AKP’s foreign policy and its party identity *

By Esen Kirdiş, Rhodes College 

*This memo is derived in part from an article published in Turkish Studies, available online here.

The identity of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) has often been defined by its foreign policy. In 2002, when the AKP first took office, observers cited the new party’s support for the EU as a sign of its transformation away from its Islamist roots in the National Outlook Movement.[1] Then, over the next decade, the party was often criticized for its “Islamic” identity due to its close engagement with the Middle East and its support for the Arab Spring.[2] And today, the party’s foreign policy towards Syria has turned into a domestic political issue. Although AKP’s foreign policy has not directly influenced the voting behavior of the Turkish electorate,[3] it has influenced how the electorate perceives the party’s identity, i.e. “the image that citizens have in mind when they think about that party.”[4]

The foreign policy of a political party serves several important roles in constructing party identity. First, it signals to the electorate how the party perceives the country and its place in world politics,[5] showing the electorate what the party will stand for in domestic politics. Furthermore, a political party’s foreign policy tells voters how it defines the state’s national identity and tells the electorate what the purpose of the country is going to be so that “they can feel proud of the nation’s (and therefore their) image and standing.”[6] Last but not least, a political party’s foreign policy signals to the electorate who the insiders and outsiders of their government are going to be,[7] and in so doing tells the electorate who is part of a society and who is not.[8]

To discuss the relationship between foreign policy and party identity, this memo will briefly focus on (1) the context in which the AKP has formulated its foreign policy, (2) how the party has redefined Turkish foreign policy identity, (3) how this reformulated foreign policy identity influenced the way in which voters view the party’s political identity, and (4) the consequences of such party identifications, for each term the party has been in office.

AKP’s First Term (2002-2007)

In 2002, when the AKP first took office, secular state institutions and secular voters had many questions about the party’s Islamist past in the National Outlook Movement and its intentions for the secular (laicist) character of the Turkish Republic. Indeed, it was only the recent past, in the late 1990s, when AKP’s predecessors in the Welfare Party of the National Outlook Movement led a coalition government and advocated for the creation of a Muslim G-8. At that time, Welfare Party leaders had defined Turkey’s EU quest as “becoming the servant” of the EU and as losing “the very essence of our identity.”[9] In this context, although the AKP had won elections, it still needed to build trust among the secular state institutions and secular voters and assure them that this was a reformed party.

During this first period in office, the AKP, in stark contrast to its predecessors in the National Outlook Movement, moved in the opposite direction in its foreign policy and has promised to make “the Copenhagen criteria the Ankara criteria” (Hürriyet, December 17, 2002). For this end, the party passed multiple pro-EU reform packages at a speed never before seen in Turkish politics. This reorientation in foreign policy was not only a departure from AKP’s Islamist predecessors but more importantly, in line with secular Turkey’s historically Western-oriented foreign policy identity.

Such a reorientation signaled reform in the AKP that was moving through an “ideological moderation” process and away “from a relatively closed and rigid worldview to one more open and tolerant of alternative perspectives.”[10] In stark contrast to its forerunners in the National Outlook Movement, the AKP emphasized how it would prioritize democratization and EU accession.[11] Furthermore, such a pro-EU reorientation in foreign policy told Turkish voters that this new party’s priority in domestic politics would be economic reform rather than Islamic revival. Within this framework, the party capitalized on the public perception that EU accession would be a catalyst for a stable democracy and a better economy[12] and emphasized how EU membership would be a vehicle for economic and structural reforms[13] by appointing its then-Economy Minister, Ali Babacan also as its chief EU negotiator. Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Gül explained Babacan’s “double appointment” as a necessity given that “today international financial institutions and Turkey’s relations with the EU run parallel to each other” (Milliyet, May 24, 2005). Such a pro-EU foreign policy meant that the party was now not only a reformed but also a pragmatic party searching for solutions to problems at home through its foreign policy prioritization.

