Politics, the AKP Style: What happens when you run out of “enemies?”



AKP, Justice and Development Party, has built its reign on power through a series of unorthodox networks of political alliances in the country and abroad during 12+ years in the government at national and municipal levels in Turkey.  During this time, the Prime Minister has galvanized the hitherto existing centers of power within his party and built a strong base of support for his personal grip over the state mechanism in the country.  Consequtive election victories of AKP since 2002 has been largely credited to the capacity of the Prime Minister in “alliance building” even as he frequently staked his personal political equity in initiating and entering into some of these alliances. As so-called friends and political allies in and outside the country helped expand the political reach of the government, the increasingly personalized style of politics of the PM continued to cause deep and irreversible scars in the administrative structure of the state and in the very fabric of the society.

Hence, we argue that the predominant source of his achievements in national politics has been sourced not from his wit in “alliance building” but his unmatched capacity in “creating enemies” as means of rallying and consolidating his support base. We further argue that his real strategic posture has always rested on the existence of an “enemy” while “friends” have come in and out of the picture as “enabling” or “softening” agents for benefit of the underlying personal political objectives of the PM.  The basic idea has remained unchanged: “you are my friend for as long as you are the enemy of my enemy.”


The “Apprenticeship:”

AKP Government came to power in a critical period as the country had just plumetted into the most severe financial crisis in its history.  The crisis had followed, on the political front, a period of weak political leadership by a series of coalition governments.  The country was faced with critical political and social challenges in a broad spectrum of issue areas.  These issues ranged from democratic reforms, fighting terrorism, to structural reforms in the economy, accession to the EU, mounting security concerns in the region, not the least, the Iraq War and its far-reaching implications for peace and stability and so on.  Political leadership was of paramount importance in tackling these issues and AKP had formed the government with a parliamentary majority to address this need.

The AKP Government, during the initial years of its first term in power, prefered to tag its programs in the area of social and political reforms to its ardent supporters in the pro-EU camp in prominent business, academic, diplomatic and other circles, adopting a foreign policy position to align itself mainly with its international “friends.” The Government adopted a similar approach in the economy and tagged its economic policy to the IMF program which it followed steadfastedly.  The real political performance of the government, however, took roots in a completely different realm where most of the political capital of AKP was exhausted in the domestic front, fighting the “enemy.” The government, during this time, the spent most of its political resources and energies to change the university enterance system, to re-design the structure of the higher education council, to fight the court system in realizing these changes and to force the polarization of the society along the secular-unsecular axis, politically symbolized by the “headscarf issue.”

The campaign against the “enemy” reached its peak at such a high-risk point where the governing party faced the imminent propects of closure by the Supreme Court during this perid.  The verdict of the Court fell short closing the Party but, on a different account, concluded that the Party had acted as the center of unsecular activities in the society and propogated the destruction of the secular foundations of the Republic.  As such, the contorvertial position of the Party had been ratified at the highest possible level in a round about way.  The PM was quick to capitalize on this outcome as his party’s courageous stand against the “enemy.”  His stance to force open the secular posture of the higher education system against the “enemy” yielded significant political dividends for the government at levels far greater than the support by its “allies” for structural reforms in the social and economic field had to that date: AKP won the elections for the second time in 2007 and achieved a higher percentage of the popular vote than in 2002.


Project Origination:

Encouraged by the tacit support that the PM rallied among various issue-based groups in the civil society, the country was introduced a new “enemy,” the members of the armed forces and their civilian supporters who were accused of plotting a coup to overthrow the government that was elected by popular vote.  In this period, a critical shift in the concept of “terrorism” was also adopted.  Until then, Terrorism had been defined as indiscriminate use of violence to distrupt the constitutional framework of the State. The new concept defined “terrorism” as any actions and organizations that aim to change the government; introducing a broad range of possible political actions that are not necessarily based on violence but are simply against the government.  The new “enemy” was any uniformed or civilian persons or civil society organizations that would oppose the government in power.  Special Prosecutors and Special Courts were set up to try the specially structured cases of the hundreds of uniformed personnel of the armed forces at all ranks together with journalists, academicians, professional people who were detained and brought to trials with evidences, gathered under special conditions.  The form of due process was secondary to the essence of the cases in question which under the special structures were designed to punish the “enemy,” period.

