Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won its third major round of elections in June 2011 securing one out of every two votes. This represents an increase over past performance of 34% of votes in 2002 and 46.6% of votes in 2007.
Not only is it unusual for a party to retain its position over almost a decade, the extent of AKP’s success at the elections is inconsistent with large protest demonstrations against AKP’s policies leading up to the June elections. These included: Students, who were cheated in the university entrance exams when the AKP sympathizers were offered pre-sorted exam books with a key for the answers, Kurdish citizens whose candidates for parliament AKP attempted to block from running as independents, healthcare workers who are subject to new “service standards” such as examining patients within several minutes at government owned hospitals. To put it mildly, the Turkish vote reflects a great deal of polarization between AKP supporters and its opposition.
An analysis of AKP’s strategy to embed itself in the Turkish system would help framework the dynamics and offer clues as to what it will require for Turkey to normalize its democratic process in the future.
Historically, the typical Turkish authoritarian party structure has not truly represented a voter base. Nomination of local representatives is typically decided not by local politics but by party management with the party leader generally making any critical decisions without consultation to the base. The authoritarian party system has therefore rendered the locals incapable of exercising a meaningful sphere of influence and it has led to an environment where representatives serve only the party leader under whose rule the party operates without real accountability.
The democratic deficit within the party structures plagues the Turkish political scene by causing political fragmentation with many smaller parties forming over the years as well as a deep divide between the ruling elite and the public.
Fragmentation of the party system historically created volatility with unstable and ineffective coalition governments leading to coup d’états about every ten years until 1983. Alienated from party politics, the public is discouraged from seeking representation and has been conditioned to vote not based on ideology but more on expectation of personal gains. Of note, AKP voters are the breadwinning public, primarily between the ages of 28 and 48. This group consists of younger families, and stands to gain the most economically.
A deep class divide between the ruling elite and the public has long caused distress among the middle and lower classes in Turkey, creating a sense of “otherness” and lack of control to build a future. This sentiment is the vulnerability of the Turkish system the AKP has been able to leverage.
In stark contrast to former political leaders such as Mr. Demirel or Mr Ecevit, AKP leaders resemble in appearance, speech and behavior, the Turkish middle and lower classes. Mr. Demirel, who served Turkey multiple times as prime minster and later as president, is a civil engineer and a former representative of a US construction company and Mr. Ecevit, also multiple times a prime minster was a product of western style education followed by a University of London degree as well as a very acceptable poet.
Mr. Erdogan’s use of colloquial language and unbridled temper resonates with the Turkish public. He does not speak like a statesman, but comes across like a backgammon buddy with a temper problem who does not feel the need to defend his logic and instead spews out at Westerners and the Israelis. He is the Turkish public’s panacea to their age old problem of inferiority complex vis a vis both its ruling elite and the Western World.
AKP stands on three principles widely accepted by the general public: Conservatism, service and religion. Positioned as a conservative party with central appeal provides AKP with a wide base in Turkey where right wing and centrist parties have historically received two thirds of the vote. 30% of Turks define themselves as right wing as opposed to 18% as left leaning.
The AKP web site touts that since 2002, the number of cities with access to natural gas has increased from 9 cities to 67, inflation has been capped at single digits, divided highways have been built through the country and the budget for education has been more than quadrupled.
While almost all Turks are registered as Muslims, more than 10% belong to the progressive Alevite community and only less than 20% of all Turks describe themselves as religious. Therefore, religion, by itself is not a determining variable in winning AKP the elections. It does, however serve as a “proxy” to convey humility and “trustworthiness”, both of which are critical values to the Turkish voter.
AKP Islamism is at juxtaposition with the secular parties of yesteryear, and AKP’s religious traditionalism plays into its contrast with the former ruling elite as well as the current opposition.
A poll to identify motivations to support the AKP would reveal that majority believe they will reap direct economic benefits – examples would range from free supplies for children in the public school system to direct aid and health services. A smaller portion of voters would state that they are attracted by Erdogan’s identifiable persona. A relatively small percentage would claim they are motivated by traditional values and Islam.
In order to burrow itself into Turkish democracy, AKP has relied on more than its key principles of traditionalism, service and religion by handicapping opposition via media outlets almost all of which have been sold to AKP partisans and all now censor opposing viewpoints while embellishing AKP’s accomplishments. There are more journalists in jail in Turkey at this point in time than in China and the largest national internet censor, arbitrarily prohibiting thousands of web sites will be in affect in August.
AKP opposition has a difficult task in front or it in the next four years. CHP, the main opposition party has performed reasonably well in the June elections by initially adding 23 seats in the parliament. It has, however, not been able to overcome AKP under whose regime the next four years will net out with irreversible damage as Erdogan is expected to transition the country to an “American style” presidency and select himself the new president. Of particular risk is the new constitution AKP has announced it will create - With 327 seats in the parliament, AKP is only 3 seats short of the 330 seats required to write the constitution without seeking consensus.
In order for CHP to succeed, it will have to do more than defend its seats and its role in forming the constitution: It must operate via a grass roots organization and give the public the hope of representing themselves and the ability to make decisions locally. An efficient penetration campaign is required as well as an urgent image overhaul the CHP’s image away from something that resembles yesterday’s ruling elite into one that reflects the voter base. Using an analogy from the traditional Ottoman shadow, where one of the characters, Karagoz represents the lower income citizen while another named Hacivat, represents the elite, CHP needs to modify its image to become more of a Karagoz than a Hacivat vis a vis the AKP.
Not to underestimate the gravity of CHP’s task, the level of dissatisfaction among minorities and interest groups with the AKP along with a severe degree of polarization the 2011 results indicate- CHP could succeed in the next round of elections.