Saturday, April 19, 2014

Is Turkey Experiencing Its 1968?

For a while, the idea has been on mind that Turkey has been going through something equivalent to the 1960s in North America and Western Europe. In part, this was driven by the very visible signs of economic modernization: the ever-present construction, the noticeable increase in consumer goods, etc.

So, when the Gezi Park protests started in May 2013, I was naturally drawn to the idea that there was more than a superficial resemblance to the events in France, the US, and elsewhere in 1968. Not just because there was mass anti-government protests, but the who's and what's of the protests: heavily student-driven protests against an overly conservative and authoritarian government/regime, demanding both specific policy changes as well as a more broadly inclusive/open political environment. And, as in 1968, the protests were met with violent crackdowns by the police and also by counter-protest movements against the protestors and in favor of the government (in France, a young Nicholas Sarkozy was one of the pro-government anti-protest protestors).

There is also another broad, political similarity between France and the US in 1968, and Turkey in the present-day. All three held elections in which conservative political parties/candidates, campaigning against the protests on a platform emphasizing a need for law and order and claiming to speak on behalf of a national majority that was against the protests and disorder, won heavy victories.

In France, President Charles de Gaulle responded to the protests and strikes of May 1968 by calling snap legislative elections. De Gaulle's right-wing UDR won resoundingly, gaining 111 seats in the 457-seat French National Assembly (and, between the several parties making up his coalition, about 58% of the vote).

In the United States, two presidential candidates ran against the quasi-incumbent Hubert Humphrey: Richard Nixon as the Republican candidate and the third-party George Wallace. Both ran strongly "law-and-order" candidacies. Nixon won the election with a little more than 43% of the vote, while Wallace pulled in 13.5% of the vote (remarkably strong for a third-party candidate in the US). All told, then, two candidates emphasizing similar (anti-protest) messages combined to win about 56% of the vote.

Is there a lesson in this for Turkey? Probably. For starters, this limited review provides some comparative evidence suggesting that the AKP's victory in the March 30 local elections was not so surprising. More systematic evidence would be needed, but perhaps the immediate result of mass protests of this sort is commonly an increase in support for law-and-order parties representing the "national will" or "silent majority." In that sense, the failure of the opposition to make a major electoral breakthrough shouldn't be so surprising, and this should certainly cause us to reflect on whether this result represented an electoral failure by the opposition parties.

The long-term story may be a bit different. While 1968 may have benefited right-wing parties in the short- and long-term, society changed even if the partisan alignment didn't. My sense is that some of that has, and is, happening in Turkey as well. This is something I will be curious to look at when some new data become available, which may allow for some interesting analyses.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Does Turkey Need a New Opposition?

In the two-plus weeks since Turkey's local elections, people have tried to make sense of the results that saw AKP win about 45% of the vote compared to 27% for the CHP and around 15% for MHP. The question, of course, is how and why the AKP did so well given the allegations of corruption, and the mass protests taking place against the Erdogan government.

Most expert commentary has focused on the details of the election campaign and the strategies employed by the respective parties. According to this logic, AKP won because Prime Minister Erdogan was able to turn the election into a national referendum on his government, and opposition parties fell into his trap. For many others, the claim seems to be simply that the opposition CHP ran an incompetent campaign. For example, here is Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, stating that "there was a better opposition in the Neolithic times [than the CHP]." Based on his commentary, Barkey seems to think that the CHP's failings were the main cause of the election result. This perspective is understandable. It's offensive to many that a party could get away with the alleged corruption and abuses of power, and it's surprising to think that so many Turks would continue to vote for a party under these circumstances. Therefore, it's logical to think that the outcome must be the result of the opposition's failure to provide a better choice.

But is this really right? No. So what explains the AKP victory? I will list what I would argue are the correct reasons, in a rough order of importance. The long story short: the weaknesses of Turkey's opposition parties is near the bottom for a reason!

On a side note, this post is also a cautionary note about how we study and interpret election results. In the case of Prof. Barkey, he is certainly an expert on Turkish politics. However, understanding election results requires an understanding of voter psychology: how people view politics, how they form decisions to vote for a party, and so on. Perversely, the problem that many expert commentators on politics have is that they know too much about politics. In the process, they forget that most voters pay far less attention to politics than them, and their decisions about how to vote are thus based on different considerations. As humans, we have a tendency to create causal stories where they may not actually exist. Many journalists and pundits tend to do this when discussing elections: attributing great importance to factors that had almost no bearing on how people actually voted.

So what actually did matter?

Core support for the AKP
First and foremost, the AKP has a substantial core of support in the Turkish electorate. As I've argued before, that number is probably 30-35%.

