The Turkish Elections 2023 and the Future of Political Islam

Mohammad Abu Rumman and Yasmeen Al Jolani

This article is part of a comprehensive series presented by PSI, discussing the Turkish elections. It includes a series of articles and an extensive seminar that raises questions to help us understand the Turkish electoral scene within the most important elections witnessed by the Turkish arena, as described by the international media.

The Turkish elections in May 2023 represent a major turning point not only for the future and fate of Islamic currents, or more precisely those with a Turkish Islamic background, but also for Islamic movements in the Arab Orient. These movements have been increasingly aligned with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party since the Arab Spring. Istanbul has emerged as an international hub for Islamists, accommodating active Islamic movements in the Orient and offering refuge to Islamists fleeing their countries, such as Egypt and Syria. This role has been further cemented by the city’s regular hosting of numerous Islamic meetings and gatherings.

The importance of the current elections is apparent from multiple perspectives. Foremost, they represent a significant challenge for the Justice and Development Party, which has governed Turkey for over two decades. The opposition parties, now known as the “Hexagonal Table” or the National Alliance, are adamant about competing and overthrowing Turkey’s President and party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Moreover, these elections carry implications in terms of dimensions, significances, and international and regional repercussions. They even have an impact at the level of polarization within Islamic currents in Turkey, between those who support the Justice and Development Party and those who have strongly engaged in Turkish opposition alliances. The current political climate raises questions about the electoral and social base of the Islamists, further highlighting the extent of division and fragmentation among these currents and forces.

The crucial question perhaps doesn’t primarily reside in the success of the Justice and Development Party, whether in the legislative or presidential elections, as that would signify the “status quo” (even though the Justice and Development Party has made clear shifts in its foreign policy recently). The more intriguing prospect lies in what would happen if the era of Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party were to end. What would be the repercussions on the fate of Turkish political Islam or Arab allies aligned with Erdoğan? Therefore, it’s not surprising to see the level of international and regional interest, particularly among Islamic currents and their opponents, in the upcoming Turkish elections.

  • The Price of Dominance, Ascendancy, and the Shift in External Alliance Networks

Since its inception and rapid rise, the Justice and Development Party has constituted a significant shift in the ideological discourse and political trajectory of Turkish Islamists, greatly influencing Arab Islamists. The party made a major ideological leap when it redefined itself and changed its positioning in the Turkish political scene from an Islamic party, an extension of the national (Necmettin Erbakan) vision, to a party belonging to the center-right. It described itself as a conservative secular party, one that does not conflict in its theses with the principles of secularism and seeks democratic civil governance in Turkey. This formula enabled it to break out of the vicious cycle in the conflict between Islamists and the military, which lasted for decades and overthrew the leadership of the Islamic current, from Adnan Menderes to the successive experiences of Erbakan (National Order Party in 1970, National Salvation Party in 1972, Welfare Party in 1983, Virtue Party in 1997, and Felicity Party in 2001).

The “Erdoganism” formed an alternative line to Erbakanism, and the new party managed to dominate the votes of the majority of the conservative religious class in Turkey, effectively pulling the rug out from under the Felicity Party, which represented an extension of Erbakan and his ideas.

The Justice and Development Party began by adopting a politically liberal thought with a conservative religious background, abandoning the slogans and ideological vision of political Islam. This shift was initially met with skepticism, rejection, and concern by Arab Islamists. However, the new party quickly demonstrated the effectiveness of the transformation it undertook. Governing Turkey for two decades, it managed to dismantle and break the rigid secular laic molds in the country, weakened the sway of extremist secular influence, and reduced the role of the military institution in the political space. It built extensive influence in state institutions, including judicial, security, and military ones. The era of Ataturk’s secularism ended in a gradual, smooth, and subtle manner, without the direct confrontation that characterized Erbakan’s thinking.

Moreover, it drew other Turkish Islamists, and even Islamic parties and movements in the Arab world, towards pragmatic slogans, ideas, and policies. These groups followed in its footsteps in adopting a different discourse, leaning more towards political realism, accepting democracy, and abandoning old dreams of establishing a classical Islamic state. Instead, they aimed for a civil state with a touch of soft Islamic discourse that doesn’t strive to impose a specific ideological model, as is the case in neighboring Iran, where its political system emerged from an Islamic revolution and still adheres to it.

