AKP, Erdoğan and the Art of Sustaining Power in a Divided Society

By Imge Tak & Kaspar Metzkow

Istanbul is a city of smells: Fish-markets and Spice Bazars, Köfte restaurants and bakeries send their fragrances into the streets where they mix with less pleasant flavors such as cat urine, exhaust emissions and tear gas. The latter has been dominant in 2013, when the political uprisings of Gezi were met not only with physical violence against (real as well as assumed) protesters but also by fogging whole quarters of the city. By the end of 2016 the acrid smell of gas has become less dominant, at least in Istanbul. This is a good thing, one might assume. However, when talking to politically active people the calm streets turn out to be rather alarming. Protesters are still confronted with the full force of the state. During the parliamentary debate of the recent constitutional amendments people handing out flyers against the presidentialization of the political system were detained in Adana in early January 2017.

The decrease of demonstrations and other forms of open confrontation is not the result of greater acceptance of government politics, but reflects the growing fear and resignation under the impression of repression, terror and war. Arrests are frequent, targeting political activists as well as academics or critical journalists. At the same time, the events of Suruç and Ankara (2015) show that the police and politically charged trials are not the only threat for open protests. Both bombings likely carried out by DAESH-supporters targeted left-wing peace activists.i Moreover, the ongoing war in Eastern Turkey expands the fear, both as a danger to life for the ones directly affected and as an unbearable normality for the whole country. Mistrust and paranoia are the result.

Of course this is only part of the picture. While one segment of society identifies President Erdoğan and his AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) government as the main cause of danger, others see him in the role of the savior. To the latter his strong leadership appears to be the best weapon in the fight against ‘outer powers’ and inner enemies trying to plunge Turkey into a civil war and erode the nation’s strength or glory.

With fear being a driving force for both sides, the difference lies in the assessment of causes and possible solutions. President Erdoğan’s central position in this conflict – being either root of or remedy against evil – is, as we argue, not a coincidence, but rather result of his political strategy. In the highly fragmented political landscape of Turkey, Erdoğan utilizes polarization to ensure and enlarge his power.

Path-dependence? Fragmentation of Turkish politics and society

Political fragmentation has a long history in the Turkish Republic. And it is based on certain historical lines of conflict. Three shall be pointed out here:

1. First, there is the principle of laicism. This is one of the pillars of Kemalist ideology. Religious politics is seen as incompatible with a modern democracy and republic. In consequence, Islamic parties were repeatedly dissolved by the Turkish Constitutional Court (TCC) or had to resign from government because of strong military pressure.ii

2. Other conflicts form around ethnic lines, most prominently between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority. When the Republic was founded, a huge effort was made to transform the former empire with its existing ethnic diversity into a cohesive Turkish nation with clear boundaries. The relative success of that process was enforced through the principle and idea of the indivisible nation, which declares the unity of national territory and people. Accordingly, Turkish citizens are first and foremost Turks. Ethnic or religious affiliations are supposed to play a subordinate role. Making the Kurdish identity a political issue by struggling for minority recognition or even political autonomy threatens this construction and provokes Kemalist as well as Islamic forces.iii

3. A third conflict line is the ‘classical left-right’ divide. It played a significant role through Turkey’s history, but has lost importance since the 1980s. Although it is barely reflected in the parties’ profiles anymore, it still exists within the population. In particular the persecution of leftist groups after the 1980 coup resulted in a vote shift to more conservative parties. Adding to this, Kemalism comes in many different forms: right-wing nationalists, such as the MHP (Milliyetçi Hariket Partisi), as much as left-wing splinter groups that never have a realistic chance to pass the 10% threshold, claim to follow in Mustafa Kemal’s footsteps. While Islamic parties managed to integrate their voters through the unifying factor religion, on the political left such unifying element is lacking and hence leftist politics is fragmented and groups pursue different agendas.

How deep  those conflicts are inscribed into society shows a wide-spread inability to discuss contested topics. Mentioning certain terms triggers a repetition of well-practiced standard-phrases and an offended (or at least defensive) demeanour, which then results in an exchange of non-negotiable standpoints rather than dialogue. This pattern seems to be stable even in the face of drastic ruptures like a terrorist attack or the attempted coup d’etat of July 2016. Events are interpreted to comply with one’s own version or construction of the truth. As the intimidating evening-walks of shouting nationalist convoys through different quarters of Istanbul in late 2015, the activities of militant pro-Kurdish groups in Eastern Turkey, or mass demonstrations with Erdoğan masks and slogans like “Order us to die and we will do it show that this division is not limited to talk. Society is divided and different factions fight over the right, legitimate construction of Turkey.

