Liberal conservatism in Turkey enters a crisis

Popular resitance to the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and the brutal crackdown by the government have made news around the world recently. Yet, typical assessments of the AKP from 2002, when it first formed a government, to the present have stressed its contribution to normalising parliamentary democracy. They have also emphasised the benefits of removing from the political scene the strong Turkish state, whose authoritarian actions cannot be attributed to capture by (or influence from) any particular civil coalition.

There is, however, an alternative assessment of the rule of AKP that rests on the orientation of its governments toward the New Right.

It has taken the form of a post-ideological state, which has now been turned into a conservative liberal project. Official AKP statements have been quite explicit regarding the form of this new state: political authorities are not to impose a comprehensive doctrine on society but rather to open space for civil association. To many it seemed like the promise of liberal parliamentarianism.

The trouble is that the so-called autonomy of the state has operated as a preemptive political discourse in Turkey. The conservative liberal attempt to create a post-ideological state under AKP was obliged to seek political stability in the country, while deploying an anti-statist rhetoric. The Turkish state has long functioned as if it was immune to ready-made political agendas, but has nevertheless acted to control social opposition. It certainly was very difficult to see how the post-ideological state of the AKP would turn out to be any different.

Left liberals in Turkey were quick to claim that the coalition of forces under AKP could bring about a post-ideological democratisation of the country, without succumbing to the usual vices of previous right-wing governments. The foremost reason for this optimism was the AKP’s electoral hegemony and its pro-EU position. Unfortunately, the expectations of left liberals with regard to democratisation under the AKP have turned out to be totally groundless. Since 2008, the policies of the AKP government have culminated in a series of deeply problematic actions in both society and economy, leading to a political crisis at each turn. It is striking that, at times, the obsession of Turkish left liberals with anti-statism has led them to imply that the authoritarian dimensions of AKP policies were consistent with its presumed reformism.

Resistance to the policies of the AKP, above all, the mass action at Gezi park in Istanbul, has not been connected to any economic-corporate interest. It is curious that, for a New Right government that has presumably adopted a post-ideological view of democracy, this has been the most difficult aspect of the resistance to deal with. For the same reason, social opposition to AKP at Gezi park has had a radical character, particularly in view of the ineffectiveness of parliamentary opposition to the government.

Despite the assertions of Prime Minister Erdoğan, AKP’s brutal police oppression following the Gezi protests has demonstrated the government’s inability to meet the prevalent social and political aspirations of the country. Eventually, the class character of the AKP’s vision of so-called post-ideological democratisation burst through. The government deployed tax inspection raids against a few suspect corporations (under the impression that they were pro-Gezi) followed by blackmail that there might not be sufficient salary payments for three months, unless the AKP won a majority for a fourth time in the recent local elections, which it duly did.

In December 2013, a major scandal broke out as a number of recordings describing the corrupt dealings of top party officials were leaked to the social media. Public prosecutors, rumoured to be affiliated to the Gülen movement, a powerful religious component of the ruling coalition that has fallen out with Erdoğan, lost no time opportunistically to press the case. They were met, however, with the determination of the party leadership to purge any perceived threat from within the law enforcement agencies and to reject all incriminating evidence.

It is difficult to say how damaging these scandals will be in the medium term for the AKP government, including the latest leaks revealing the Turkish government’s efforts to provoke armed conflict with Syria. The AKP remains capable of passing legislation serving no other purpose but its own political self-preservation. Its victory in the recent local elections, despite violent friction, is likely to give it a boost. Gezi sympathisers remain divided on the question of how to push for short-term political gains. It is likely, therefore, that the widespread but silent anti-AKP sentiment may not be enough to bring to an end the hegemony of this peculiar New Right in Turkey. But the days of easy domination of Turkish politics by liberal conservatism are over.