Why? Take a look around any other democracy. In each, you'll find one or more parties that is like the AKP: traditionalist, religious, nationalist, aligned with the dominant religious-national in-group, emphasizing tradition and social cohesion, and distrustful of outsiders, minorities, and deviants. In other words, a conservative party. In the US, it's the Republicans. In Germany, the Christian Democrats. In Britain, the Tories. And so on. Of course, AKP is more authoritarian and corrupt than right-wing parties in other countries, but it remains the "only game in town" for conservative Turkish voters right now.

A growing body of research that these conservative political orientations (and their liberal counterparts) are fundamental to our personality (see here, here, and here for different representative examples). I've argued previously (here and here) that higher levels of psychological authoritarianism (which lead to greater emphasis on tradition, social conformity, and in-group attachment) predict support for the AKP among Turkish voters.

This is the main lesson: a lot of Turkish voters support the AKP because it is the party that aligns most with their fundamental values and worldview. For these voters, there is little choice: no new leader or flashy new messages will make them vote CHP. As long as the current party system exists, expect AKP (or a successor) to continue to win a consistent 30-35% or so of the vote. Thus, the real danger to the comes from a rival right-wing party that might seek to split its votes.

(As an aside, what this also points out is that Turkish voters are like any others. In any other country, roughly a similar proportion or more support equivalent right-wing parties.)

It's the Economy, Stupid!
In Turkey, as elsewhere, the main short-term determinant of the vote (among those who aren't already wedded to a specific party) is the state of the national economy. And, as of 30 March, the Turkish economy was still growing at a fairly healthy pace. Recent estimates put the growth rate at 4.4% in fourth quarter of 2013. That is pretty good, and a level which would tend to benefit the incumbent party at the time.

However, it is important to emphasize that this is a relatively short-term effect. Political scientist Larry Bartels, in his excellent book Unequal Democracy (and some other papers), shows that voters respond predominantly to the state of the economy within the last 1-2 years. Memories of the economy from earlier than that fade into the background.

What does that mean for Turkish electoral politics? As long as the economy is strong, AKP will benefit among unattached voters, and there will be little that the opposition parties can do to win their support. If, however, the economy enters a recession or crisis, this also means that such voters will quickly shift their support away from the AKP. In other words, ten years of continuous economic growth may not mean as much as 1-2 recent years of recession.

Thus, it is if and when a recession occurs that opposition parties will genuinely have an opportunity to gain a lot of additional support.

Who can you trust?
The opposition parties face a bigger problem, though. A narrative has developed within Turkey--encouraged by the AKP, of course--that associates it with having cleaned up the dysfunction and corruption that plagued Turkish politics. One of the great successes of the AKP has been to build an image (starting first with its administration of local governments in the 1990s) as a party of competence and the effective delivery of services.

Political scientists use the phrase "issue ownership" to describe the ability of parties to cultivate a reputation as being the most effective on a specific policy issue. Normally, we think of that as referring to issues like defense or unemployment. In this case, however, it can be said that AKP has established issue ownership on the questions of economic competence and provision of public services. By contrast, the opposition parties are lumped in as being less capable on this dimension. This thinking is captured by the claims one hears in interviews about the Erdogan government--"they may steal, but they get things done," etc.

The challenge for the CHP is two-fold. First, it must convince voters that it is capable of maintaining a high standard of governance. Second, it must link the corruption scandals plaguing the AKP to its ability to deliver effective government.

Stacking the Deck
No discussion of the AKP's electoral strength at this point should fail to mention how it uses its control of state resources to gain support. The stories are familiar to anybody who follows Turkish politics. The AKP used municipal buses to transport supporters to its rallies. Local AKP officials deliver "goodies" like food and heating supplies to households in a crass attempt to buy support. Much of this money, as suggested by the various corruption scandals, may have been ill-gotten. Obviously, the ability to deliver patronage using state money helps the AKP to project the appearance of competence in managing the economy and delivering services.

Then there was the electoral fraud that seemed to occur in Ankara, Istanbul, and other close local elections (good documentation thereof here and here). Although this is unlikely to have made a huge difference to the national vote total, it was likely to have been pivotal in some races, and it may have accounted for a 1-2 percentage point gain the AKP's margin of victory.

The Opposition's Weaknesses?
All of the above is not to say that there aren't many things that the CHP could do better. But one of the problems with the criticisms of the CHP by Prof. Barkey (and many others) is they do not specify what, exactly, is wrong with the CHP and what it could or should do better. And, when I read or hear these criticisms of the CHP, I have to ask: is there anybody who does not seriously believe the CHP is a more credible party now than in 2009 or earlier?

In thinking about the meaningful weaknesses of the CHP, it's useful to separate the CHP's weaknesses to those things that could be addressed in the short-to-medium term and those that would require a long-term approach.

So what could the CHP do in the short-term to improve its position? First would be its ability to mobilize supporters and connect with voters outside of campaign rallies. This is an area in which the AKP has a huge advantage (and has for a long time). How much "door-to-door" campaigning does the CHP do? I sense that the answer is relatively little (in comparison to the AKP, anyway). The CHP has a golden opportunity now. A large and young population of AKP opponents has been mobilized--first by the Gezi protests and now by the elections. This is a group that the CHP needs to work with to provide some of that energy and ability to connect to a wider range of voters. In short, the CHP (and the opposition generally) need fewer rallies and protests, and more conversations in doorways and sidewalks.

