The Justice and Development Party as a Litmus Test for Turkish Democracy

Begum Burak

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images  Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan.

In 2002 elections, Turkey’s political landscape witnessed the victory of a brand new political establishment: The Justice and Development Party (JDP). The JDP was founded in 2001 by a leading figure of the closed Islamist Welfare Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan was the ex-mayor of Istanbul and an active actor in Islamist politics in previous years. However, his political career was interrupted by the state establishment in which the military and the judiciary have a crucial role). He was sent to prison because of a poem he read. Ironically, that poem which led to his imprisonment was written by Ziya Gokalp who had been one of the key ideologues of Ottoman-Turkish modernization.

It is widely accepted that the 2002 elections played a major role in transforming the political structure of Turkey. After the elections, the ruling cadres which were characterized by a heavy statist and elitist worldview were replaced with the JDP cadres. Only the Republican People’s Party (RPP), which from the first days of its establishment until today has been regarded as Ataturk’s party, and the JDP could pass the 10 per cent electoral threshold. As a result these two parties had the chance to send their representatives to the parliament.

The JDP got the electoral support of nearly half of the population and formed a single-party government. As known, because of the Islamist background of its leaders, the hardcore Kemalist (state) elites see the JDP’s victory as a serious source of threat for the secular state. Since the early days of JDP government, the ultra-secular(ist) circles in the Army and the high bureaucracy as well as in some media organs have stated their fears about the probability of Turkey becoming an Islamic state.  However, so far, these circles could not provide any concrete justifications about their arguments except making strict criticisms about the Islamic life styles of some of the JDP members.

Indeed, unlike the state establishment’s fears, the policies and the political engagements of the JDP rule most of the time shed a light upon the liberal and democrat identity of the party. The party’s efforts in bringing Turkey closer to the European Union (EU) have paved the way for a more liberal and democratic atmosphere. Moreover, the economic development has helped the country become more attractive both for its neighbors and the EU.

The party presents itself as a conservative-democrat party. While having a special importance to democratic norms and processes, it is also engaged in preserving the cultural and traditional traits. Today, there is an undisputedly high degree of agreement that the party must not be called as an Islamic party. As known, in the programme of JDP, there is no reference to religious points. The focal points in the party programme concentrate on justice, development, democracy, civil liberties and human rights.

The electoral triumph of the JDP in 2002, 2007 and 2011 general elections is, according to many people, a result of the dissatisfaction that the voters have had because of the unstable coalition governments of the previous years. In addition, the efforts of the party to make Turkey gain full EU membership have paved the way for a much more liberal and democratic state-society relations. Parallel to that, the strict secularist understanding of the state establishment has been challenged which has played a major role in relieving the masses.

It must be stated that, the Kemalist modernization project and the central actors in this modernization process namely the Army and the bureaucracy (state establishment) have caused the alienation of the masses. The intolerant attitude of the so-called ‘modernizers’ towards Islam led the masses to adopt unofficial bonds such as Islamic brotherhoods which the state has seen as some kind of threat for secularism in “modern” Turkey. In short, it is obvious that the political elites until the early 2000’s along with the state elites always kept some distance between themselves and the masses. This distance, in the end, with the economic problems and social injustices played a key role in making the JDP become the most important actor in Turkish political life.

Under the JDP leadership, important steps have been taken to make Turkey more compatible with the EU standards. For instance, civil-military relations have become more democratic, the economy has become stronger, foreign policy has become more proactive and civil liberties have increased. However, in contemporary Turkey there are still some anomalies in politics. Above all, despite the important electoral support of the party, some circles still question the legitimacy of the party policies.

On the other hand, despite the efforts of the party towards making Turkey become an EU member state, some people insist on arguing that the party has a secret Islamist agenda. In addition, some people argue that half of the population who did not vote for the JDP is excluded from democratic processes. Moreover, they state that Turkey is about to turn into a civilian dictatorship. All of these arguments have one thing in common: They are unwilling and inadequate in identifying the different views the JDP cadres and JDP voters have about the principle of secularism. As known, there are two conflicting models of secularism. The French type sees secularism as a heavy state control over religion whereas the American type interprets secularism as the separation of state and religion giving religion an autonomous space. In this context, it can be said that the anti-JDP camp sees secularism from the point of French model; by contrast the JDP camp sees it from the point of American model.

Indeed, the strong electoral support for the JDP and the economic and political achievements of the party today stand as a major element against the challenging forces, however still some undemocratic engagements have been witnessed. For example the closure case of the party and the e-memorandum in 2007 can be seen as important challenging forces. In brief, the years with the JDP rule can be seen as a litmus test for Turkish democracy.

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One thought on “The Justice and Development Party as a Litmus Test for Turkish Democracy

  1. Pingback: When will be democracy ‘the only game in town’ in Turkey? | Dimpool - Web Based Policy Center

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