Türkİye, Politics

15 years of Turkey's Justice and Development Party

Party has governed Turkey for 14 years, a period of widespread reform

15 years of Turkey's Justice and Development Party

By Satuk Bugra Kutlugun and Ahmet Sait Akcay


Turkey’s governing Justice and Development (AK) Party marks its 15th anniversary Sunday, nearly a month after it survived an attempted coup.

The party has been in power since taking office 15 months after it was formed and has won five general elections and three local polls since it was established.

During its 14 years in power, the party has survived numerous challenges, reformed the economy and overseen efforts to join the EU.

It was formed by a cross-section of politicians from existing conservative parties such as the National Salvation Party, the Welfare Party, the Motherland Party and the Virtue Party and has been led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan for most of its existence.

The party, which adopted a glowing light bulb as its logo, emerged from the political instability of the late 1990s and the economic chaos of 2001, when inflation was running at more than 50 percent, shares plummeted and the lira was in freefall.

When it won the November 2002 election with a two-thirds of parliamentary seats it became the first party to win a majority in 11 years.

Erdogan, who had risen to prominence as the mayor of Istanbul, would normally have become prime minister but was banned from public office because of a poetry reading he gave in 1994 that was deemed religious and against Turkey’s laws on excluding religion from politics.

He had been jailed for four months for the offense so one of the party’s co-founders Abdullah Gul was installed as premier.

Erdogan would later, in March 2003, take over when he was elected to parliament as the deputy for Siirt in southeast Turkey when the block on his role in political life expired.

He would remain leader of the party and prime minister until August 2014, when he became the first president to be elected by popular vote. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu succeeded him as party chairman and prime minister until he stepped down in May to be replaced by Transport Minister Binali Yildirim.

During his time as prime minister, Erdogan oversaw general elections in 2007 and 2011 that saw the party returned to power with an increased share of the vote each time.

 Electoral success

The party also performed well in local elections in 2004, 2009 and 2014, when it secured 18 out of 30 metropolitan mayoralties.

When Erdogan stood for the presidency later that year he received just under 52 percent of the vote and Davutoglu officially took charge of the party.

The June 2015 general election saw the party returned as the largest in parliament but it failed to retain its overall majority, taking 258 of 550 seats. Talks to form a coalition floundered and a snap poll was called the following November that saw the AK Party returned with a majority of 317 seats.

The early years of government were a period of economic reform as the party tried to repair the financial damage caused in 2001.

With an emphasis on growth, the government reined in inflation and foreign debt and revalued the lira. These changes allowed the country to ride the 2008 global financial crisis relatively unscathed.

Turkey is now ranked as one of the fastest-growing G20 economies and is the world’s 17th largest economy. It paid of its 52-year debt to the International Monetary Fund in May 2013 and per capita income has more than doubled since 2002.

The constitution has been another area of focus for the party and its time in power has seen two referenda on Turkey’s political charter.

The 2007 referendum saw a popular vote for the presidency introduced (it had previously been decided by lawmakers in the Grand National Assembly) as well as changes to the president’s term of office from seven years to five and reducing the gap between general elections to four years.

A second referendum in 2010 saw the government bring parts of the constitution into line with EU standards. Amendments included abolishing Article 15, which had prevented civilian courts from trying military officers. The move paved the way for the leaders of the 1980 coup to stand trial.

The military, which traditionally viewed itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secularist tradition, proved to be another factor standing in the way of reform.

Apart from the July 15 attempted coup, which saw at least 240 people martyred by pro-coup forces in a bid said to have been launched by supporters of U.S.-based Fetullah Gulen, tensions between the AK Party and the military were most obvious in April 2007, when Gul stood for president.


Gul, whose wife wore a headscarf, was seen as too overtly religious by the generals, who released a memorandum warning that his standing presented a threat to secularism.

The government refused to bow to the threat and called early elections in July 2007, winning 46.6 percent of the vote, and Gul was elected president the following month.

Of the social issues tackled by the party, perhaps the most notable were the lifting of the ban on headscarves in universities and public institutions and changes to laws blocking the use of Kurdish languages.

The decades-old ban on headscarves among female civil servants was among a package of reforms passed in October 2013 -- it had been lifted in universities earlier -- that mostly aimed at improving rights for the Kurdish minority.

Challenges to the government have seen several legal attempts to have the party closed but perhaps the gravest before last month's coup attempt came in 2013.

The Gezi protests of June 2013 saw a relatively small environmental protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park mushroom into a nationwide wave of protests against the government that left eight protesters and a police officer dead.

The government later labeled the demonstrations as an attempt to overthrow it by members of Gulen’s “parallel state” in the police and court system.

Similarly, the December 2013 corruption investigation into high-profile politicians, including four Cabinet ministers, and businessmen linked to the government was also blamed on the parallel state, or Fetullah Terrorist Organization.

The probe saw more than 100 business figures arrested before the prosecutors and police officers involved in the case were themselves targeted for membership of a terrorist organization and attempting to overthrow the state.

The counterattack on the Gulenists behind the investigation led to hundreds of arrests and dismissals in a move only surpassed by the tens of thousands targeted following the July 15 coup attempt.

Despite these challenges, the party seems as strong as ever, as evidenced by the large numbers of its supporters who have dominated the “democracy watch” rallies staged in towns and cities across Turkey following last month’s attempted putsch.

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