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Will Erdogan’s presidency turn Turkey’s society into an increasingly Islamist-conservative one?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was announced as the winner of Turkey’s first presidential elections late at night on August 10 in yet another resounding political victory for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics ever since he was first elected as Turkey’s Prime Minister in 2003 while steering his party’s agenda of building an Islamic conforming conservative society. Critics have often accused him of following a secret political and religious agenda. So what is the history that has led to this historic victory and what are the issues we should be aware of?

The early 1990s witnessed a comeback of Islamist parties with Necmettin Erbakan, the head of Refah Party, becoming Turkey’s prime minister in 1996. Throughout his political career Erbakan has been the founding father of several Islamist parties, all of which were based on an ideological manifesto called “National View” (Milli Gorus).

Although this manifesto propagates a Turkish version of political Islam, it also advocates greater cooperation with other Muslim nations and warns against the increasing Westernization of Turkey at the expense of Islamic values and principles.

After the military forced Erbakan to step down in the late 1990s and Refah Party was outlawed, the Virtue Party emerged as its short-lived successor.  The banning of the Virtue Party a short time later culminated in a rift among the Islamists, which resulted in the establishment of two Islamist successor parties.

One of those was today’s ruling party namely the Justice and Development Party (AKP) with PM Erdogan, president Abdullah Gul, FM Ahmet Davotuglu and vice-PM Bulent Arinc as its core members. To the surprise of many they renounced ‘political Islam’ in favor of what they called a ‘conservative democracy’.

AKP’s new outlook killed two birds with one stone: Not only did it make them appear less threatening to the military but also broadened the basis of their electoral support. Instead of fighting against the secular state they unexpectedly started to defend it.

Although the AKP represents a moderate derivation of Milli Gorus, the manifesto of Mili Gorus still forms its policy base and many observers of Turkish politics suggest that Erdogan is gradually reverting back to the core values in Milli Gorus.

The AKP’s numerous electoral victories over its 11-year old rule has given it greater conference to push its Islamic policies more openly and less dissent. AKP’s heavy investment in social welfare programs and in health care services in particular over the past ten years has cemented AKP’s electoral support among the Turkish voters over the years.

AKP run municipalities are regarded as hard working and dedicated to offering outstanding services to the public and this has paid off in elections.

Although the AKP is regarded as a party that fosters an Islamic conservative Turkish society, it is interesting to note that it at the same times is widely praised for having granted more religious freedoms and for having launched democratic reforms as well as for having brought an end to violence caused by the PKK’s insurgencies.

Despite the domestic turmoil that rocked Turkey’s political landscape with the eruption of the Gezi Park Protests in May 2013, many of AKP’s policies have helped ensure greater stability and thus a permissive environment for foreign investments.  This in turn has led to greater economic prosperity.

AKP will likely further its agenda of fostering an Islamic conservative society based on a moderate version of political Islam in Turkey. Western observers often portray AKP as advancing the “Islamization of Turkey’. However, what is being seen is reflective of current Turkish society.

Turkey has been, is and will remain most likely predominantly a religiously conservative society. The biggest difference we see now compared to previous governments is the AKP represents a majority rule and opposition parties will try to suggest a greater Islamization as they can not see an easy way to interrupt their increasing hold.

 

Article By Rosi Kern, a specialist in Middle East and Turkish politics and analysis.  Rosi can be contacted via SecurityNewsDesk.

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