The Middle East Channel

The AKP’s accountability problem

This week’s widespread protests in Turkey, which escalated to violent clashes in some places, are unprecedented in recent Turkish politics. They caught most Turks by surprise, including Turkey’s government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which tried unsuccessfully to be dismissive. The rapid spread of the demonstrations beyond Istanbul’s central Taksim square reveal ...

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

This week’s widespread protests in Turkey, which escalated to violent clashes in some places, are unprecedented in recent Turkish politics. They caught most Turks by surprise, including Turkey’s government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which tried unsuccessfully to be dismissive. The rapid spread of the demonstrations beyond Istanbul’s central Taksim square reveal a latent anger by a significant portion of Turkey’s population regarding how the government has been going about its business. A deeper source of the protests, however, is a palpable anxiety about the gradual decline in mechanisms by which the ruling party can be held accountable for its visionary but polarizing policies.

Coinciding with the escalation of protests in Istanbul was a large conference at Istanbul’s Sehir University that sought to assess the legacies of the decade in which the AKP has led the Turkish government. As participants noted, much has gone right in Turkey over the last decade of AKP rule, including rapid economic growth in a region that is currently in economic crisis. Additionally, several rounds of constitutional reforms designed to increase individual rights, reduce the independence of the military, and align Turkey’s political system with EU standards have helped to strengthen and democratize the Turkish political system. 

However, any assessment of the AKP’s decade of rule reveals a number of lingering shadows that cast doubt on the long-term democratic project in Turkey. The ongoing demonstrations in Istanbul, are at base, a result of deep anxieties among a portion of the Turkish population that Turkey’s evolving democracy is ill-suited to meet the needs of all of its citizens. These anxieties were further consolidated because of the government’s bungled response to the protests, which was unreasonably heavy-handed for a government that is never shy about espousing its own democratic credentials. Apologies from some senior officials over the government’s handling of the protests appeared half-hearted and came too late.

Though the proximate grievances that allowed initial protests over an urban redevelopment project to escalate concerned the government’s ambitious and contentious plans to remake public space, the more fundamental concerns revolve around the inability of the AKP’s opponents and disaffected citizens to see a future in which the ruling party and its political agenda can be reasonably contained. Over the course of three national electoral cycles, the AKP has become too dominant in Turkish politics for its own good. Like the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, a popular and dominant party without real competition can lose its sense of accountability. This is what the Turkish protesters are trying to remedy.

Accountability in democracy can be understood in several ways. First, vertical accountability is accountability to voters in elections, in which voters have the opportunity to punish governments at the ballot box. Voters have rewarded the AKP by reelecting the party twice, both times with a higher percentage of votes than in the previous round (and about 50 percent of the total vote in 2011). Coupled with a general implosion of its political opposition, the AKP has come to feel secure in its relationship with voters, and few anticipate the rise of a credible challenger prior to the next election. For the half of the Turkish population that votes for other political parties, it has been difficult to see how the AKP’s dominance will be effectively challenged through the electoral process. While voters could theoretically punish the AKP at the ballot box, the party has so far been given wide latitude, and it has grown more secure in its long-term position. The AKP has thus come to feel less accountable to a population that has proven consistently willing to reelect the party, and this often comes across in the tone with which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dismisses his opposition.

A second form of accountability, one of checks and balances across state institutions, is sometimes termed horizontal accountability. Over the last decade, horizontal accountability for the AKP has also declined. In its early days, the AKP felt under threat from a military establishment committed to defending principles of Kemalism, and was openly challenged by the Constitutional Court over the constitutional acceptability of its policies. Due to a number of constitutional reforms and military scandals however, both the military and the courts have lost some of their ability to keep the AKP’s government’s actions in check (justifiably or not). Further consolidation of the party’s control over the presidency, a position to which Erdogan aspires at the conclusion of his current term, would also reduce horizontal accountability. The AKP has likewise increasingly tamed the media in an effort to hinder any potential opposition from civil society.

In its aspirations to meet accession criteria for the European Union, the AKP has also historically faced some external accountability to Europe for its actions, and has often used the EU accession criteria in its bid to reduce the power of the military in Turkish politics. Since the middle of the last decade, however, as Europe’s disinterest in Turkish membership grew increasingly stark, the AKP has felt less external accountability to the EU in its policies. This again has led to greater autonomy on the part of the AKP government.

After a decade of rule in which the AKP has faced diminishing vertical, horizontal, and external accountability for its policies, what the Turkish protests are trying to provide is an alternative mechanism to hold the government accountable through a newly coordinated and vocal civil society. In this respect, the protests have already been successful at turning the international spotlight on controversial aspects of the AKP’s governance. They have thus forced the government to publicly acknowledge, if not yet fully address, their concerns.

Because Turkey is a democracy in which the AKP will have to face voters again at the polls, and because the party does command widespread popular support, Erdogan is correct that the current Turkish protests cannot be justifiably compared to those that started the Arab Spring. Where he is mistaken, however, is in his dismissal of the protesters as undemocratic agents of the political opposition.

Rather, the protests should be taken as a serious and widespread signal of popular anxiety over the AKP’s use of its perceived democratic mandate to act in increasingly undemocratic ways. Just as the more entrenched of the protesters risk overplaying their hand in discounting the ruling party’s popularity, AKP leaders have so far underplayed the magnitude of anxiety over the specter of their party’s perpetual domination of Turkish politics. That anxiety is unlikely to erode unless the AKP begins to recognize that vibrant democracy requires the government to demonstrate greater accountability to those it governs. Because in addition to voting, those that the AKP governs are learning to stand up and yell.

Quinn Mecham is a visiting professor at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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