Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Turkish opposition hasn't got a prayer, but it never really did

The CHP and MHP have jointly announced that they will nominate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as their presidential candidate for Turkey's first popular presidential election.

Of course, it hasn't taken long for the critics' knives to come out, wondering why it took so long for them to nominate a candidate, and attacking the choice of the candidate that they did nominate. But, as tends to be the case, the critics don't say what they would have done differently and how doing it differently would have improved the opposition's chances.

The problem for the opposition, as I explained a few weeks ago, is called "mathematics." With a roughly 17 percentage point lead over CHP, the governing AKP enters these elections in an advantageous position. It has many more possible paths to victory in the presidential elections, needing only to hold its base together while picking up another 7-8% of the electorate, and so it can sit back and wait to see what the opposition does before formulating its electoral strategy. Now that the opposition has named its candidate, AKP and its loyal media can attack and target potential voters. For the opposition, it was always going to be a difficult path. Finding a candidate who could simultaneously unite enough leftists, secularists, nationalists, and Kurds to win 50% is a virtually impossible task. Appeal to one group, and risk alienating another. This is why I suggested that 'going long' and carving out a new electoral identity might be a wiser strategy for CHP (though the risks to giving Erdogan a decisive victory are considerable).

In short, the current electoral alignment (as I've describe here and here) does not work for the opposition. CHP, HDP, or a new opposition party needs to pursue a strategy of realignment, which I've argued could best be achieved by addressing the material concerns of Turkey's large working poor population and shifting the debate from religious/identity to economic/class concerns.

In other words, the nomination of Ihsanoglu is probably as good as any other possible choice, since it will mean losing either way.

Predicting What Will Happen
Since electoral realignments take years to occur, the opposition has to compete under the current situation. So what will happen?

In all likelihood, Erdogan will win comfortably. But we knew that already.

There have already been complaints among some CHP deputies about the choice of Ihsanoglu. I wouldn't attach too much value to these. In the end, most CHP and MHP supporters will 'fall in line' and vote for Ihsanoglu, simply because the alternative (Erdogan) is sufficiently bad to them. The only way this doesn't occur is if an attractive third candidate enters who has enough support to peel away some portion of the CHP or MHP base.

However, it's far less likely than Ihsanoglu will attract the voters necessary to win the election, for several reasons. First, he lacks name recognition, and the AKP media advantages mean that most voters will gain an unfavorable 'introduction' to him.

Second, the same structural factors that gave AKP its victory in the March local elections--the state of the economy, the current electoral alignment of poor voters with the AKP, Erdogan's popularity--are unlikely to change sufficiently between now and August.

Finally, the regional situation actually favors Erdogan as well. If there were to be some sort of military or diplomatic crisis involving ISIS or PKK, Erdogan would be the electoral beneficiary. In political science, there is a well-known trend called the 'rally around the flag' effect. A military or terror attack or crisis causes support for the leader (prime minister, president, etc) to increase in the short term. Why? Research on political psychology shows that perceived threats to people's safety or lives causes them to endorse more authoritarian attitudes: greater patriotism (in-group identification) and more support for the leader (authoritarian submission). Thus, Americans rallied in support of George W. Bush after the September 11 terrorist attacks (as they had around President Jimmy Carter during the early months of the Iran Hostage Crisis), and as both sides in the Falklands/Malvinas Islands Wars experienced. Unfortunately for the opposition, any sort of military or diplomatic crisis would probably increase Erdogan's support in the short term. Of course, there are exceptions: if Erdogan were seen to have caused the crisis or to have responded weakly to it, then it could cause a drop in support.

So, the situation remains as it was: in all likelihood, Erdogan will be elected president, and there is little the opposition can do to change that. In the long term, the opposition either needs to hope for an economic crisis (to erode AKP support) or to pursue an electoral realignment that gives it more support.

This should be the broader lesson drawn from the analytical and comparative study of elections for the critics of the 'incompetent' CHP. Focusing on the wrong lessons leads to the wrong conclusions. CHP is not suffering because its leader is not charismatic, or because he occasionally says stupid things, or he doesn't give exciting speeches. It suffers because it lacks the 'electoral loyalty' of a sufficient portion of Turkish society in order to win an election. The current alignment of voters favors AKP, and until that changes, the basic results in Turkish elections will not either.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Should CHP 'Go Long' in the Presidential Election? (Or: what is the best way to lose?)

