13 April 2012
In response to the Turkish Prime Minister’s outburst at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Asli Aydintasbas wrote “for us Turks, watching Erdoğan ‘lose it’…was nothing new. It was, rather, an Erdoğan classic—charismatic yet boorish; ardent but intimidating.” But as the man who was once imprisoned for saying “[t]he mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldier” won his third term with a decisive mandate, the opposition remained dismayed at the regime’s resilience and their own inability to counter the incredible popularity of this charismatic, boorish, ardent, intimidating Kasımpaşalı who has, in under a decade, triggered a wave of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural transformations in a manner unseen since the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. More recently, as Turkey finds itself at the intersection of historic political and economic transformations around the world, it seems appropriate to reassess the very character of the “political project” AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party) seems to champion.
A Misguided Prism
Under the AKP leadership, Turkey’s achievements seem to be plenty. At a time when Europe appears to be rapidly descending into an economic abyss, Turkey has weathered the global crisis better than most, registering growth dwarfed only by the likes of India and China. Adding to its economic ties with the European Union, Turkey’s financial profile was further expanded among its Middle Eastern neighbors. According to Today’s Zaman, Turkish foreign direct invest (FDI) in the region rose by “55.9 percent in the first two months of  over the same period of 2009 and [accounted] for 43.8 percent of all investments made.” Politically, Turkey’s international profile has seen an unprecedented rise, first after Erdoğan’s unequivocal outburst at Davos, and second, in the wake of the Arab Spring. On his post-Spring tour of the region the Prime Minister “was received like a rock star by thousands of adoring supporters at Cairo’s airport” as he was seen being representative of the “democratic ideal” that Arabs in general are hoping to achieve.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding these high-profile successes, all hasn’t been rosy for the AKP. While initially promising, Erdoğan’s Kurdish strategy seems to have reverted to the usual cycle of violence of the yesteryears. Domestically, the regime shows authoritarian tendencies towards its critics and opposition. According to the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, Turkey seems to have seen a significant free-fall under the AKP leadership, as it is was ranked 138th out of 178 countries in 2010 compared to 99th among 139 surveyed nations in 2002. Beyond its borders, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “Zero Problems” foreign policy has been seriously undermined as well, owing to the recent tiff with Israel and the intransigence of Tehran and Damascus. Furthermore, regional instability has hit Turkey’s economic gains in its neighborhood; most significantly with Syria with which the formerly robust cross border trade has been reduced to a trickle.
But while the gains and losses have been used as a prism by those within and beyond Turkey to survey, laud, or criticize the regime—depending on one’s perspective or political agenda—this tally remains limited in its scope to truly grasp the nature and mandate of the AKP generation and its “political project”. Moreover it demonstrates how the regime has succeeded or failed but not—and more importantly—why. Instead one must realize that beyond the realm of the gains/failures of the regime lays an all-encompassing vision that has, to the displeasure of the opponent, impacted almost every aspect of Turkish life. The question then remains: What is then the alternative that would truly characterize this essence of the AKP “project”?
It is here then that the concept of “political entrepreneurship” finds utility. The Oxford Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as “a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.” Of course, the financial risks and strategies need to be attuned to the needs of the client/target market that would then maximize profits. So, supplanting the “business” with a “political project”, financial risks with “political risks/strategies”, “target market” with “core constituency/supporters” and “profit” with the instilment of the “project” within every societal niche, we then have an individual one can characterize as a “political entrepreneur” and a notion that aptly reflects the wide-ranging “political venture” of the AKP leadership. Rhetorically speaking, it (“the business”/”project”) was aimed at empowering the so-called marginalized in Turkey’s Republican era, namely, the non-secular (“target market”/”core constituency”).
But, beyond simple rhetoric, the AKP political entrepreneur seems to have made significant headway. Outside the traditional economic powerhouses of Istanbul’s Koç and Sabanci Holdings, they have managed to activate what has been termed as “Green Capital” or Islamic Capital hailing from cities that are now considered the Anatolian Tigers, such as Denizli, Gaziantep, Kayseri, and Konya. . According to “Anatolian Tigers or Islamic Capital: Prospects and Challenges” this new bourgeoisie mostly includes “small- and medium-scale enterprises…[led by] i) conservative, religious businessmen ii) companies owned by religious sects (tariqats) or religious communities, and iii) companies with many shareholders.”
Politically and culturally AKP in itself is testament to the “profits” within this niche. A country which once scorned and systematically suppressed those outside the Kemalist political rationality has now seen a religiously oriented party win its third consecutive term with almost 50 percent of the votes. Moreover, it has been generally observed that over the last decade a subtle wave of social conservatism has crept beyond the rural milieu into the urban centers.
But, what is then the utility of conceptualizing the AKP generation as “Political Entrepreneurs” and their “political project” within the business/risk/profit dynamic? The answer lies in the fact that it helps understand why the Erdoğan leadership has flourished. While the opposition scampers to find political relevance by focusing on the specific manifestations of the AKP political project, they have continually avoided the difficult question, namely, why the leadership has been so successful? As CHP and its core constituencies have vehemently limited their political landscape within the Kemalist realm, they have, in lieu of their social and cultural ideals rooted in the West, conveniently ignored the sheer reality of the society around them.
In a socially conservative Turkey (especially outside the urban centers), 82 percent of citizens consider religion an important part of their daily life, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. And it is here that the AKP political milieu reflects its (politically) entrepreneurial spirit. It has, so far, managed to conjure a political project that estimates, almost exactly, the pulse of its constituency thus ensuring the “project’s” success. While the opposition has so far failed to strike a chord with the Turkish masses, maybe understanding the all-encompassing entrepreneurial character of the AKP and the reasons why it has succeeded, would be a step in the right direction. Doing so will allow them to re-conceptualize their political ideals based on the reality of Turkish society and once again, for the sake of the vibrancy of Turkish democracy, rejuvenate the opposition as critical actors within the political spectrum.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April edition.