Following the reversal of the Arab Spring and domestic tribulations in Turkey after the Gezi Park protests, domestic and international media outlets systematically disseminated news, analyses and academic material that in essence blamed all of Turkey’s ills, troubles and weaknesses on Erdoğan.
As the predominant political party that shaped the configuration of the Turkish political scene over the course of the last decade, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is going through a critical process of transformation. As known, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved to the post of the presidency following a resounding victory in Turkey’s first popular presidential election last year, but he refused the idea of being imprisoned in the Presidential Palace as a ceremonial figure. From the start, he described his mission to be a proactive president who engages actively with the processes of policymaking and implementation, i.e., a “sweating president.” Ever since, arguments concerning a transition from the current hybrid parliamentary system produced from several military interventions and antidemocratic constitutions to a presidential system required a new urgency with his presence as a strong political figure.
Thoroughly understanding the widespread impact of what can be called the “Erdoğan effect” is not only important to explore the potential ways in which Turkey’s political system might evolve in the coming years, but also the peculiar transformation trajectory of the AK Party as the leading organizational actor within that system. Retrospectively, Erdoğan has always been a towering figure within the culturally conservative social forces in Turkey as a courageous, sensitive and accessible politician speaking the language of the masses, feeling their pains and concerns and carrying the flag of their encounter with the rather authoritarian and Kemalist Turkish state. Therefore, even before the formation of the AK Party, Erdoğan had a strong symbolic value in the eyes of the conservative Turkish electorate as well as Muslim communities in the Middle East and other regions of the world. Afterward, the proactive foreign policy, socio-economic development drive and democratic consolidation processes pursued under his leadership both empowered the AK Party as a political movement and galvanized Erdoğan’s international charisma and widespread acceptance as the most important “brand” that Turkey’s public diplomacy was based on.
But following the reversal of the Arab Spring and domestic tribulations in Turkey after the Gezi Park protests, domestic and international media outlets systematically disseminated news, analyses and academic material that in essence blamed all of Turkey’s ills, troubles and weaknesses on Erdoğan. This radical sea change and negative public diplomacy toward Erdoğan’s image gradually found inroads in Turkey, leading some observers of Turkish politics to wrongly claim that the sociological basis of the “Erdoğan effect” has already expired. In fact, the difficult one-year period for the AK Party and Turkey in which Erdoğan partly withdrew himself from active party politics and opened a new space of maneuvering for Ahmet Davutoglu as the new prime minister was enough to prove the contrary. The transformation that was tried in the party under new leadership proved premature, ill prepared and aloof from the realities of Turkey’s local political competition.
Following unusual problems in formulating an updated but socially acceptable political rhetoric, conducting an efficient election campaign, producing satisfactory candidate lists and mobilizing grassroots party organizations, the AK Party failed to form a single-party government for the first time in 13 years despite gathering an impressive 41 percent of the vote at the ballot box. Despite subjective claims to the contrary, sensible observers confirmed that the bulk of these votes were received thanks to the continuing impact of the “Erdoğan effect,” not due to premature attempts to revise the direction and composition of the party itself.
Therefore, the re-composition of governing boards at the AK Party ordinary congress on Sept. 12 and candidate lists for the parliamentary elections on Nov. 1 were received positively as attempts to mobilize the potential electorate with the insertion of more, rather than less, “Erdoğan effect” through known political faces from his entourage. After all, despite his move to the presidency and the superficial debates surrounding his name, Erdoğan is still a colossal political asset for the AK Party, an asset that its adversaries could only dream of and political commentators ought to take seriously for some time to come.
Resource: Daily Sabah, September 18, 2015