With the approval of the constitutional reform package on April 16, a new article of the Constitution allows the president to continue their party affiliation. Following this change in legislation, the founding chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was re-elected as chairman in Sunday's congress with the consensus of all party members. Daily Sabah spoke with former deputy prime minister and political scientist, Dr. Yalçın Akdoğan, about the new Erdoğan era and the president's road map. Indicating that Erdoğan's return to the party means a reunion with the people, Akdoğan asserted that this change would improve Turkey's democracy.
Underscoring that the AK Party has increased its voter base and support since 2002 because it appeals to and wins the hearts of different segments of society, Akdoğan defined Erdoğan's return to the party as a second wind for the party. Akdoğan said that the AK Party will continue to implement policies that accommodate various segments of society, while adding that the theme of the congress, "A New Era of Progress: Democracy, Change and Reform," is a sign that the AK Party is maintaining its mission.
Affirming that a period of renewal, especially within the administration, will commence with the congress, Akdoğan claimed that this process would entail a change in Turkish politics. Akdoğan stated that the Turkish people see Erdoğan as their leader and see the AK Party as a symbol of trust, stability and hope and that Erdoğan's chairmanship will bring new motivation and dynamism to the party.
Daily Sabah: How do you respond to allegations that the president's return to the ruling party will transform Turkey into a party-state?
Yalçın Akdoğan: When you look at other examples in the world, we can see that presidents' continue their association with their parties. The important thing in these matters is to administer the country without discrimination, treating everyone equally, not the party association. For instance, the prime minister is also the chairman of a party in the current system; however, this doesn't bar him from being prime minister of the whole population. On the other hand, throughout the history of the republic, presidents have maintained their relations with their parties.
The constitutional amendment allows the president to continue to be a member of its party. Erdoğan will do whatever is allowed by law, as he is a person who always acts with regard to the constitution and laws. He has never discriminated one or the other while serving the public. No one could say that Erdoğan discriminates against certain regions, religious or ethnic groups in Turkey. For this reason, I don't agree with these allegations.
DS: What does "A New Era of Progress," the main theme of the congress, mean?
YA: Erdoğan's return to the AK Party is a second wind for the party. Let's first talk about the political atmosphere during the time of the AK Party's foundation. When the AK Party became the ruling party in 2002, there was a long ongoing political and economic crisis in Turkey; we're talking about a politically fragmented Turkey. The AK Party and Erdoğan reestablished stability in the country, winning the hearts of the people. Now, Turkey is transitioning into a new system, and Erdoğan's return to the AK Party marks the beginning of a new era for Turkey achieving its 2023 vision and beyond. He brings new motivation, hope and dynamism to the party. The AK Party always endorses bottom-up processes; therefore, the president's return to the party is crucial in hearing and actualizing the demands and expectations of the people.
DS: During his membership ceremony, President Erdoğan indicated that the AK Party will be more inclusive and women and youth will be more visible in politics in the new era. How will these be implemented?
There are many discussions on pluralism and tolerance in politics. In this context, Erdoğan continues to be criticized in these matters; however, we see that pluralism and inclusiveness in Turkish politics actually started with Erdoğan. Let's analyze Erdoğan's balcony speeches. For him, these are important means for empathizing with segments of the society that didn't vote for him, instead of antagonizing them. Moreover, concepts like turning a new page in Turkish politics were coined by Erdoğan. Considering women and youth, it is definite that the AK Party has encouraged and supported their active participation in politics and implemented policies that allowed them to actually be a part of politics. Erdoğan and the AK Party have allowed the age of candidacy to be decreased initially to 25 and then 18.
DS: The AK Party has been criticized for losing the support of certain groups that define themselves as liberals and libertarians and have supported the party since its conception. Will the AK Party take measures to disconfirm these criticisms?
Whether these criticisms are shared by the public is important. Recent polls and the referendum results show that AK Party continues to receive support from different segments of society. If certain individuals or groups believe that they are no longer on the same page with the AK Party, this means that they are actually becoming estranged from the people.
Since 2002, the AK Party has always increased its votes and support, as the party won over various segments of society. The results of the 2010 and 2017 referendums show that there are people who support AK Party reforms even though they don't vote for the party. The AK Party was able to win over these people and make their support permanent.
On the other hand, certain events have caused political trauma. For instance, during the Gezi Park Protests in 2013, we have seen that certain organized entities tried to transform the protests into an attempt to depose the AK Party government. The Dec. 17-25 incidents were an attempt to depose the government through the judiciary. And, lastly, we had the July 15 coup attempt by FETÖ. All of these definitely have created a certain reflex, while criticizing the AK Party, these events should also be taken into consideration. However, we can say for sure that the AK Party will maintain its inclusive policies.
DS: Democracy, change and reform were emphasized during the congress. In which fields will these changes and reforms occur?
