Surprised AKP Is Still Strong? Don't Be

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately among the international commentariat about AKP's prospects for a strong performance in the upcoming (30 March) local elections, which, despite a corruption scandal that is breathtaking in both its scope and cravenness, appear only slightly diminished. How, they howl (with no small amount of condescension), could Turkish voters still support* such a corrupt party?

I don't find it surprising at all. Here's why.

First, voters vote according to their self-interest, period. Their self-interest includes issues that affect them personally in their everyday lives: education for their children, jobs that provide a decent wage, good health care when they're sick, safe and healthy neighborhoods in which to live. Like it or not, many Turks are going to respond to a version of Ronald Reagan's famous question "are you better off than you were before AKP took power?" with "evet." AKP knows this and campaigns accordingly.

Voters do not vote according principles or abstractions. In Turkey, these include democracy, freedom of speech (including the internet), laicity, jailed journalists, international affairs, the EU or any number of non-salient issues that opposition parties here focus on to their detriment. These issues appeal to opinion leaders and the elite, not regular voters.

Second, there has to be an alternative. It is extremely difficult to oust an incumbent party, even one with as many negatives as AKP. A new party must not only convince voters there's a problem with the incumbent, it must convince them it is qualified to take over. It's expensive, time consuming and requires message-driven campaigning to both introduce a party to voters and convince them it's worthy of their support. For a variety of reasons, there is no emerging political force in the Turkish political environment right now, so take that option off the table.

The job is even harder for a party like CHP with which voters are already familiar. Not only must CHP convince voters that there's a problem with the incumbent and that it's qualified to take over, it has to overcome the negative perceptions it has worked so assiduously to build over the last 75 years. Tossing out an incumbent party is very hard for a well-known party with sharp messaging, a ton of money, a lot of time and generally positive perceptions. I'm going to go out on a limb and say CHP lacks those resources.

In short, disaffected AKP voters have to have somewhere to go. There isn't anywhere.

But what about this corruption scandal? It probably would take down governments in other countries. But corruption is a funny issue. Most voters assume politicians are corrupt and shrug it off, especially if they are otherwise pretty satisfied with a government's performance and the corruption doesn't affect them personally. "He may be a snake, but he's our snake," is a famous quote about Willie Brown, one of California's most spectacularly corrupt (and effective) lifetime politicians. Voters are very forgiving of corrupt parties that deliver (and not at all forgiving of corrupt parties that don't. Ask Viktor Yanukovych).

Should one of AKP's opponents effectively make the case to voters that this corruption scandal hurts the economy, makes it more difficult for them to educate their children or hobbles their favorite football team, they'd probably get traction. Instead, all I see is stupid marches at which people throw fake Euros into the air. That's not message; that's litter.


*I have no data. Like everyone else, I assume that the scandal, so far, has had a small impact on the party's level of support. Maybe that's wrong, but let's follow the crowd.

Stop Reporting the Bilgi Poll!

Like many of you, I have visited Gezi Park over the last few days. While walking around, I noticed that a lot of the protesters are young and they seem new to the business of protesting. They had strongly held views on a lot of topics but are not overtly political.

My observation is about as scientifically valid as the poll released by Bilgi University earlier this week. I'm not going to repeat the findings. That so many respected journalists are citing and retweeting it without mentioning (or probably even looking to see) that, according to the exceedingly vague methodology statement, it's a 20 hour online survey of 3000 people, is vexing. I'm going to assume (probably incorrectly, but I'm struggling to be generous) that there's more information about the methodology in the Turkish, but when I saw the word "online" that's when I clicked "close tab."

Polling 101: Online surveys are representative of nothing except the universe of people who 1) knew about it, 2) had internet access during the 20 hours it was open, 3) felt like responding.  Participants were not randomly selected; they choose to participate, which makes them different at least one way from those who did not. It's called selection bias.

Even worse, it appears that a lot of folks are repeating data from the poll because "it seems to make sense." That's confirmation bias, which is also sloppy.