At that point, having instituted one of its founders as the new President of Turkey and advanced significantly in taking the reins of state power in his own hands,  the PM moved resolutely to create two more “enemies:”  one, being convinced that Turkey had now reached a position to pursue a so-called independent foreign policy, he moved to severe its relationship with Israel; and, two, having convinced that media would be an important vehicle to keep close his handle on his grass-roots support, he initiated a policy of actively encouraging government-friendly business people to acquire media assets for the build-up of a politically friendly portfolio of media capacity.  The new “enemies” were very clear; media and the state of Israel.  This was a new phase in the process of “creating enemies” which was marked by two characteristics; one, that “friends” no longer enjoyed the hearing ears that enjoyed earlier; two, that the originally suspected plot was now coupled with the international dimension, raising the stakes to global levels.

AKP, while enjoying the impact of its on-going fight against the already existing and newly designated enemies, made its next move to affect a number Constitutional changes to ensure that the judicial system would act in harmony with the political authority in its future strides.  The agenda for the future was to change the parliamentary system to a presidential system and to secure, along the way, and the cooperation of the legal apparatus at all levels was strategically important and was not to stand on the way.  The referandum, in addition to the changes in the juduciary, included lip service offers of democratic reforms to appeal certain intellectual segments of the society so that the envisaged changes would pass without difficulties.


Unveiling of the “Design”

The plan worked and the government entered the 2011 Elections based on a platform of “democratization” and the “crushing” of the “enemies of the nation.”  With the election victory of AKP, a new era opened where freedom of press along with freedom of expression in all its forms would now be tested against the new concept of the interest of “the nation.”  “Democratization,” on the other hand, was defined in terms of vote-count, reflecting a new understanding of “majoratarianism” at the expense of “pluralism.”  “He who gets the votes would call the shots,” was the new formula that laid the foundations of determining the new “enemy” characterized by “He who disagrees with the majority must be an enemy.”

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring had set out with full speed in a number countries in the Middle East and the government was adamant to engage directly and actively with the emerging regimes and forces of oppositon in Northern Africa and the Middle East.  Arab Spring provided fresh grounds for the PM to identify ever new “enemies” to present for his grass-roots supporters: anybody and everybody, real persons, organizations or, even, states, foreign or domestic who do not agree with the new foreign policy direction of the government and who oppose the “naturalization/importation” of international conflicts with unclear and unpredictable characteristics into the country.

Yet, the PM encountered the most prominent of his “enemies” at the most unexpected moment in the most unexpected format.  In May 2013, “Gezi Park” demonstrations by the “new youth” in Turkey which started out as a simple environmentalist protest in Istanbul quickly spread across the country as a public outcry to denounce the supressive policies and socially divisive nature of AKP’s political style in the country.  The violent crush of the demonstrations by the security forces and the uncomprising stance of the PM in labeling the demonstrators by terms like “loothers” and the like constituted the final dividing line between “his nation” and “the others, the enemy.” This time, the new definition of the “enemy” conveniently included the “foreign aggressors,” “Syrian Intelligence Services,” “the big business,” “friends of Israel,” “unfriendly media,” “the financial barons,” and most notably “the social media,” all coming together to topple the PM’s party/government that was the sole protector of “his nation.”

Successive legal investigations and security inspections failed to verify any concrete evidence that the new “coalition of enemies” indeed existed.  However, the perception that it did prevailed in the nucleus support base of AKP and the PM for the first time named his supporters “the 50 percent.”  This was also his admission that he would draw the lines for his support base along this label and treat the rest of the general public as the “others,” indeed.  He would move to re-design the dividing lines in the media, the business community, in politics and in all areas of social policy along the “50 percent” line and focus on consolidating his power among its existing support base instead of looking to broaden it like he had done until “Gezi.”


What Next?

Up until “Gezi” and onwards, the observers of Turkish politics could say that the term “enemy” could be considered an over-statement of the position of “the other” which the PM utilized as a tactical approach in polarizing the electorate and securing a comfortable and stable majority for AKP.  In fact, from the perspective of political behaviour and electoral tactics, this approach was perceived by many as an understandable and even a smart strategy to build and retain his support in the electorate. However, the PM’s violent response to developments in December 17 Political Corruption investigation demonstrated and confirmed that the term “enemy” is the only and the correct expression of how the PM views his political rivals.  He is convinced that “the enemies” of “his nation” waged a war against him and his party and that his only option is to retaliate with overriding force to crush this offensive by utilizing all available capacities of the State for his personal defense which he equates with the defense of “his nation.”

