AKP and the Politics of “Impossible Brotherhoods”

Nearly two decades of political rule by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has left certain marks in the political arena, with the party leadership developing a certain rhetoric in reference to their counterparts and their supporters. In foreign affairs, as in domestic, social, cultural, economic, and other policy areas, AKP officials have preferred to refer their supporters and political allies in the framework of “brotherhoods” or “sisterhoods.” The AKP leadership has looked upon the people both inside and outside the country not in more legally-oriented terms like “citizens” or “voters”, nor have they used more politically-oriented terms like “comrades.” Rather, they have looked at people in the sociologically-oriented terminology of “brothers and sisters.”

Has this approach worked well for AKP? We see that the AKP has not only managed to take the “Brotherhood Approach” beyond its traditionally understood boundaries of religious references. In fact, this approach – under the conditions of the prevailing international and domestic conjuncture – has also worked to attract significant attention and respect for AKP’s policy stances in several key areas.

What about the future? Is this approach sustainable in a forward-looking perspective? Well, just as we ask this question today, we are observing a serious turn-around in the effectiveness of “Brotherhood Politics” of AKP, both at home as well as abroad. Since parliament went to summer recess in June, several developments have taken place to lead observers of Turkish politics to start thinking that the “politics of brotherhoodÓ may actually be souring into the “politics of impossible brotherhoods” for AKP.

I would like to revisit here four recent cases as examples showing the souring trends in AKP’s politics of brotherhood. First, one actually involves “the sisters” that AKP moved to protect from “the horrors” of abortion. Earlier in the summer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brought to the political agenda of the country the issue of abortion. Resembling the socially sensitive debates in western countries, the public was quickly engaged in a furious discussion about whether abortion is ever justified, and under what conditions it would be considered “murder.” The related ministry proceeded with the necessary steps to legislate a revision of the existing legal framework governing abortion practices.

It was soon recognized that this agenda would not go beyond being a simple public relations ploy. AKP faced the most serious and vocal resistance to attempts of abolishing abortion from its very grassroots. People realized that changing the current legal framework would only result in jeopardizing the lives and health of millions of women who cannot afford access to proper healthcare in unwanted cases of pregnancy, other than through legal means at public health facilities. The real murderous act, it was argued, would be to leave the most economically deprived segments of society to their own devices. The government quickly noticed a point of “impossible sisterhood” in this initiative, and so took a u-turn and quietly put away its plans to abolish abortion in the country.

A second case involved “the brothers and sisters” in the labor force, in which the government attempted to do away with the system of severance payments to which workers are entitled upon retirement or on termination of their employment. This move purportedly came as an attempt to introduce flexibility into the labor force that would encourage high employment. However, steadfast protests by the labor unions against this initiative soon followed, and the politics of brotherhood/sisterhood, contrary to the original expectation of the ruling party, once again soured. The Prime Minister instructed his ministers to withdraw their plans to change the legislation, and the abolition of severance pay system was shelved for the time being.

A third case was related to the most burning foreign policy issue the country has faced in its recent history: the case of Syria. Prime Minister Erdoğan extended an exceptionally personal treatment to President al-Assad for a number years, even to the point of holding joint cabinet meetings between the two governments. Erdoğan’s popularity among his Syrian “brothers and sisters” reached such high levels of support in public polls that had he chosen to run for the top office in Syria, he would in fact have secured the highest proportion of votes. President al-Assad and his close associates spent their vacations in Turkey as guests of the prime minister, and the families of the two heads of state were treated as one of their own – even closer than brothers and sisters. Come 2012, however, the magic wore off and Prime Minister Erdoğan cast his “brotherly” support elsewhere, to the members of the Free Syrian Army(!) fighting against the al-Assad regime in Syria as an extension of the “Arab Spring.” When one considers the big picture in the region and studies the moves of the superpowers on the regional chess-board, how the sudden shift from “brother al-Assad” to “bloody al-Assad” in AKP’s foreign policy came about is certainly no a mystery.

The point, here, is not about the right or wrong choices in designing the foreign policy position of the country vis a vis a particular regional crisis situation. In itself, this would be the worthy subject of a separate analysis. The point here is to consider how the reckless and shallow rhetoric of “brotherhood”, with no real substance or strategic vision in foreign policy, has brought the country to the verge of a near military clash with one its neighbors in the region. The point here is about how the foreign policy initiatives of this government have transformed the relationship of two neighboring peoples of genuine relatives and kinships effectively into a relationship of “impossible brotherhood.

The fourth case involves a set of personal and private matters at the very highest levels of the AKP political leadership. Earlier in the summer, one of the close advisors of President Abdullah Gül made a public statement that Gül would be considering running for the presidency for a second term, as is his natural right. The advisor also noted that it was offensive to the president that certain politicians would suggest that he should not consider this option, especially if and when ErdoÛan came out as a candidate. The introduction given by Prime Minister ErdoÛan, during a meeting of the AKP’s parliamentary group on Gül’s candidacy for the presidency in 2007, is still fresh in the memory of the Turkish public: “In the upcoming presidential elections, the candidate of our party will be our brother Abdullah Gül.”

AKP officials reacted promptly to the statements of Gül’s advisor. They, particularly considering Erdoğan’s aspirations to assume the presidency in 2014, argued that “courtesy” would require Gül to stay away from the race this time. The “courtesy” that the AKP leadership was referring to implied that in “the brotherly relationship” between Erdoğan and Gül, it was Gül’s turn to set aside his personal plans for 2014, and contribute instead to the candidacy of Erdoğan for the highest political office in the country. Knowing Gül’s character as a determined and persistent individual when it comes to his personal political objectives, it is not difficult to predict that AKP will have a tough case to argue in convincing him to stay out of the presidential race in 2015. As such, the Turkish political scene is highly likely to witness in the coming months yet another case of an “impossible brotherhood,” with dire and divisive consequences in the re-designing of the top political leadership in the mainstream political arena in the country.

The rhetoric of “brotherhoods/sisterhoods” that AKP has adopted so far defined and secured a broad electoral support for the party at the polls. However, the above mentioned cases, as well as many others like them, signal increasingly difficult times for the leadership of AKP. The party must abandon the reckless and often confused policies that it currently adheres to, and instead start tackling complex political choices on the real issues the country faces, both on the domestic front and abroad. The souring of the party’s appeal with its grassroots supporters indicates the end to politics as a nest of public relations campaigns, and the inevitable comeback of real politics to the Turkish political arena.

About Nebil İlseven

PhD in banking, former chief of CHP Istanbul