If you really have to cite that poll, I suggest phrasing it thusly, "According to a worthless online survey of Gezi Park protesters publicly released by Bilgi University, which you'd think, as an academic institution would know better......"

There are ways to randomly select a sample of protesters and find out more about their demographics and attitudes. It's time consuming and expensive, like good research usually is. Wait until someone does that, then report it.

I have something to say approximately every four years. I'm like a pollster cicada.

Turkey's Maturing Politics

Other blogs can bring you up to speed on the competing conspiracies that make it exceedingly unpleasant to talk to Turks about politics this summer. However, two recent insightful articles help shine some light on the current political situation here. They help support my theory that shutting down AKP may be the best thing to happen to Turkey, but not for the reasons you might think.

The first, and best, is the Economist's overview, Flags, Veils and Sharia. It cuts through the bullshit promoted by both sides in an attempt to get at how Islamist the country really is. The vague headline of a Guardian article written by Fadi Hakura, Turkey Turns West, does little to illuminate his argument that the turmoil in the country might be a sign of political maturity rather than impending doom.

Whether or not you believe the constitutional court will ban Turkey's ruling party (AKP) in early August (safe money says it will; though I believe that there's a chance a deal will be cut at the last minute), both articles touch on two very important points that tend to get overlooked in this overheated debate: First, AKP got in this mess because it misread its mandate and overstepped political boundaries. Second, this may be the best opportunity yet for a genuine opposition to emerge and check AKP's power.

First, AKP has enjoyed genuine public support. It won 47% in the July 2007 Parliamentary election. (The argument promoted by anti-AKP partisans is that it doesn't enjoy majority support is a ridiculous red herring. I'd like them to point to a ruling party in a European parliamentary system that has achieved majority support. Since when has majority support been a prerequisite for political legitimacy in a multiparty democracy anyway? Since never). AKP emerged from the 2007 elections with a mandate. However, as parties with weak opposition tend to do, it completely overplayed its hand.  The Economist writes:

Had Mr Erdogan made an effort to reach out to secular Turks, “we might not be where we are today,” concedes a senior AKP official. He missed several chances. The first came last autumn when the AKP was trying to patch together a new constitution to replace the one written by the generals in the 1980s. Mr Erdogan never bothered to consult his secular opponents. He ignored them again when passing his law to let girls wear headscarves at universities. Critics say that his big election win turned his head. “Erdogan accepts no advice and no criticism,” whispers an AKP deputy. “He’s become a tyrant.”

In its early years, AKP succeeded because it did what smart political parties everywhere do: it built a base by focusing on bread and butter issues -- economic development, anti-corruption, unemployment, inflation-- that topped Turks' list of concerns. By doing so, it temporarily shelved the secularist/Islamist debate that has been simmering below the surface since it took power. When the party took its eye off the ball this spring and clumsily removed the ban on headscarves  in universities -- an issue far, far down Turks' list of concerns but important to AKP's religious constituencies -- its public support dropped accordingly (according to polls I haven't seen but it stands to reason) and, in a very Turkish twist, it found itself fighting for its survival in the courts. This was a serious miscalculation and the party is paying a high price.

The critical test for AKP (should it survive the legal challenge) or its inheritors (if it doesn't), is whether it learns from this misstep. AKP was born when its predecessor, the Welfare party, was banned in the late 90s for Islamist leanings. AKP emerged as a savvy, message-driven (by regional standards) party that learned that you win elections by paying attention to voters' top concerns. Local elections are scheduled for early 2009. If AKP survives, Turkish voters have the chance to weigh in and remind the party that if Turks wanted Islamists in power, they could have voted for Saadet (which they didn't).

Lesson one: In mature democracies, parties that misread public attitudes are held accountable (though I wish AKP could be punished at the ballot box, rather than in the courts).