The 2015 elections (in June and November) have clearly illustrated that political parties are not ready to overcome the fragmentation either. Although ending the AKP rule was a main goal for all three opposition parties, their ‘red line rhetorics’ concerning major issues made the necessary coalition impossible. When it came to the election of the speaker of the Grand National Assembly (TBMM), a rather ceremonial position, the AKP candidate won simply because AKP had the largest number of seats and the other parties strictly voted for their candidates in all ballots.

Too big to be small, too small to rule: fragmentation and the Turkish opposition

In order to understand the behaviour of political parties, it is helpful to look at the voting system. A parliamentary threshold of 10% makes voting for micro parties unattractive and advantages medium-size parties. Although the threshold was introduced in the early 1980s, a strong voter migration towards medium-size parties is observable especially since the beginning of AKP rule.

Year of Election

Number of parties in parliament

% of votes that went to parties that didn’t pass the threshold



















source: http://www.tuik.gov.tr/PreTablo.do?alt_id=1061

In 2002 AKP obtained the absolute majority of seats in parliament with 34% of the votes, because 46% of the votes went to parties who couldn’t pass the threshold. In 2015 people tried to focus on fewer parties that had a realistic chance of passing the threshold, which led to only 4,7% (in June) and even 2,5% (in November) of votes that went to parties who didn’t make it into parliament. Still, the voter-influx does not necessarily produce a notable diversification of inner-party positions, which means, although the parties get stronger their possible winset and capacity for compromise remain small. The ideological divide is thus complemented by the systemic emergence of politically inflexible medium-size parties, which are too big to accept being a ‘small-partner’ but too small to rule independently.

Parties are trapped in a deadlock. Their clear (but inflexible) standpoints give them little range to manoeuvre and make cooperation and compromise nearly impossible. The consequences of this constellation became evident in June 2015, when the pro-Kurdish HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) jumped over the threshold. This cost AKP their absolute majority. While AKP, still by far the strongest party, would have been able to form a government with any other party in parliament, a cabinet without AKP required a coalition of all three other parties (CHP, MHP, HDP). At that time HDP was expected by many to join the AKP government in order to deepen the peace process in South-East Turkey but decided against such an arrangement. The other parties presented themselves as willing to talk, but later confronted the AKP with rather unrealistic demands. While MHP’s red-line-policies would have meant MHP rather than AKP determining policies, CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) presented a 20-points-paper which was perceived as not even discussable for AKP. The increasing polarisation between AKP government and opposition in Turkey is one main explanatory factor here.

Although all three other parties had high hopes to finally kick AKP out of government, they failed to overcome their differences and form a coalition. While CHP was open and even offered the Prime Minister’s office to the much smaller MHP, the latter was not willing to collaborate with HDP (which they depict as a political vehicle for the PKK) under any circumstances.

Government, AKP, Erdoğan and political fragmentation

Losing the absolute majority forced AKP to act. For 13 years Erdoğan could use his party’s political strength and his own position (even after becoming President of the Republic) to extend his power and make politics especially in the interest of AKP voters. With HDP entering parliament AKP suddenly lost its ability to take decisions alone; this was an unexpected setback.

Instead of entering an unwanted coalition, the president opted for early elections and a new chance for AKP to regain control. This was not uncontested in the party itself, but the opposition parties’ “unwillingness” to participate in a government or form their own coalition gave his decision legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the public. Hence, Erdoğan intensified his polarising discourse. A strong AKP leadership was presented as Turkeys only way to deflect the recent threats.

This strategy has shown to be effective over the years. Erdoğan likes to depict himself and his party as national unifiers and the political centre of Turkey. His narrative of integration included the peace process with the Kurds as well as the political rehabilitation of Islam. The idea of a united Muslim population fighting against Kemalist elites sold very well. Especially for it was coupled with the general claim of an uprising of the suppressed, and accompanied by a preliminary economical rise through adaptation of neoliberal economics.

