Turkey's AK Party Still Defies Easy Categorization

It's been a decade since a coalition of Islamic and secular political parties formed the AKP, or Justice and Development Party, and swept to power in Turkey. Warnings from secular Turks about a secret agenda to impose Sharia law on the country proved groundless, and yet ten years into AKP rule, secular unease is on the rise again. European Union-style political and social reforms have ground to a halt in the past 18 months, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems bent on converting Turkey to a strong presidential system with himself at the helm, possibly for another decade.

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After 10 years in power, Turkey's ruling AK Party, or the AKP, still defies easy categorization. It's an outlier on the political spectrum. To other Islamist parties in the region, it's too secular and pro-Western. But by secular Turkish standards, it's too religious.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, the AKP has recently been shifting to the right, and that has some government supporters worried.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: AKP is Turkish shorthand for the Justice and Development Party. It's a popular name among Islamist parties. There are versions in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Pakistan and elsewhere.

But Turkey's rendition is by far the most successful. And part of that success, says analyst Ihsan Dagi, at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, lies in its elusive nature.

IHSAN DAGI: Sometimes it appears as a democratic party with ideas of reform; sometimes we see a party with conservative leaning, attempting to regulate social behavior. So it's really strange. I'm also trying to understand what they really stand for.

KENYON: News organizations have lobbed a series of adjectives at the party over the years without quite managing to pin it down. A brief survey turns up post-Islamist, Islamic-leaning, moderately Islamic, or a party with roots in political Islam. That last has been used by NPR, among others.

The party itself hates all of those phrases, insisting that it's simply a conservative democratic party. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has described himself as a religious man whose job is to defend Turkey's secular government, all of which sounded much more convincing several years ago when the AKP was leading Turkey on an unprecedented spate of democratic reforms with an eye toward joining the European Union.

Then the government began removing leading secular Turks known as Kemalists after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, from key positions in the military, the judiciary and elsewhere. Many wound up in jail awaiting conspiracy trials.

These moves, combined with years of solid economic growth, left the AKP utterly dominating the political landscape, says analyst Gokhan Bacik at Zirve University in Gaziantep.

GOKHAN BACIK: But especially since the last general elections, AKP is not facing a serious opposition.

KENYON: In the last 18 months, however, democratic reforms have virtually ground to a halt. Moreover, critics warn, Erdogan may have removed the secular elites from authority, but he has left the highly centralized mechanisms of Kemalist power in place and seems ready to put them to his own uses.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: In recent remarks, Erdogan complained about the separation of powers that hindered his efforts. This thing called separation of powers, he said, comes and stands in your way as an obstacle.

While much of the world notices how different the AKP's agenda is from the old Kemalist vision, what Turks are seeing is another strong-willed leader ready to reshape the society - forcibly if need be.

Giving full voice to his conservative values, Erdogan has called abortion murder and threatened the makers of a popular soap opera for highlighting an Ottoman sultan's exploits in the harem instead of on the battlefield.

Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says there's some irony in seeing Erdogan develop something remarkably similar to the heavy-handed leadership style of Ataturk.

SONER CAGAPTAY: This was a party that wanted to go against establishment and state power in Turkey. I think Erdogan now seems comfortable with the idea that he is the state. And he's just happy to enjoy the reins of power.

KENYON: But when it comes to what to call the Justice and Development Party, there's another aspect to consider. Columnist Yavuz Baydar says as jackhammers and cranes multiply around Istanbul, it's easy to see why some want to call it the Development and Development Party.

(LAUGHTER)

YAVUZ BAYDAR: That's right. Many people argue these days that it can be called just the Development Party. It has focused more and more in terms of material modernization. But when it came to the, you know, sort of abstract modernization, you know, what Turkey needs really - facing the past, dealing with the present and designing the future - that is the part that has become troublesome.

KENYON: Some Turks say the justice side of the party's agenda could resurface. But with the lure of joining the EU now greatly dimmed, if not extinguished, the question is what will motivate Turkey's leaders to relinquish a measure of their power in the name of a democratic future.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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