The second important consideration that the Guardian piece briefly touches on is the impotence of AKP's opposition. I don't have the privilege of voting in Turkish elections, but if I did, I'm not sure who I'd vote for.  I'm not convinced that AKP will protect the rights of the non-believing minority, especially women.  Unfortunately, there is absolutely no other political force -- especially the incompetent, corrupt CHP -- that I would trust to look out for my interests. The lack of viable alternative  contributes to the hysterical insecurity of Turkey's secular urban elite. I'd be hysterical too if the only person representing my political interests was Deniz Baykal.

Fadi Hakura writes:

Recent opinion polls indicate plummeting popular support not only for the AKP but for all the major parties. The percentage of undecided voters has risen fivefold since January. The polls also show the AKP and the secularists are blamed equally for the political mess. Forty-five per cent of Turks - a figure rising fast - want new political structures. An electoral earthquake could be in the offing.

Rumblings can be heard from liberal-minded, secular-leaning politicians who wish to build coalitions of right and left, are comfortable with individual choice about headscarfs or alcohol, and are protagonists of radical reforms.

Further proof of these dramatic changes can be found in the unprecedented silence of the military throughout the court case. During past crises, the "guardians of secularism" were always to the fore, but not this time. Sensing that Turkey is fast becoming a diverse society, the military is attempting to adapt. Turkey is increasingly peppered with capitalist-friendly conservatives, liberal secularists and moderate nationalists, all of whom are at odds with the one-size-fits-all state system.

It remains to be seen whether the military really is adapting to an increasingly diverse society (there's plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise). Hakura is right, however, about the new space opening up for political parties that genuinely represent the contours of Turkish public opinion, rather than the artificial secularist versus Islamist construction we have now. I would love to see the data on which he bases this assumption.

Even a casual observer can tell Turkey's political landscape is too complicated to be neatly sewn up by two political parties. Where do pro-western secularists turn? Nationalist/statist Islamists? Old school socialists? Soros-funded provacateurs? Greens? Surely there's room for new parties and smart young leaders to emerge from the unwieldy bloc that was AKP.  A more capable political force representing Turkey's minority secularists might do more than anything to temper AKP and increase secularists' political confidence, even as the disproportionate political and economic power they've enjoyed for 70 years slips through their fingers.

In the end, it may be that the disbanding of AKP may be the best thing that can happen to Turkish politics, but not because it puts a lid on the creeping Islamism secularists see around every corner. A ban issued by a constitutional court is a bit harsh and hard for western liberals to stomach, but this undemocratic tool may, in the end, increase political accountability and pluralism in Turkey.*

*Worst possible outcome? AKP cuts a deal to save its ass, emerges from the court case with few challengers and its leadership punishes rank and file members who considered a post-AKP political life. That would be bad.

Excellent Article on Turkey by Akyol

(My bad. I have made a Thanksgiving resolution to post more frequently. I have a post on the Azerbaijan presidential coronation in my head. Seriously.)

We have a great deal of respect around these parts for the writings of Mustafa Akyol. This piece he wrote in the American Interest magazine (only in PDF for non-subscribers) about the evolution of democracy in Turkey is excellent.

Turkey and the Dilemma of Democracy

Sargasso, a Dutch political and social blog, graciously invited me to participate in an online roundtable (in English) about Turkey's democratic future.

Each day for the next five days, participants will react to statements made by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, Turkish president Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Dutch documentary called 'Turkey - the Dilemma of Democracy' to be broadcast on Dutch television on October 8th.

For today's post, a wide selection of journalists, academics, rappers and bloggers all responded to a statement Prime Minister Erdogan made in Der Spiegel back in April.

"Is Europe a home for an alliance of civilizations or is it a Christian club?"

The roundtable is part of the Dutch democracy week WijZijnDeBaas (WeAreTheBoss) and is the Dutch contribution to the International Week for Democracy. More information here.

Stop by and join in the discussion. It's pretty civilized so far!

The New Turkic Empire

Turkey's former President Suleyman Demirel made a speech last week at the European Society of Asian Studies conference held at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. The Turkish Daily News ran a translated version of the speech entitled "Changing Central Asia in the New World Order."

Read more: The New Turkic Empire