The Justice and Development Party’s successful gradual change led to a significant and qualitative shift among Islamists outside Turkey towards accepting this discourse and model. For many decades, the Iranian Revolution had represented a model for radical political change, which first manifested in Fathi Shaqaqi’s famous book ” Imam Khomeini, The Islamic Solution and the Alternative”. Although Iran remains an influential regional power among Shiite Islamists and the center of what is known as the Islamic Resistance Alliance, which has included many Islamic movements since 2006, Turkey has emerged as a competitive regional center that embraces peaceful Islamists in many Arab countries, especially since the events of the Arab Spring in 2011.

While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has managed to stay in power for an extended period, and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged as a historical leader of contemporary Turkey, serving as President for the longest time in recent decades, and achieving a notable economic transition, and surviving the most dangerous coup attempt in 2016, the party has suffered from political crises in Turkey and within the party itself.

Initially, the AKP lost its historic alliance with the Gulenist movement, led by Fethullah Gulen, which contributed in the early stages of the party’s rule to its rise, success, and electoral victories. However, the two sides entered into a power struggle and differed in vision. The Gulenist movement was overthrown, and many of its financial, service, economic, and media resources in Turkey and abroad were drained (under pressure from the AKP on other governments).

Then, there were significant and large-scale splits at the leadership level, leading to the departure of highly important political leaders, most notably Abdullah Gul (the former Turkish president and prime minister, and Erdogan’s friend in the founding of the AKP), Ahmet Davutoglu, the party’s prime minister and foreign minister and one of its leading theorists, and Ali Babacan, who was one of the party’s ministers and founders, particularly prominent in the economic file.

The party’s liberal thought has declined towards more conservative thought in politics, and its international and regional alliances have receded, moving closer to Russia. Its relationship with the West has turned towards hostility, and it has become clear that there is a Western desire for the success of the party’s opponents in the coming stage, while Russian President Putin is supporting Erdogan in the current elections.

  • Turkish Islamic Divisions… At the center or on the sidelines?

The current elections represent the peak of division in the Turkish Islamic political scene. We use the term ‘Islamic’ expansively, as the Justice and Development Party does not consider itself an Islamic party and rejects this label. Indeed, it is closer to contemporary conservative parties, allied with right-wing and nationalist parties. The traditional Islamic Felicity Party, which has moved beyond Erbakan’s ideas and significantly modified its intellectual propositions, has receded into the same square. This is apparent from its current alliance with the Republican People’s Party and its nomination of the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The Filicity Party does not stand alone in the opposition ranks among the Islamists, as it is joined by Erdogan’s former allies, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who founded the Future Party, and Ali Babacan, who founded the Democracy and Progress Party. Behind them is Abdullah Gül, who has announced his support for the opposition parties against Erdogan. The defectors from the Justice and Development Party have become far removed from their traditional religious base in their positions. They are closer to liberal parties, some of them to Islamic propositions, even those similar to the soft Islam proposed by the Justice and Development Party.

On the other hand, Erdogan has managed to attract small Islamic parties, foremost among them is the New Welfare Party, led by Fatih Erbakan, the son of the historical leader of the Islamists, Necmettin Erbakan, and also the Kurdish Huda-Par party. This may seem like a split among the Islamists, and the former Turkish Islamists, but to what extent is this initial reading accurate?!

It is difficult to judge this in light of the lack of unbiased polls and surveys in Turkey. However, numbers and indications point to a significant and noticeable superiority of the Justice and Development Party in the religious electoral base, even after the clash with the Gulen movement and the split of many of the party’s major leaders. The numbers indicate that the Felicity Party’s share is weak and limited, and the party has repeatedly failed to secure any seat in the parliament, except after joining the opposition. It was able to win the mayoralty of dozens of municipalities in Turkey in the municipal elections, although these results do not necessarily reflect the popular Islamic sentiment in the major battle, the presidential and legislative elections.

