbolism frames Erdogan’s politics—he abstains from alcoholic beverages at state receptions, for example. However, Erdogan’s strength is that he has long been aware that while populist gestures win plaudits, sound policies win votes. When Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul in the mid 1990s his popular support rested not on his attempts to introduce, for example, gender-separated seating arrangements in public transit, but on his efforts to improve urban infrastructure. Today, the AKP scores points with a neo-liberal economic approach and international-focused policies. Islam is thereby a means of communication and an articulation of specific political interests. This religious symbolic frame should not be confused with an attempt to turn Turkey in a theocracy. An Islamic state in Turkey is not a political goal in itself and therefore not something we need to worry about—at least not now. However, the balance of political power is a major concern. The AKP has become so powerful that we must worry about the democratic culture of Turkey’s party system. Currently, the AKP holds 338 of the 545 seats in parliament. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) holds the second biggest bloc, though only 98 seats. On the local level, though the AKP lost some votes in the recent elections to the CHP and missed its target of 47 percent, it remains basically unchallenged. Apart from the CHP, there is no one else to challenge the AKP’s predominance. But why does the main opposition party lack any real chance at unseating the reigning power?

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