Sunday, July 20, 2014

Turkey's Voters & Erdogan's Electoral Strategy

Turkish politics has taken a worrying turn in the past several days, as Prime Minister (and presidential candidate) Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a series of scathing attacks on Israel in response to its military campaign in Gaza. While criticism of Israel's Gaza operations are certainly warranted, his suggestion that Israel "now even exceeds [Adolf Hitler] in barbarism" is directly offensive and shocking. Of course, it's not just Erdogan. Other AKP members, such as Ankara's legitimately elected mayor Melih Gokcek, have also joined in the act of praising Hitler while condemning Israel.

As Israeli/Turkish relations decline, one wonders what motivates Erdogan's rhetoric? Is he simply engaging in electoral strategy, recognizing that anti-Israeli (or, more broadly, anti-Semitic) sentiments are popular among Turkish voters? Or does his rhetoric reflect his true feelings about Israel (and, possibly, Jews)?

Why not both?

An important caveat: nobody but Erdogan himself knows what his true beliefs about Israel and Jews are, so we cannot make any sort of honest claim about how he truly feels. But the evidence that he is an anti-Semite is certainly there, going all the way back to his university days in 1974.

More broadly, it is certain that his rhetoric plays well with his core voters and a significant portion of Turkey's electorate.

Authoritarianism & the Turkish Electorate

Authoritarianism describes an individual predisposition towards binary ("black-and-white") thinking, heightened levels of xenophobia (or out-group hostility), and a trust in absolute sources of authority--all as a means of ensuring security and social conformity. Levels of authoritarianism vary among individuals, so that some people display very high levels of authoritarianism while others do not. What is interesting is that authoritarianism becomes a good predictor of party support in certain countries, including Turkey.

While authoritarianism does not predict that individuals will be specifically anti-Semitic, it does predict that they are more likely to view members of "out-groups" (read: foreigners and minorities) with greater hostility. In Turkey's context, Jews are a natural out-group, given their minority status in Turkey as well as the broader context of Jewish-Muslim relations throughout the region.

We can measure authoritarianism in voter surveys accurately by asking questions about how respondents believe that children should be raised (to be individualistic and autonomous or conformist and obedient). Data from the 2011 wave of the World Values Survey are used here. This chart shows a pretty stark relationship between authoritarianism and party support in Turkey.


Among low authoritarians, support was basically evenly split between AKP and the main opposition CHP (keep in mind that these data were collected near the peak of AKP support in 2011). Among those at the high end of the authoritarianism scale, around 70% supported AKP will less than 20% supported CHP.

Previously, I have shown that these differences in the level of authoritarianism between AKP and CHP supporters are reflected in social attitudes. Over three-quarters of AKP supporters in a 2009 survey indicated that they would not want Jews as neighbors! (The result was a still quite high 53% among CHP supporters, indicating the commonality of anti-Semitism in contemporary Turkey).

The upshot is that Erdogan may be expressing his own personal beliefs, and he is certainly expressing the beliefs of many of his supporters, when he says hateful things about Jews (and let's be honest: whenever you bring up Hitler like that, you're being hateful towards Jews). Whether such comments constitute a smart electoral strategy for him, it is certain that they are unlikely to hurt his standing among AKP supporters.

Authoritarianism & the Israeli Electorate?

I don't have sufficient familiarity with Israeli party politics to say much, and I have not analyzed the data. But the tragic irony of authoritarianism is that it exists among all populations and it has the same basic effects. However, the target of that out-group hostility will change depending on where one lives.

So Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli Member of Parliament who called for war on all Palestinians, is surely the flip side of people like Erdogan and Gokcek. And those Israelis who bring out their lawn chairs to watch and celebrate bombing raids against Gaza are much the same as those AKP voters. Undoubtedly, Israeli supporters of Shaked and of harshly punitive campaigns in Gaza score highly on a scale of authoritarianism.

The most problematic thing is that situations of extreme personal threat can trigger authoritarian attitudes among even those who are normally very low in the predisposition. This is what happened in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, when support for the invasion of Iraq and harsh anti-terrorism measures was widespread (gated). Undoubtedly, the ongoing troubles in Israel and Palestine have led to an increase in such authoritarian attitudes there as well. Breaking that cycle sufficiently to allow for a constructive peace dialogue will be a massive challenge for responsible leaders on both sides.