What are the Challenges Facing Turkey's AKP?

Briefing Note

What are the Challenges Facing Turkey's AKP?

02 Nov 2015

The AKP's success in the second set of elections this year returns Turkey to a single-party government, but will the party's strong track record be enough to deal with the country's growing challenges?

The Justice and Development Party's (AKP) strong performance in the second Turkish parliamentary elections this year has seen the country return to a single-party government. The AKP regained its parliamentary majority by winning almost 50 per cent of the vote, three million more than in June 2015. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the founder of the AKP, welcomed the results as a manifestation of "national will" and said that the result should be "respected by the whole world." But the new government will face severe challenges in restoring economic prosperity, managing the impact of the war in Syria, and fighting a renewed Kurdish separatist insurgency.

The main rivals to the AKP in the elections were the Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP), the Republican People's Party (CHP), and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Polls carried out in early October proved to be fairly accurate in indicating that, despite the mounting issues facing the country, support for the AKP had increased since the June elections, while support for the CHP, the main opposition party, had dwindled.

Despite accusations that the elections were called in order to help Erdogan and the AKP consolidate their power, the situation in Turkey has changed significantly since the June elections. Attacks on Turkish soil in Suruc and Ankara, both reportedly with ISIS involvement, escalating tensions with Kurdish militants, and Turkey's participation in coalition airstrikes against ISIS, all point to Turkey's deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict.

The situation in Turkey has changed significantly since June.

There has been a growing concern in Turkey over the immediate and long-term effects of the conflict in neighbouring Syria. The government has been criticised for failing to adequately secure its border with Syria, a major supply route for ISIS and other rebel forces. The government's initial reluctance to join the fight against ISIS, and accusations that it turned a blind eye to the group in an attempt to put pressure on Kurdish separatists, damaged the government's reputation among both Turks and Kurds. It was not until ISIS launched attacks on Turkish soil that the country joined US-led coalition airstrikes against the group in Syria.

ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing in Suruc in July 2015 that killed 33 people and injured 104 at a Kurdish cultural centre where socialist youth groups had gathered. The bombing led to several skirmishes between ISIS militants and the Turkish army on the Turkey-Syria border. The Turkish government responded by granting the US Air Force permission to launch strikes on ISIS from Turkish soil, followed soon after by Turkish forces launching strikes of their own.

Blaming government failings for the bombing, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group and designated terrorist organisation based in Turkey and northern Iraq, launched attacks on Turkish security forces. Turkey responded with airstrikes on the group's bases in Iraq. The Suruc bombing and subsequent clashes led to the collapse of a ceasefire between the government and the PKK, established in 2013 by the AKP government. Turkey has also faced criticism for its pursuit of the PKK, which is also fighting ISIS. Although the government has framed its pursuit of the Kurdish-separatist PKK as an attack on a terrorist group rather than an attack on Kurds, there is growing unease about the government's actions among Turkey's Kurdish population.

At least 102 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a peace rally in Ankara in October 2015. The rally was held in protest against the growing conflict between Turkey and the PKK. Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, Turkish government figures, including Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu and President Erdogan, have blamed ISIS in collaboration with the PKK, as well as Syrian intelligence.

Turkey has accommodated some two million refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq, but growing internal instability linked to the conflict, and the economic impact of large refugee flows, have been cause for concern among ordinary Turks over the sustainability of the strategy. 

Despite the country's secular foundations, the AKP has used its Islamic identity to consolidate support among Turkey's Muslims, who account for 98 per cent of the population. While Erdogan and the AKP enjoy support from the vast Sunni majority in the country, religious and ethnic minorities continue to feel marginalised. Prominent Alevis, a branch of Shia Islam and Turkey's largest religious minority, have criticised the lack of government support they receive and fear that the sectarian rhetoric from the Syrian conflict may be manifesting itself in Turkey. Kurds also fear that the anti-Kurdish sentiments of ISIS could spread to Turkey, particularly amid the growing violence.

Economic instability is a major issue for the new government.

An October 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that an increasing number of Turks held unfavourable views of Erdogan, although support for him was strong among AKP members and more devout Muslims. Concerns over economic stability were also evident in the survey, with rising prices, economic inequality, and high unemployment high on the list. The AKP has, until the relatively recent downturn, overseen significant economic development since 2002, so it is little surprise that within hours of the results being announced, both the Turkish Lira and the stock exchange reflected positive growth.

The Turkish electorate's decision to back the AKP suggests that stability is key. Since 2002, the AKP has succeeded in maintaining peace, re-establishing links with Kurdish groups, and delivered economic success, as it appears that growing instability since it lost its majority in June has reminded voters. While The AKP may have won the elections based on past successes, the problems the country faces today are unprecedented.

This article was originally published on 27 October 2015. It was updated on 2 November 2015.

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