Turkey's AKP faces challenges from all sides

By Ian Bremmer

As 2009 draws to a close, Turkey appears high on the list of good-news stories gone bad. Central to the country's political stability and open investment climate over the past several years has been the popularity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his moderate religious Justice and Development Party. Known by its Turkish acronym AKP, the party first swept to power in 2002. Five years later, the AKP captured nearly 47 percent of the vote in a field that included more than a dozen parties, allowing it to govern without a coalition partner that might have obstructed reform and foreign investment.

But a sluggish economy and high unemployment have pushed the AKP's popularity below 32 percent, and the party finds itself in an increasingly bitter standoff with the country's most determined secularists -- including leading opposition politicians, the military brass, much of the media, and some of the country's most powerful businessmen. Negotiations with the European Commission over the country's bid to join the EU have all but ground to a halt.

Things took another turn for the worse last week, when Turkey's Constitutional Court voted to shutter the country's main Kurdish political party and to ban 37 of its members from politics for the next five years. The verdict has effectively scrapped the AKP's ill-fated "Democratic Opening," an attempt to boost the party's declining popularity with the country's Kurdish minority ahead of elections now scheduled for mid-2011 and to promote the kind of reforms that keep the EU process on track. If the move provokes more violence from alienated Kurds, the AKP could also face tough criticism from nationalists, who will accuse the government of being "soft on terrorism."

The AKP is also feeling pressure from conservative religious circles. The Islamist Felicity Party is picking up support among religious voters who aren't satisfied with the ruling party's commitment to their agenda and who are turned off by a series of corruption scandals involving senior AKP officials.

In other words, the AKP remains the dominant force in Turkish politics, but its latest actions have antagonized players across the country's political spectrum. We knew the next elections would provoke all kinds of tensions between the AKP and its secularist critics, but it's becoming more likely that the AKP will have to form a coalition government next year, putting an end to the single-party rule that has provided real momentum behind economic reform and welcomed much-needed foreign investment in Turkey's future.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group.