The AKP in Turkey: Islamic or Conservative?

By Lucie Drechselova | 31 March 2011

To quote this document: Lucie Drechselova, “The AKP in Turkey: Islamic or Conservative? ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 31 March 2011,, displayed on 02 February 2023

amaelogo.jpgThe AKP, the Justice and Development Party, was created in Turkey in 2001 and won the general elections in 2002 with 34.3% of votes. While some see the AKP as a model of moderate Islam within more or less democratic framework, others regard it with suspicion as a party having a “hidden agenda” aiming to restore Sharia law in Turkey. How to explain the AKP’s discourse and success?

As AKP openly rejects political use of Islam, it actually cuts itself from its origins because the majority of its protagonists were members of Islamist parties before. The AKP was created in 2001 after the closure of Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi) as a result of internal rivalry between two camps – traditionalists and modernists.

The modernist wing headed by Abdullah Gül, now the Turkish president, celebrated an electoral victory in 2002 general elections while the traditionalists ended with 2.5%. The refusal of political use of Islam could have played a very significant role.

Several authors point out that the change of discourse is part of party’s rational strategy to avoid imminent closure. Since 1950s, Turkey has had several parties with open Islamic references but all got abolished by the Constitutional Court, or banned after a military coup. In this sense AKP’s shift may correspond to lesson learning.

Pragmatic rather than ideological shift

Ergun Özbudun and William Hale describe a turning point in the history of Turkish political Islam to be the 1997 military memorandum that forced Islamist headed government to resign. They argue, “the sudden pro-Western and pro-EU turn of Turkish Islamists and their growing commitment to democracy and human rights can be considered a protective shield against the repressive actions of the secularist establishment.” (Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, The case of the AKP, 2010, p.27)

For Marcie Patton, Professor of Politics at Fairfield University, the pragmatic reasons for this transformation were three-fold. First, this transformation “shielded the party from the likelihood of imminent closure; second, it safeguarded an Islamic lifestyle under the rubric of democratic freedoms; and, third, it broadened the party’s appeal to liberal minded voters.” (M.Patton, 2007, Mediterranean politics, p.343)

AKP’s liberal minded voters are members of a rising Anatolian Islamic bourgeoisie which is traditionally attached to Islamic values but also calls for economic liberalism. As they have a lot to lose in a potential conflict with the army and a resulting destabilization of the country, they may contribute to the AKP’s moderate evolution; moreover, it corresponds  to the voters’ demands.

KP’s new recipe for success, original synthesis of Islam and democracy  

AKP portrays itself as a “conservative democracy” refusing any “Islamic” label. Ali Yaşar Sarıbay, Turkish historian and sociologist, describes the party as “Islamic in name, liberal in practice, democrat in attitude and Westernist in direction.” If we judge AKP according to its programme, we can hardly distinguish it from a liberal conservative European party except for its stronger religious references.

It emphasizes universal values, such as human rights, freedom, pluralism, multiculturalism, free market and privatization. It also points out that it respects Atatürk’s legacy as a source of republican values. Its foreign policy is both Western and regionally oriented. To put it simply, the AKP’s version of conservative democracy stems from a synthesis made by previous Turkish centre-right parties only with heavier accent on Islamic values.    

The EU in AKP’s practice

Since 2002, the AKP intensified a process of democratising reforms in Turkey. Regardless recent setbacks, AKP embraced a clearly pro-EU policy. Several sensible reforms have been introduced in the name of the future EU membership. Is it only a means for AKP to legitimize itself as a political power or is it a credible commitment? A high polarization of public opinion in Turkey on this issue suggests that the question will not be so easy to answer.   


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • PATTON M. J., 'AKP Reform Fatigue in Turkey: What has happened to the EU Process?', Mediterranean Politics, 12: 3, 339 - 358, 2007
  • HALE W., ÖZBUDUN E., Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, The case of the AKP, Routledge Studies in Middle Eastern Politics, 2010


Source photo : File:S7000218.JPG, par Ekim Caglar, sur wikimedia commons