By situating itself as a reformed and pragmatic party, AKP “double[d] its support from those who did not identify themselves as religious (from 15 to 39 percent).”[14] Furthermore, such a pro-EU foreign policy was a winner among both liberal and conservative constituents. While pro-EU reforms meant liberal democratic reforms for liberal constituents, it also meant protection of religious rights from strict secularism (laicism) for conservative constituents.[15]

AKP’s Second Term (2007-2011)

As the AKP entered its second term in office, it faced a rather peculiar situation. In domestic politics, the party had increased its vote shares and continued to govern Turkey without a coalition partner, but it also was facing a trial by the Turkish Constitutional Court for its closure. In foreign policy, the AKP was suffering from the backlashes of the slowing down of EU accession negotiations. Hence, the party aimed both, in then-Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoğlu’s words, “to inject foreign policy activism and self-confidence back into the domestic political scene”[16] after the EU snub and to show how under AKP’s central role in Turkish politics, “Turkey has been able to formulate a systematic and cohesive methodological approach to world affairs because its political party has been able to govern, resulting in real political stability at home.”[17] In short, the AKP aimed to consolidate its voter base at home in the face of new challenges.

During this period, the party redefined traditional Turkish foreign policy identity under then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu. He introduced the “zero problems policy toward Turkey’s neighbors,”[18] which situated Turkey as a central player in world politics. Specifically, this new foreign policy reorientation aimed not only to continue Turkey’s traditional Western alliances but also to establish better relations with Turkey’s southeastern neighbors in the Middle East and northeastern neighbors in Caucasia (Russia). This new foreign policy identity also emphasized Turkey’s unique leadership position in the Middle East as a democracy in a Muslim-majority country. This reorientation in foreign policy was a departure from Turkey’s traditional defensive and passive foreign policy in its active reengagement with Turkey’s wider neighborhood.

Through such rebranding of Turkish foreign policy identity, the AKP rebranded Turkey as a central player in global politics and the AKP itself as “the” party carrying Turkey into such a leadership position. Within this formulation, the AKP situated itself as the representative of an “oppressed majority” at home and abroad. Internationally, Palestine occupied a special place as the historically friendly relations between Turkey and Israel deteriorated starting with the infamous “one-minute” intervention by the then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against then-President of Israel Simon Peres (New York Times, January 29, 2009). Before this, Turkish citizens commonly believed that Turkey was passively fulfilling the demands of great powers, especially Western powers, in its foreign policy, even if those demands were counterproductive to the interests of Turkey. The party portrayed its departure from the international status-quo on Palestine as a move to break away from past dependencies and start a new era for Turkish foreign policy voicing the demands of the “silent majority.”[19] By more vocally critiquing international powers on the issue of Palestine, the AKP was telling the Turkish electorate that now was the time for the “oppressed majority” in the “peripheries”[20] in domestic politics, namely, those in the conservative majority who had been marginalized politically by secular (laicist) elites, to redefine the political center of Turkish politics under the leadership of the AKP.[21]

Such a rebranding of Turkish foreign policy identity and by extension AKP’s party identity not only appealed to the nationalist sentiments among the Turkish electorate regardless of political orientations[22] but also strengthened AKP’s support by consolidating party identity among its base. “As of 2011 only about 10% of the electorate appear[ed] to have shifted from one party to another compared to 2007.”[23]

AKP’s Third Term (2011-2015)

Unlike its first two terms in office, the AKP started its third term in office with confidence. Not only had it won a third consecutive election, but it also had grown into a “dominant party,” that is “a party that outdistances all the others (and thus) is significantly stronger than others.”[24] In addition to controlling the executive and the legislative offices, the 2010 referendum decreased the political balancing power of the judiciary and the military. This contrasted with the AKP’s first two terms, in which the party was limited in its actions despite its electoral dominance. This confidence and dominance meant the party could reshape Turkish politics.