He even went so far to call this retaliatory process “the second war of independence” for the rescue of the country from the aggressor.  As such, he has become the first prime minister who declared a state of war against his own bureacracy that he himself has built up in the last 12 years, his security forces that he has equipped and trained in the recent years and his supporters who had faithfully and unquestioningly committed all their material and intellectual assets for his success to date.  The rage with which the PM countered the corruption allegations against his cabinet ministers has gone even further to the point of initiating counter-espionage investigations within his party and in the ring of his close associates in defense of his ministers and family members.

Consequently, the political surf on waves of new enemies since AKP first assumed power 12 years ago has recently set on a self-destructive course to focus on “enemies within.”  To name one vivid example, it is the way AKP is positioning itself with respect to aspirations of Mr. Gül, currently the AKP-elected President of the country, to run as his party’s candidate for a second term in the upcoming elections in Summer 2014.  The same party that elected him in 2007 with standing ovations then seems overtly hesitant today to even consider him as a candidate let alone standing up for his constitutional right to consider his candidacy.

Currently, the “social media” is still the biggest “enemy of the nation” as far as the PM is concerned.  It embodies all destruptive and treacherous forces that threaten the prosperity and advancement of the “nation” and must be neutralized by all means necesary including the option of shutting down technical access platforms.  Though a clear violation of freedom of expression, the PM nevertheless hesitated not and has already banned certain social media platforms in an effort to curtail its reach and control the content of the traffic on these platforms.  What is at issue here is not so much related to an ordinary act of cencorship in new media.  What is crucial to understand here is the extent to which the PM is prepared to go in showing the “enemy” that he would recognize no limits when it comes to  “show of power” to his own grass-roots base and to rally the “nation” around his personal popularity to reinforce his perceived status of  “invincibility” in the eyes of the general public.



In conclusion, history will record the dynamics of AKP’s long haul in power with respect not to its self-confidence and capacity in achieving social and political comprimises for the advancement of the people in general but to its socially divisive and polarizing tactics to ensure continuity of its grip over the state power to advance the interests of its own proponents.

Moreover, it is important to note that the frequency of abondoning “friends” and creating new “enemies” has been increasing in the recent months.  The strategy of the PM to keep the focus of public attention on himself requires more frequent shifts in “friends vs. foes” combinations to keep his power base in tact.  These sudden and deep shifts that involve even his long-time political partners and associates in his inner circles expose him to the risk of short-cutting many of the decisions that require more systematic, collective and shared processes.  On the other hand, increasingly personalized decision making style of the PM is rapidly narrowing down his available options in responding to likely crisis areas that may arise in the coming months and years.  These factors make the sustainability of the strategy of “enemy building” a highly questionable one on three accounts: one, that the PM has nearly exhausted his available capacity to come up with new enemies; two, that he is rapidly running out of the existing ones both outside the AKP as well as within the party ranks; and, three, that his long years of increasingly personalized style of politics has started to cause serious resentment and anomocity among wider segments of the society.

However, it is important to note that the PM has yet to put two social groups openly on the spot as the new enemies for times when he would need new ones to lean on in the future.  These groups are based on ethnicity and faith, namely the Kurdish population and the Alevites in the society.  As and when a moment arrived, declaring these groups as the new “enemies” together or singly would constitute a cardinal political mistake for AKP.  The eruptive nature of social conflicts involving these groups would yield such destructive results that resemble nothing anybody has ever observed in Turkish political scene before.

Would, in that case, the magnitute of possible social and political destruction deter the PM from embarking on a campaign based on ethnic and religious controversies in the country in the future?  Not, if he runs out of “enemies” to thrive on; and, not unless he goes through a leap of faith in his approach to politics and political power in the rest of his political career and come to terms with the idea of universal peace for the whole country as opposed to peace for “his nation.”

About Nebil İlseven

PhD in banking, former chief of CHP Istanbul