The Turkish Alternative to Christian Democracy? The Importance of the AKP

Ziya Öniş (*), Koc Univ.

Turkey Encounters with the New Europe: Multiple Transformations, Inherent Dilemmas and the Challanges Ahead
The emergence of the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) as the dominant force in Turkish politics in the elections of November 2002 represented yet another landmark in Turkey-EU relations.14 From a comparative perspective, what rendered the AKP experiment interesting was that it was a new party with strong Islamist roots but nevertheless far more moderate and centrist in terms of outlook compared with its predecessors. Even more interesting was the fact that the party presented itself as an active and vocal supporter of EU membership. Indeed, the party in office pursued the EU related reform agenda with a far greater degree of consistency and commitment than the previous coalition government. It is fair to argue, therefore, that the AKP established itself as the dominant component of the pro-EU coalition after November 2002. The degree of commitment displayed by the party to the EU related reform agenda was also important in terms of contributing towards the development of a sizable pro-Turkey coalition within the European Union itself.

The AKP itself is a hybrid political formation. The fact that key leaders of the party as well as its core electoral support have been associated with the Islamist parties of the past resulted in considerable skepticism on the part of the secular segments of the Turkish state and society as well as the broader international community in the immediate aftermath of the elections of November 2002. Nevertheless, it became quite clear after a while that the party was far more moderate in outlook judged by the standards of its predecessors. From a social science perspective, it is hard to locate the party on the conventional left-right political axis. There is no doubt that a strong conservative streak exists in the party’s make-up with a major emphasis on religion, morals and the need to preserve traditional values. The conservatism of the party manifests itself rather vividly in issues relating to women’s rights and gender equality. Indeed, the party’s own self-description is that of “conservative democrats” identifying a close affinity in the process with their Christian democratic counterparts in Western Europe.15 Furthermore, the electoral base of the party is made of a cross-class coalition that includes small and medium sized enterprises as significant beneficiaries of the neo-liberal globalization process. The fact that business is an important component of the party’s electoral base is another attribute that naturally leads many commentators to interpret the party as a party of the center-right.

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