In this period, AKP’s foreign policy became more identity-based. In particular, the party started emphasizing the importance of traditions, values, history and geography in its foreign policy,[25] positioning itself as a new regional hegemon and as an example to the rest of the Muslim Middle East.[26] In his 2011 elections victory speech, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan stated that AKP’s victory was the victory of the “oppressed” and that it was “much of a victory for Istanbul as it is in Sarajevo, as much of a victory for Izmir as it is for Beirut, as much of a victory for Diyarbakir as it is for the West Bank and Gaza” and that “the winner today is not only Turkey but also the Middle East, Caucasia, and the Balkans” (T24, June 12, 2011). In the following year, AKP became an outspoken supporter of protesters during the Arab Spring and started espousing Turkey as a model for the region. In then-Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoğlu’s words, “when you compared them years ago with Turkey today, you could see the change of democratic spirit and institutionalization.”[27]

Through such an identity-based foreign policy, the AKP was telling its supporters that the party represented a community, rather than a constituency, beyond national territories and bound by a common culture, values, and traditions. In so doing, the party was communicating its “community” that their bonds were emotional rather than strategic/political. For instance, in the 2014 municipal election rallies, even though this was a local election about urban problems, the party brought up the military overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and made analogies between the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi and the AKP, suggesting that “outside forces” in alliance with old elites were trying to weaken the majority, the Brotherhood and by extension the AKP.

Such an identity-based foreign policy, however, also created socio-political polarizations. In particular, the domestication of the Syrian conflict with the increasing number of Syrian refugees and twin car bombs in Reyhanlı near the Syrian border, which killed 51 individuals, in 2013, furthered this divide. In this polarizing context, the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt became a metaphor for Turkish domestic politics. While the AKP associated the Brotherhood’s overthrow in Egypt with past military coups and past closures of Islamic parties in Turkey, the CHP, the major opposition party, saw the situation as an example of the dangers of using religion for political purposes (Milliyet, July 6, 2013). While the AKP continued to consolidate party identifications among its supporters, this identity-based community building also started to create polarizations in Turkey.

AKP’s Fourth Term (2015-)

The AKP started its fourth term facing serious threats to its political dominance: in the June 2015 general elections, AKP lost its parliamentary majority only to win it back in the November 2015 general elections, and on July 15, 2016, it witnessed a coup attempt. Furthermore, the party identified serious external threats due to regional developments. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş stated, “a lot of Turkey’s problems today are the result of Turkey’s Syria foreign policy” (Hürriyet, August 18, 2016). As the AKP started its fourth and current term, it seriously needed to unite Turkish public opinion.

To do so, the AKP today seems to have turned toward a nationalist foreign policy aimed to create national unity against external threats. The AKP has foremost complained that the international community left Turkey alone against these unprecedented threats after the coup attempt. Specifically, the AKP started criticizing traditional allies, the United States and the EU in particular, for not showing their support for Turkish democracy. One theme brought up by the news media has been the allegation that the last military coup in 1980 had tacit U.S. support because the U.S. embassy in Turkey allegedly notified then-U.S. President Carter of the coup with the words “our boys have done it.” Furthermore, when on August 24, 2016, President Erdoğan announced the Turkish military’s Syria involvement, he stated “you cannot divide our nation, you cannot lower our flag, you cannot smash up our homeland, our state, you cannot silence our call to prayer, you cannot bring this country to your knees, you cannot bring to heel these people” (AA, August 24, 2016).

Such nationalist reorientation in foreign policy and domestic calls for national unity has been somewhat reminiscent of the secular (laicist) foreign policy paradigm in Turkish politics that “Turks have no friends other than Turks.” How the Turkish electorate will perceive and react to AKP’s latest expression of party identity as a result of this new foreign policy orientation is yet to be seen.



[1]. See: Hasret Dikici Bilgin, “Foreign Policy Orientation of Turkey’s Pro-Islamist Parties: A Comparative Study of the AKP and Refah,” Turkish Studies 9, no. 3 (2008): 407–21; Saban Tanıyıcı, “Transformation of Political Islam in Turkey: Islamist Welfare Party’s Pro-EU Turn,” Party Politics 9, no. 4 (2003): 463–83.

[2]. See: Soner Çağaptay, “Is Turkey Leaving the West?,” Foreign Affairs, October 26, 2009, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65661/soner-cagaptay/is-turkey-leaving-the-west.