As the first Turkish presidential elections approach, speculation grows about whether the opposition parties can agree upon a joint presidential candidate. Given the current alignment of Turkish politics, doing so is a necessity for the opposition to have any hopes of defeating Prime Minister Erdogan, who is all but assured of running as the AKP candidate. Taking the 30 March local election results as a baseline, here is the problem:

AKP: 42.8%
CHP: 26.3%
MHP: 17.8%
BDP/HDP: 6.3%

In short, if CHP and MHP could find a candidate who could perfectly hold together their voters, they'd still be only back to equal standing with AKP. Given AKP's use of state resources to bolster its standing (including electoral fraud), equal isn't really good enough. Meanwhile, the math for AKP is much easier. It has a number of possible ways it could peel off the necessary 7-8% of the vote for Erdogan to win. Given that the likely opposition strategy is to nominate a nationalist who can unify CHP and MHP supporters, AKP is likely to look to the Kurdish voters of the BDP/HDP to find that winning margin.

In short, the best that the opposition can probably hope for is to 'lose respectably.' (As they say in American politics, Erdogan will only lose if he gets caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy).

What's the alternative? As I've argued elsewhere (here and here), the problem CHP (as the main opposition) faces is that the current electoral alignment simply doesn't work for it. Here's a breakdown of the core voters of each party:

AKP: poor, less-educated rural and urban workers, conservative and religious Sunni Muslism
CHP: middle-class urban, liberal and secular, plus Alevi Muslims
MHP: conservative and highly nationalist voters from across class and educational lines
BDP/HDP: mostly Kurds and some leftists

The inherent tension in the AKP coalition is that it is a conservative party that has pushed policies that are generally unfriendly to workers (privatization, etc), but its supporters are mostly working class. Conversely, CHP calls itself social democratic but has almost no support among workers.

Why? The main reason seems to be that the dominant axes of party conflict in Turkey are essentially 'identity politics': Sunni Muslims vs. secularists and Alevis, and Turks vs. Kurds. The numbers don't add up for the opposition.

The answer for the opposition, then, is to change the axis of political conflict. Will Riker called this 'heresthetics.' Ted Carmines and Jim Stimson call it 'issue evolution.' Whatever the term, the idea is to shift political conflict onto a dimension that allows for your party to split the dominant electoral coalition of the winning party while still retaining your core base.

The obvious place where this can work is on the left. CHP (or a successor party) could, by emphasizing its social democratic credentials and cutting into the working-class (and rural poor) base of the AKP. Doing so will also have the benefit of shifting the conversation away from identity (where CHP loses) to economic interests (where it could win).

More broadly, this is how virtually every social democratic/labor party around the world has been successful: forging a coalition of middle-class leftists and urban working classes (who often include minorities--since they tend to be disadvantaged economically).

Note that this isn't to suggest that, magically, CHP could 'win the working class.' But, if it could simply split the working class vote with AKP (as opposed to getting 20%, as it does now), that would actually give it a chance of winning an election.

Back to the upcoming presidential elections, then. It seems to me that the opposition has two choices. It can take the short-term approach of working within existing electoral realities, nominate the most competitive candidate that it can find, and lose respectably. Or it can take a long-term approach that begins to pursue a realigning strategy of the sort described above, nominate a properly social democratic candidate, and lose the election badly--but, in so doing, begin to lay the groundwork for this realignment. The analogy in American politics (though very opposite ideologically) would be Barry Goldwater in 1964: he lost that election terribly, but he also paved the way for an era in which his Republican Party won 7 of the next 10 elections and generally controlled the political agenda.

Why might this be a bad idea? First, no such social democratic candidate may exist. Unless somebody can figure out a way to clone Bulent Ecevit, it just may not be possible. Second, it may be a better idea to lose respectably than to lose badly--given the desire to deny Erdogan any more of a mandate that he will already claim. Third, some may well argue that this sort of social democratic strategy just won't work in the social/cultural context of Turkey (though I would argue that the burden is on them to explain why Turkey is different from every other industrial country on the planet). More plausibly, perhaps the demands of global markets make a social democratic strategy unworkable for a country in Turkey's international position.

Long story short: barring some major development in the next two months, Tayyip Erdogan will win the presidential election. Given this unpleasant reality, the main question for the opposition is how they want to balance the demands of this election with a long-term strategy of knocking AKP off its perch.