It is doubtful now that the great visionary will get to celebrate the wondrous 2023 centenary, as imagined way back in 2010. Under-25s, who have only ever known AK Party rule, now make up 40% of the voting population, Generation Z is reaching voting age and the older generations who remember the old days are melting away. That previous generation, who remember the stifling military coups, the repression and suppression of religious practices, hyper-inflation and collapse of public services of the past, who for a time saw their fortunes change, no longer have much influence on the world. Even the so-called pious generation are deserting him.
Some acquaintances in Turkey were once devotees to the AK Party and its leader. They named their youngest child after him and rejoiced in his first decade of rule. Then the AK Party attempted to normalise relations with Armenia and initiated the Kurdish-Turkish peace process, Çözüm süreci. The logic in striving for peace was flawless from an ethical standpoint; from a religious perspective, the leader no doubt believed he could appeal to the sentiment, “This brotherhood of yours is one brotherhood.” But he was wrong; it turned out to be a massive political miscalculation, as nationalist voters, whose sons had been conscripted and sent to their deaths through decades of military service, abandoned the party in droves, accusing it of treachery.
To the outside observer, this seemed to be the turning point, when principled politics were jettisoned in favour of political expediency. The AK Party allied itself with the nationalist MHP, the Kurdish conflict flared up again with new vigour, and the leader began to make a habit of stirring nationalist sentiment at every opportunity. Then came the attempted coup of 2016, which could have been an opportunity for renewed fervour in instituting democratic reforms, but instead gave birth to a mass purge even more pervasive than the fabled Ergenekon trials of 2007 and Operation Sledgehammer of 2010. Whereas prosecutors and lawyers with links to the Gülen movement had once been given the green light to hound opposition politicians and lawyers, now the Gülen movement itself was in the government’s sights. The modus operandi was the same, only the protagonists were different.
One wonders now who is left to vote for the party. The Gülen movement which provided much of its electoral base in its first decade has been utterly neutralised. The secularists, still numerous, will continue to vote for the CHP. The young, who have grown weary of the establishment, now two decades old, seek change, any change, and will naturally rebel as young people do. The ultra-nationalists may be persuaded to vote for an AKP-MHP coalition, if the president can make just enough of the right noises about deceitful foes, but not if their wallets continue to empty.
All that remain are practising conservative Muslims over the age of 40 in the Turkish heartlands, who will lend the party their vote not necessarily because they still have full confidence in their vision, but because they fear the alternative: a return to the bad old days when scarf-wearing women were barred access to school and university, and from taking jobs in schools, hospitals, courtrooms and government offices, and when religious institutions were proscribed. And, of course, Turks abroad, who pine for a new Ottoman Empire dispensing Ottoman Slaps to all who stand in its way.
It may be that these latter two groups are just numerous enough to lend the AKP another term, but it seems doubtful now. Nobody recalls “zero problems with our neighbours” anymore. The plan to be amongst the top ten economies by 2023 lies in tatters. The strategy now is all about survival. The worry is what lengths they will go to in order to survive.
“For every complex problem,” wrote the American essayist, HL Mencken, “there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”