Saturday, August 9, 2014

Explaining (and looking beyond) Turkey's 2014 Presidential Election

Tomorrow, Turkish voters go to the polls to elect their president (for the first time in popular elections). The outcome is so obvious that it does not merit project: every public poll for the past month has shown AKP candidate and current Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan winning a majority--and thus the election in the first round. Meanwhile, joint CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu should get about 35%, and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas should get around 8-10%. This sounds right.

Why will Erdogan win in the first round and with a vote total perhaps 15 percentage points higher than his party's performance in the March local elections? In a word: turnout. There is a huge 'enthusiasm gap' between his supporters and those of the opposition. The latter are dispirited in the wake of the local election defeat--and the stolen election result in Ankara. The former, by contrast, are on the verge of seeing their leader fulfill the dream of becoming President--culminating a rise through the political ranks that included a trip to prison along the way. Expect turnout to be low among opposition supporters (reportedly, turnout was less than 20% among the 2.8 million or so Turkish voters living abroad).

(Brief aside: the nomination of Ihsanoglu is at best a minor explanation for Erdogan's victory. As I pointed out in June, the opposition was always unlikely to win, because the electoral math was simply impossible. There was no candidate who could have successfully pulled together enough votes to defeat Erdogan. A strong candidacy could have perhaps made things more competitive--and possibly have forced a 2nd round--but the end result would have been the same. While Ihsanoglu's candidacy has been anything but impressive, the good news/bad news is simply that it didn't really matter in terms of the ultimate outcome.)

Going a little deeper: the real story here, of course, is that little has changed in Turkey's electoral alignment since March. The same basic coalition of voters that has propelled AKP to victory since 2002 remains intact. AKP's core electorate is working-class, less-educated, and highly authoritarian.  All of this explains Erdogan's rhetoric and strategy since last June: his condemnation of the Gezi protests as looters and terrorists, his attempts to blame the protests and corruption allegations on foreign plots, his anti-Semitic rhetoric against Israel, and his reminding voters that opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a member of the Alevi minority in Turkey. These play well to his authoritarian base, which has a worldview that is absolutist, inward-looking, sensitive to threats, and prone to xenophobia.

Given the inevitability of the outcome, I am most curious to see how Demirtas fares. Will he successfully gain a number of CHP 'defectors' and win 10% or more of the vote, or will his appeal go no further than his core HDP/BDP support?

Where does the opposition go from here?

Election results are more about fundamentals than the flash of campaigns or speeches. Right now, there are three fundamental factors, each of which works to the AKP's advantage:

1. Electoral alignment
2. Organization and funding
3. Use of state resources

The opposition obviously cannot do much about #3. AKP will continue to use state resources to maintain its electoral strength as long as it is in power.

The opposition can do a lot about the first two, however. One reason that the CHP cannot break the "ceiling" of about 25% of the vote comes from a lack of infrastructure. By this, I mean, having local party organizations that organize grassroots communications and get-out-the-vote efforts. Given the AKP control of state resources and much of the media, it is all the more important for the opposition to work harder on the local, grassroots level to build support. It is the only practical way of overturning the AKP's advantage on this front. To that end, its leaders will have to get over old hangups about a 'fully independent Turkey' and be willing to seek advice from abroad. (The irony is that CHP voters are, in contrast to AKP voters, more open to change and outside cultures than CHP leaders).

Regarding #1, Turkey has been stuck in the same electoral alignment since 2007. AKP consistently poll 40-50% of the vote, close to double the strength of CHP. Nothing has fundamentally changed since 2007, and nothing will until some opposition party makes it happen.

I have argued before (without convincing others, apparently) that the road forward for the opposition is to cultivate more support among the working poor. Why? First, practically speaking, there are far more working-class than middle-class voters in Turkey. You cannot win an election in 2014 Turkey with only middle-class voters. (Put differently, Turkey's electorate looks like that of the US or Britain in the 1960s). CHP (or HDP, or whoever) does not need to become a "working-class party," but it needs to compete on something close to equal footing with AKP among such voters. And, because they cannot do this through appeals to identity, the only way to do this is to shift the emphasis to economic (distributive) concerns. There is a lot of economic injustice in Turkey, so there is plenty of fertile ground for a social democratic strategy. But, of course, it only works as part of a concerted, long-term effort backed up by organizational commitment. In other words, CHP can't go give a speech at Soma the day after a disaster and then disappear back into its shell.

While another strategy could work as well, the basic insight is the same. CHP currently polls 20-25 percentage points behind AKP. This is not a gap that can be eliminated simply by choosing a more charismatic leader or by having a 'tighter' message! The main opposition party needs to win the support of a major group of voters that currently votes for another party. The good news is that those groups--the working poor, Kurds, etc--exist.

(And another brief aside: if you're CHP, you do not want to be in the position of needing to form a coalition with the far-right MHP. While Devlet Bahceli has won praise in some circles for moderating that party's appeal, they are still fascists).

Electoral realignments take time. AKP's success in 2002 was the culmination of 20 years of organizational work in low-income and rural communities. There is little chance of the opposition winning the next parliamentary elections (whenever those may be), absent some major negative shock. But, (and maybe a leadership change or a new party is necessary for this), starting to pursue that new organizational strength and a realignment strategy now could start to pay dividends in the coming years.