Until now, the numbers of Erdogan’s opponents in the opposing Islamic currents remain limited and weak. Media reports indicate the withdrawal and objections of many members of the Felicity Party and its modest electoral base to the party’s alliances with the Republican People’s Party, especially as its leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu did not hesitate to publicly declare his affiliation with the Alevi sect. On the other hand, it’s difficult for Ahmet Davutoglu and Ali Babacan to compete with the Justice and Development Party for the religious base in Turkey. However, Fatih Erbakan and his new party carry significant symbolism as an extension of Necmettin Erbakan’s national vision and his Islamic ideas, despite the novelty of this party.

In political analysis; the religious voters may not be completely satisfied with Erdogan’s performance and the Justice and Development Party, but if religion is a major factor in the current battle, it is expected that the majority of the religious base will side with Erdogan, fearing the political agenda of the Republican People’s Party and to avoid losing the gains achieved over the past decades in terms of religious freedoms, soft Islamization, and the infiltration of Islamists into various institutions. There is no more guarantee than the continuity of the Justice and Development Party in power compared to the rhetoric of the Republican People’s Party and secularists who oppose Erdogan and his party.

But what is the size of the conservative religious bloc in the Turkish elections? Observers, and even opponents of Islamists, indicate that the conservative bloc is relatively large, ranging from 35-45% of the electoral base. Ahmet Davutoglu has admitted that the Justice and Development Party still dominates this base. This base owes Erdogan and his party numerous gains, including the headscarf battle, the Hagia Sophia Mosque, and also the emphasis on protecting the family and conservative religious values in society in the face of traditional secular currents and Western pressures. If we accept this ratio, it will be a decisive factor in the upcoming elections and will largely benefit Erdogan at the presidential level and the party to a lesser extent in the legislative elections.

  • What if Erdogan lost the battle?

However, the battle is not easy and is not guaranteed. Observers believe that it is difficult for any presidential candidate to settle matters from the first round. Let’s go further with this possibility and imagine Erdogan and his party losing the elections. What are the implications of this on the party and on Turkish political Islam and the internal equation?

If that happens, Islamic currents would have suffered a harsh blow, despite the presence of the “Felicity”, “Future”, and “Democracy and Progress” parties in the opposition coalition (the Hexagonal Table), because the power and dominance would be in favor of the Republican People’s Party. Therefore, the results would be negative in morale. The new rulers would try to revert a little, abandon many of the theses led by the Justice and Development Party, and weaken the influence of Islamists in various institutions, and soften the shade of “soft Islam” in Turkey. However, it is highly unlikely to restore the Atatürk secularism phase, which is realized by Kilicdaroglu who tried to appeal to the religious base. Many social, cultural, and political transformations have become acquired rights for the religious base, and in Turkish policies, in addition to the presence of representatives of the Islamic opposition within Turkey.

The direst consequences might first befall the Syrian refugees in Turkey, with the rise of populist, anti-refugee rhetoric in Turkey. Even Erdogan himself has faced intense pressure, prompting him to try to find a solution and decrease their presence in Turkey. Secondly, there would likely be a gradual mass exodus of Arab Islamists who have fled to Turkey, especially given that the opposition’s rhetoric does not conceal its rejection of Erdogan’s foreign policies on the Syrian issue and towards Arab countries, specifically since the Arab Spring of 2011.

On the international level, a defeat for Erdogan and his party would be considered a major political earthquake for Islamists. The central, nurturing role of Turkey for many Arab Islamic parties and powers would diminish. The first to suffer would be the various facets of the Syrian opposition, especially those of an Islamic nature. This is something that the Felicity Party agrees with the opposition coalition on, having declared its support for Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Turkey has been a regional supporter of Arab Islamists for over a decade, and there are strong ties between it and movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. This makes its loss significant for the Islamists, as it represents, along with Qatar, a regional axis that supported the movements of the Arab Spring, particularly those of an Islamic nature. However, this does not mean a major collapse in the standing of these movements. They have significant political experience in dealing with regional changes. It is known that Hamas has previously worked on repairing its relationship with Iran and gradually reconnecting with the Syrian regime, which means that the Arab resistance alliance is currently being restored, led by Iran. However, there will be a challenging transition period for the Islamists who found a haven and a nurturing environment in Turkey during the past period. Thus, this will push them to look for other alternatives.

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