These three concepts are the founding principles of the party. The AK Party has implemented many reforms to consolidate Turkish democracy. There is a concept in political science that we may describe as the gradual dissolving effect of power. Usually, parties coming into power will start to degenerate and gradually dissolve, losing their ability to implement reforms by eventually conforming to the status quo. However, the AK Party has retained its reformist tradition. Since the first day of its government, the AK Party has fought against certain groups enforcing tutelage. All of our victories against these forces were due to this reformist mindset. Even though we are the ruling party, we have always maintained our protest characteristics and asserted that certain things have to change. This is how we were able to shield ourselves from this dissolving effect of rule.
Even today, the AK Party is the only party that has an agenda of reforms for the new system of government. All of these demonstrate that reforms are far from over. For this reason, the AK Party's emphasis on democracy, change and reform is the most important indicator of continuation of the party's reformist identity.
Change will start with the AK Party congress. Starting from the officials, actors that are to carry out the new process will be determined. Afterwards, the formation of a new politics will commence. The road map for the new era will be announced soon.
DS: In your column, you assert that the AK Party will be the only movement that will shape politics and transform Turkey. In your opinion, how will the AK Party transform Turkish politics?
I believe it is important to harmonize politics and the new system. There are many allegations about the new system such as how smaller parties will dissolve and different types of coalitions will emerge. It is definite that politics can't remain the same. The popular election of the president with 51 percent of the votes revealed that all politics has to change. In this process, parties that conduct politics over ethnic identities or marginal ideologies will have to come closer to the political center. In this process, political entities consisting of different ideologies might come together. The AK Party is trying to understand the concerns of both sides of the referendum; the politics of the new era will be determined after this analysis. On the other hand, we see that opposition parties don't have such agendas and are consumed with intraparty conflicts. Moreover, their discourses are ad hominem.
Today, the Turkish people see Erdoğan as their leader and the AK Party as a symbol of trust and stability. Regarding the opposition, they neither have a leader to rival Erdoğan, nor have the potential to create a new political discourse; thus, the new era will be led by the AK Party.
DS: In the past several years, we have seen an AK Party that criticizes the U.S. and the EU. How will the foreign policy of the AK Party be shaped in the new era?
These criticisms should be understood correctly, these are never in vain. We have seen the effects of Obama's unskilled foreign policy in the region; the region has been completely transformed into mire and allowed certain countries to establish themselves as important actors here. The EU, as a union and a regional power, stood silent and couldn't even create an approach, let alone a united one. They said nothing about the coup in Egypt, al-Assad's massacres in Syria or the coup attempt in Turkey. Thousands of refugees and immigrants are drowning in front of their eyes, but they are not doing anything. For all these reasons, the EU lost its reputation in this process. Furthermore, the central politics of the EU collapsed. For instance, in the French elections, an individual became president who is not a candidate of a political movement or party. Similar situations happened in other European countries as well. Marginal, racist and Islamophobic parties emerged; they are either to become the ruling party or the main opposition in the following years. If one doesn't embrace and protect its own values despite emerging as a regional power and enforce double standards, they surely deserve criticism. For this reason, I believe Turkey's criticisms of the EU are on point.Due to the referendum, the focus was on domestic politics. Now, the focus is back on foreign policy as President Erdoğan has visited China, Russia and the U.S. and will visit Brussels. These visits will reorder relations along with reiterating Turkey's position. On the other hand, Turkey is not shifting its axis; Turkey always tries to improve relations with whoever whenever possible. While EU negotiations were on full speed, Turkey was establishing relations with Russia, China and African countries. When the global crisis struck, many countries like Greece came close to defaulting. While Europe was shaken and shrinking, how was Turkey spared? Because Turkey diversified its markets; the country has relations with African nations and the Turkic world, along with many other regions in the world. These relations are not only economic; there are political, cultural and military relations. Turkey will continue this policy.
DS: Recently, you published a book titled "Political Leadership and Erdoğan." How do you define President Erdoğan's leadership in this book? What differentiates Erdoğan from other leaders?
A leader's greatness lies in creating a way or direction; therefore, they should be innovative in political terms. They should establish their own ideology, have popular support, symbolize hope and satisfy popular demand upon becoming the government. All of these elements constitute a charismatic leader. There are many great leaders; however, charismatic leaders are few. Erdoğan was able to thwart the coup attempt with the support of the public. This was the first time a president was able to thwart a coup, and this disrupted the tutelage system in Turkey. Atatürk was also a charismatic leader; he established his own ideology, was seen as a symbol of hope when he arrived in Samsun, became a hero and had popular support. In this respect, Erdoğan is also a charismatic leader. Most leaders might be regarded as a symbol for hope, but not all can be heroes. By the end of the 1990s, Erdoğan became a hope for the people and was embraced by the public. Then, he went through many trials and tribulations, but overcame all. He transformed the country, while protecting democracy against the forces of tutelage. Hence, Erdoğan is a transformative, visionary and charismatic leader. This is why I believe he is distinct.
The ability to mobilize people is crucial here. Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take action, and the people responded positively. In any other place in the world, people would just disregard these calls. This transformed Erdoğan into a great leader, and this is an advantage for Turkey; the entanglement of the fates of a leader and a country is important. Those who try to depose Erdoğan want to put Turkey back into a submissive position. During the coup attempt, people were aware of this, that's why they heeded the call and took to the streets.