Following on that, the CHP especially needs to work on cultivating a base in the medium-sized cities of Turkey. Right now, the CHP's problem is not its standing in Turkey's three largest cities: it is the strongest party in Izmir, and competes well in Istanbul and Ankara. Rather, it is all those medium-sized cities that have significant industrial/working-class populations (a natural constituency for a social democratic party!), and yet the CHP has little presence in these areas. Michael Daventry calls these areas the 'AKP's hidden safety net,' and it's an apt description. CHP will have a hard time winning a national plurality while ceding so much ground in urban areas like Antep, Maras, Kayseri, Kocaeli, and many others. In this case, I suspect that criticisms that the CHP isn't doing enough to connect with voters is probably true.

The second is to continue to cultivate a reputation for moderation and inclusiveness. The decision to nominate Mansur Yavas as the mayoral candidate (Yavas was formerly a member of the right-wing nationalist MHP) would seem to be such a decision. Since it is unlikely (in the short term) that a party can win an electoral plurality with strictly left-wing voters, then the CHP must reach out towards the center. Easing the concerns that pious voters have had about the CHP's historic intolerance towards religion would be key in that regard. Doing so would have an added benefit: shifting the debate from morality and religion (issues that the AKP 'owns') to issues of economic justice and opportunity (which, as a social democratic party, the CHP is better positioned to 'own') would make it easier to blunt some of the long-term advantages that the AKP has among pious, but working-class, voters.

The other main push that the CHP could make towards inclusiveness is with Kurdish voters. If, as noted above, right-wing parties usually develop attachments among the dominant ethno-religious groups within a country, then left-wing parties usually in turn gain the support of religious and ethnic minorities. The CHP have failed in this regard.

Is It Time for a Reset?

One final question is whether these changes could better be achieved by the existing CHP or by a new party. After all, the AKP was itself a new party, formed only in 2001, when it gained power in the 2002 elections.

What would the advantages be of opposition supporters creating a new party? First is the attention, and ability to 'change the conversation.' Creating a new party would offer opposition leaders a chance to dominate media attention (to the extent it is possible for the opposition to do so in 2014 Turkey) and perhaps to get some voters to take a fresh look by sending a very credible signal that "we've listened, and we've changed." Second, it would give the opposition leaders to clear out the deadwood that might be holding the current CHP back. As I understand it, the CHP still suffers from internal divisions between a new wave of modernizers and an old guard. A new party could effectively eliminate this old guard from any position of leadership by excluding it. Finally, there would some ability to destroy the old associations. From groups such as Kurdish or pious Sunni Muslim voters, a new party that could claim to disassociate itself with the bad old ways of the Kemalist old guard could have some appeal.

All that said, the appeals of a new party can easily be overstated. Forming a new party will not change any of the fundamentals of AKP support that I describe above. AKP supporters will generally continue to support the AKP as they have done before. And it will be easy for the pro-AKP media to paint the formation of a new party as merely a cosmetic change--old wine in new bottles. And that is surely just what they would do. Third, there is the question of leadership and organization. The creation of the AKP in 2001 was successful because it was lead by a well-known and popular politician--the former mayor of Turkey's largest city. Who would become the face of such a newly-formed opposition party?

Finally, and most importantly, there is the problem of electoral coordination. The AKP rose to power in part because of the failure of the established center-right and center-left parties to coordinate their electoral strategies (given Turkey's electoral system, as I explained here). Had they done so, the AKP never would have obtained the huge parliamentary majority that it did in 2002--and the subsequent path of Turkish politics would have been much different. The danger in forming a new opposition party is that it will simply divide the opposition vote: what if the 'old' CHP still continues to campaign, and to obtain the votes of 10-15% of Turks, while this newly-formed opposition party does the same? The result, under current electoral law, will be to strengthen the AKP's ability to win a parliamentary majority (to say nothing of the presidency). In short, I think it is a risky strategy in the current climate.

A better option might be a "re-branding" effort for the current CHP. When Tony Blair was leading the the British Labour Party into the 1997 elections, he incessantly referred to it as "New Labour" to symbolize its substantive move to the center, and away from the more left-wing policies that Labour had held in the 1980s. Bill Clinton, as presidential candidate, used a similar strategy in 1992. A similar strategy, that retains the built-in strengths and loyalties of the CHP will trying to chart a new course, strikes me as the wiser option.

Regardless of these strategic discussion, it is important to remember the central point. The AKP (or a party like the AKP) will continue to be a major factor in Turkish politics, commanding the loyalty of a large supply of voters. In truth, Turkey's problem is not that it has a poor opposition. Its problem, of course, is its governing party.