Turkish secularists feared party leader Erdogan -- who would be elected prime minister a few months later -- would seek to establish Sharia, or Islamic law. Minority groups and human rights activists also questioned Erdogan's democratic credentials.
Erdogan has consistently rejected both charges. He says AKP sees Islam as a set of moral values, n-o-t an ideology. He also argues that the party's religious conservatism presents no greater threat to Turkey's secular democracy than Christian Democratic parties do to those in Western Europe.
Erdogan also surprised his critics by embracing the foreign policy agenda of his liberal predecessors and accelerating the pace of reforms needed to join the European Union.
Brussels rewarded his efforts at last December's EU summit by agreeing to open accession talks in October of this year.
But some observers say Turkey's reform drive is now losing momentum.
Bahadir Kaleagasi, head of the Brussels office of the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSIAD), an influential interest group that has long been supporting Ankara’s EU membership bid, says Erdogan’s cabinet is showing signs of reform weariness:
“Since the beginning of this year, the action of the government has been showing signs of fatigue. This was particularly obvious during the first weeks of the year," Kaleagasi says. "In part this was due to the fact that the government had concentrated all its efforts on the December 17 European Council summit. Yet since then we’ve noted some wavering in the way the government is managing certain issues, such as its relations with Europe or the economy.”
In a statement released 11 March, the business association urged Erdogan’s cabinet to demonstrate its commitment to what it called "high democracy standards."
TUSIAD was reacting to the Turkish government’s failure to prosecute police officers responsible for violently dispersing a peaceful International Women’s Day protest in Istanbul a few days earlier.
The EU has also reprimanded Ankara over the excessive use of police force.
Kaleagasi says he hopes the protest incident will “serve as a lesson” for the Turkish government:
“[In our statement] we did not question the government’s willingness [to stick to EU democracy requirements]," Kaleagasi says. "That would have been too speculative, too harsh a statement. Rather we wanted to caution the government that this kind of incident was likely to raise doubts [abroad]. We wanted to tell the government that it should be more careful when dealing with this kind of situation because of the various perceptions of Turkey [abroad]. It should not say [the excessive use of force] was merely the result of a unfortunate mishap.”
Many in France and Germany oppose Turkey’s entry into the EU, arguing the country is not sufficiently democratic.
Concerns Growing Stronger
Those concerns grew stronger after Erdogan last month announced plans to sue Turkey's “Penguen” (Penguin) satirical magazine for publishing drawings showing his head attached to various animals.
Yuksel Inan teaches international law and human rights at Bilkent University in Ankara. He says Erdogan’s lawsuit is inappropriate and may have little practical effect:
“That’s just foolish and the courts ought to assess the situation. To sue cartoonists over claims that their drawings are degrading is nonsense," says Inan. "Every individual has such a right and no one should suffer for that. Some courts have received Erdogan’s claims and started proceedings. But others have rejected them [outright]. There is [no consensus] among Turkish courts. Yet I think that as time passes, and as judges and attorneys realize what the spirit of the law is, they will reject those claims in favor of the cartoonists.”
So far, however, the prime minister has not lost a single court claim. Yesterday, he won a suit against a left-wing columnist who had criticized his recent attempts at re-criminalizing adultery. Several weeks ago, he successfully sued a cartoonist who had portrayed him as a cat entangled in a ball of wool in the left-wing "Cumhuriyet" daily.
Erdogan may be unnerved by signs of dissent within AKP. The party has recently lost 13 high-profile members, including its tourism and culture minister, Erkan Mumcu. Mumcu was last week elected chairman of Anavatan (Motherland), the center-right party of former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz.
One of the defectors, lawmaker Suleyman Saribas told Agence France Presse on 5 April that he had decided to leave AKP because of what he said was Erdogan’s lack of commitment to EU democracy standards.
Yet, Kaleagasi says that rather from a EU-centered debate, the current sense of revolt stems not from the EU reforms, but from disagreements over the way Turkey’s ruling party is being managed. Noting that Mumcu and most other defectors had joined AKP’s ranks just before the 2002 legislative polls, he believes Erdogan should not be worried about the stability of his cabinet:
“Those are breaks from a very large [party] that was not homogeneous to begin with and that is not even homogeneous enough now to meet all of the political interests represented in its ranks," says Kaleagasi. "This shows that [AKP] is experiencing management problems. Be that as it may, it retains a very large majority in parliament. So, although those defections testify to important problems, they're not yet in a position to shake the government.”
Erdogan has scorned the defectors, calling them "the rotten apples in the bag.”
He has also reiterated his commitment to pursue his reform policies.
Last week, his cabinet pushed through parliament a bill postponing the launch of a revised criminal code that had drawn many critics from civic society and the media.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul pledged the government would use the two-month delay to consider the criticism and further liberalize the country’s legislation.
Gul also vowed that Turkey will extend its customs union agreement with the EU to Cyprus.
Brussels has made this requirement a key condition for opening entry talks with Turkey. The step may open Erdogan to further criticism at home, as it appears to breach Ankara's support for the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.