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Conservative democracy (Turkish: Muhafazakâr demokrasi) is a dog-whistle term coined by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkey to describe Islamic democracy. Forming as a modernist breakaway party from former Islamist movements, the AKP's conservative democratic ideology has been described as a departure from or moderation of Islamic democracy and the endorsement of more secular and democratic values. The electoral success and the Neo-Ottoman foreign policy of the AKP that aims to broaden Turkey's regional influence has led to the party's conservative democratic ideals to be mirrored in other countries, such as by the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and the Ennahda Movement in Tunisia.
In its broadest sense, the term 'conservative democracy' highlights the compatibility of Islam with democracy, a western-oriented foreign policy, neoliberal economics and secularism within government. Since the view has been reflected in several economic, foreign, domestic and social policy initiatives, the term 'conservative democracy' has been referred to as a floating signifier that encompasses a broad coalition of ideas. In contrast and because of its broad definition, the term has also been accused of being a red herring designed to conceal a hidden Islamist agenda but maintain public support.
The main ideals of conservative democracy are best identified when they are compared to the Islamist ideology advocated by the AKP's preceding parties. A substantial contrast between the two exist, for example, on their position regarding the European Union, Israel, the United States, economic policy and, to a lesser extent, social policy.
The AKP was formed in 2001 after moderate politicians abandoned the Islamist Virtue Party in order to establish a modernist political party instead. These included the former Mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Kayseri MP Abdullah Gül. Earning the support of many members from the Virtue Party, the AKP also took away much of the support from other centre-right economically liberal parties such as the True Path Party and the Motherland Party in the 2002 general election. The party has thus been described as a "broad right-wing coalition of Islamists, reformist Islamists, conservatives, nationalists, centre-right, and pro-business groups.
Since Secularism in Turkey is enshrined in the constitution, various openly Islamist political parties such as the National Order Party, National Salvation Party, Welfare Party and eventually the Virtue Party were closed down by the Constitutional Court for anti-secular activities. This contributed to the subsequent abandonment of an openly Islamist ideology in favour of a reformed, pro-secular conservative democratic ideal that would be accepted by the state. A closure case against the AKP in 2008 on the grounds that the party violated secularism thereby failed, though the party was stripped of 50% of its state funding.
The term 'conservative democracy' has been seldom defined by AKP politicians. The party's origins from Islamist organisations has raised speculation as to whether the party in fact harbours a hidden Islamist political agenda and uses the term 'conservative democracy' to conceal such intentions. Members of the opposition Republican people's Party (CHP) and opposition journalists have put forward the view that the party has gradually brought about Islamist-oriented social changes, such as limiting alcohol consumption, as well as beginning a crackdown against inter-sex student accommodation in late 2013. Other reforms such as the lifting of the headscarf ban in the civil service have been labelled as a human rights issue by supporters and as an open attack on secularism by rivals.
A substantial rise in electoral fraud allegations during the AKP government, most prevalent during the 2014 local elections as well as numerous government corruption scandals has raised speculation that the AKP harbours not an Islamist, but an authoritarian hidden agenda that aims to gradually eliminate democratic checks and balances. Judicial reforms by the government in 2014 that were criticised as an attempt to politicise the courts, a heavy-handed police crackdown following anti-government protests in 2013 as well as increasing media censorship have also furthered this claim.
Former minister Hüseyin Çelik claimed the AKP's conservative democracy as being limited to social and moral issues, rejecting the 'moderate Islam', 'Muslim democrat' labels that have been used to describe the party. Although politicians who have identified themselves as conservative democrats have mostly endorsed secularism, disputes have long remained between them and hardline laicists who advocate a ban on religious activities in the public sphere.
Besides the accusations of being a red herring, the term 'conservative democracy' has come under fire from a founding AKP politician, Ertuğrul Yalçınbayır, who claimed that the AKP's party programme was not' initially written on a conservative democratic basis but instead focussed simply on protecting democracy. He argued that by identifying itself as conservative democrat, the AKP have pressured the electorate into endorsing conservative values, which has been detrimental to social unity and freedom of thought. He argued that the term 'conservative democrat' was, in fact, coined by Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, in a book entitled 'AK Party and Conservative Democracy' in 2004. Yalçınbayır also claimed that disagreements over the term contributed to another Deputy Prime Minister Abdüllatif Şener leaving the AKP and establish the Turkey Party in 2009.
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