[3]. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, “Public Choice and Foreign Affairs: Democracy and International Relations in Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey 40 (2009): 57–81.

[4]. Kenneth Janda et al., “Changes in Party Identity: Evidence from Party Manifestos,” Party Politics 1, no. 2 (1995): 171–96.

[5]. Lerna K. Yanık, “Foreign Policy during 2011 Parliamentary Elections in Turkey: Both an Issue and Non-Issue,” Turkish Studies 13, no. 2 (2012): 213–27.

[6]. Christopher S. Browning, “Nation Branding, National Self-Esteem, and the Constitution of Subjectivity in Late Modernity,” Foreign Policy Analysis, no. 1 (2013): 1–20.

[7]. David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

[8]. Ali Balcı, “‘Dış Politika’: Yeni Bir Kavramsallaştırma Bağlamında Egemenlik Mitinin Analizi,” Uluslararası İlişkiler 7, no. 28 (2011): 3–29.

[9]. Yücel Bozdağlıoğlu, “Modernity, Identity and Turkey’s Foreign Policy,” Insight Turkey 10, no. 1 (2008): 55–76.

[10]. Jillian Schwedler, “Review Article: Can Islamists Become Moderates? Rethinking the Inclusion-Moderation Hypothesis,” World Politics 63, no. 2 (2011): 347–76.

[11]. Murat Somer, “Moderation of Religious and Secular Politics, a Country’s Centre and Democratization,” Democratization 21, no. 2 (2014): 244–67.

[12]. Ali Çarkoǧlu, “Who Wants Full Membership? : Characteristics of Turkish Public Support for EU Membership,” in Turkey and the European Union: Domestic Politics, Economic Integration and International Dynamics, ed. Ali Çarkoǧlu and Barry Rubin (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2003), 171–94.

[13]. AKP, “2002 AKP Election Manifesto.”

[14]. Cem Başlevent, Hasan Kirmanoğlu, and Burhan Şenatalar, “Party Preferences and Economic Voting in Turkey (Now That the Crisis Is Over),” Party Politics 15, no. 3 (2009): 377–91.

[15]. Burhanettin Duran, “Türk Dış Politikasinin Iç Siyaset Boyutu: 2010 Değerlendirmesi,” in Türk Dış Politikası Yıllığı, ed. Burhanettin Duran, Kemal Inat, and Mesut Özcan (Ankara, Turkey: SETA, 2011), 15–66.

[16]. Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s Zero-Problems Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, May 20, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/05/20/turkeys_zero_problems_foreign_policy?page=full.

[17]. Davutoglu cited in: Metin Gürcan, “Theory or Attitude? A Comparative Analysis of Turkish Newspaper Articles on Turkish Foreign Policy, June 2008-June 2011,” Turkish Studies 14, no. 2 (2013): 346–71.

[18]. Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007,” Insight Turkey 10, no. 1 (2008): 77–96.

[19] AKP, “2002-2014 Sessiz Devrim: Türkiye’nin Demokratik Değişim ve Dönüşüm Envanteri.” Available at: https://www.akparti.org.tr/site/haberler/sessiz-devrim/77738#1.

[20]. See: Şerif Mardin, Religion, Society, and Modernity in Turkey (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006).

[21]. Dietrich Jung, “The Domestic Context of New Activism in Turkish Foreign Policy: Does Religion Matter?,” International Journal 67, no. 1 (2012): 23–38.

[22]. Guenther Seufert, “TESEV’in Kamuoyu Araştırması üzerine: Türkiye’de Dış Politika Algısı,” 2011. Available at: http://www.tesev.org.tr/.

[23]. Ali Çarkoǧlu, “Turkey’s 2011 General Elections: Towards a Dominant Party System?,” Insight Turkey 13, no. 3 (2011): 43–62.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. Yanık, “Foreign Policy during 2011 Parliamentary Elections in Turkey: Both an Issue and Non-Issue.”

[26]. Ibid.

[27]. Emel Parlar Dal, “The Transformation of Turkey’s Relations with the Middle East: Illusion or Awakening?,” Turkish Studies 13, no. 2 (2012): 245–67.