The following is a guest post from political scientist Daniel Ksleman. His research addresses the changing nature of political parties in contemporary democracies, with a particular focus on elections and democracy in modern Turkey. He is currently an associate professor of International Relations at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, Spain.
On May 28, a small crowd gathered in Istanbul to protest the Turkish government’s plans to transform an urban park into an Ottoman monument and commercial center. Following what has generally been deemed an excessive reaction by the police, thousands more took to the streets in support of the initial demonstrators. Protest which was initially confined quickly evolved into a larger and more aggressive expression of dissatisfaction with the incumbent Justice and Development Party, and its leader Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This discontent has been simmering for years, and can be understood in the context of Turkey’s enigmatic republican history. Turkey was formed in 1921 from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Having waged a successful war of independence, the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk quickly set forth on an ambitious modernization agenda. This agenda included programs aimed at a wholesale secularization of Turkish society, and envisioned an important role for the public sector in industrialization and economic management.
In part as a result of this history, political Islam and free-market economics have often made interesting ideological bedfellows in Turkish politics. This ideological profile has been distilled in the currently ruling Justice and Development Party (in Turkish: Adaletve Kalkınma Parti, henceforth AKParti). Since coming to power in 2002, the AKParti has promoted policies to relax restrictions on religious expression, most notably the prohibition of Islamic headscarves in government buildings. As well, they have actively supported private-sector enterprise and have increased Turkey’s international economic integration.
The now decade-long AKParti rule has in many ways been a success. Turkey witnessed a decade of economic growth and stability, and since 2007 has continued to grow despite the global economic recession. Initial efforts to relax restrictions on religious expression were met with support not only from religious conservatives, but also from a subset of liberals and intellectuals who saw these policies as promoting civil rights. As well, the provision of basic services has improved, especially in rural and working-class urban districts. Citizens who have benefited from these developments, many of whom are more religious than their urban middle- and upper-class counterparts, consistently support the AKParti, whose vote share increased from 34% in 2002, to 47% in 2007, to 50% in 2011.