While Erdoğan plays the centre, opposition groups are violently pushed to the political margins, using both moral and political accusations to oppose them. Thus disqualified enemies (as the ‘traitors’ of the ‘deep state’ or the ‘looters’ and ‘drinkers’ of Gezi) help to let himself appear as a good and legitimate leader. What gave the discourse a new quality after the June-elections and the end of the peace process with the Kurds was the increased and diversified use of fear and terror:

On the one hand, this appears in the form of direct repression against opponents. As mentioned above, this now includes military actions in South-East Turkey as well as an excessive use of police and the judiciary system against protesters, journalists or otherwise unwanted opinion-givers and elected MPs. Even if the trials under way do not lead to convictions it is enough to scare critics and create a dysfunctional public. On the other hand, Islamist terrorist attacks against Kurdish and left-wing targets as well as Pro-Kurdish nationalist terror and resistance acts are utilized discursively to further raise the riskiness of political involvement and to spawn a general atmosphere of fear in Turkey.

Since the failed coup d’etat of July 2016, the Gülen movement, Kurdish PKK as well as HDP are central to the terrorism-narrative the government promotes. This does not only positively affect the coherence of Erdoğan’s imagined ‘in-group’ by clearly defining the outside. It even helps to deepen the ethnical divisions within the opposition. Last but not least, it also helps the government to fish for conservative ethnic Kurds that do not agree with separatist ideas.

Erdoğan appreciated the parliamentary opposition for stepping up for democracy despite political differences after the coup d’etat. With the proclaimed danger of Gülen’s ‘Deep-State’ it was thus possible to declare a state of emergency that has been recently extended for the second time in January 2017.This situation allowed for another attempt at restructuring the judiciary and the education system.

Maybe the most important change facilitated by the state of emergency will be the implementation of a presidential system in Turkey. This project, which was last brought to halt by the Gezi protest, would upgrade the President of the Republic: from a rather representative office to the office with the greatest executive competences. Erdoğan could thus legalize his current use of the presidential office by adapting the constitution according to his needs. The proposed amendments to the Constitution will be voted on in a referendum that is to be held on April 16. In case the amendments are adopted, it is likely that the remaining fragements of the power separating Turkish state will be abolished.


How can we understand Erdoğan’s behaviour after losing the election in June 2015?

With HDP passing the 10% threshold, this did not only undermine Erdoğan’s representational claim by providing a realistic alternative voting-option for Kurds; it also brought up the possibility of another majority in parliament. This threatened Erdoğan’s strategy and forced him to make some important adjustments.

By excluding the Pro-Kurdish Movement in general, he redefined the boundaries of his in-group, risking a further loss of power but at the same time bringing conservative voters that went to HDP back to AKP. This was counterbalanced by intensifying the general discourse of fear, which allowed AKP to largely profit from its power position (‘only a one party AKP government can solve the problems’….). To target HDP had various advantages: it defined a main enemy, helped to further divide the opposition and targeted its supposedly weakest element. The stripping of immunity of HDP MPs is the latest prove of that development. Turkey is on a way to a more and more autocratic system. Meanwhile, it is not only sheer brutality that mutes the remaining voices, but also their inability to unite.


i In Suruc, a dash-linked suicide bomber detonated in the middle of a left-wing youth conference on July 20, 2015, leaving dead 34 people. Three months later, on October 10, 2015, a similar attack with two perpetrators killed 102 people on a HDP-organised peace rally in Ankara. In both cases, the AKP government was accused of being partly responsible for the attacks.

ii In 1971 the Milli Nizam Partisi was closed down by TCC because of activities against laicism. After all parties were closed down after the 1980 coup, the successor of Milli Nizam Partisi, Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) won elections in 1995 and founded a coalition government in 1996. This lead to the events around February 28, 1997, also called postmodern coup, when the Turkish Military Leadership issued a memorandum that ultimately led to the resignation of party leader Necmettin Erbakan from his office as prime minister and a new government formation. In 1998 the Welfare Party was shut down by the TCC, as well as its following Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) in 2001, both with the same reasoning. There were also proceedings to ban the AKP, which together with the Saadet Partisi emerged from the Virtue Party, in 2008. Missing one vote, the AKP was not closed down.

iii A comparable phenomenon can be seen in Religion. The dominant strand of Islam, Sunni Islam, has been rehabilitated as core element of Turkish identity narratives since the 1970s. According to government numbers, while 99% of the country’s population are Muslim, an estimated 20% of the population belong to Alevi and other non-Sunni groups. In practice, these groups are either not recognized or simply filed as Islam and therefore represented by the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı). This governmental institution was installed in the early Republic to keep Islam under political control but serves AKP as a tool to make (Sunni-) religious politics. Other then Kurds, Alevi groups have no strong party-organisation and cannot challenge the paradigms of (here: religious) unity in the way HDP does. We limited ourselves to the given three lines of conflict, as the complex intersections of religious and ethnic groups would go beyond the scope of this article.