Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Postmortem on 'Shellshock Sunday'

It was 'Shellshock Sunday' for me in two respects. First, with family who all support the center-left opposition, the results themselves were stunning (and not in a good way). Second, and more importantly for this blog, as a political scientist my expectations about this election were horribly wrong. And I really don't like that!

Though I didn't publish it here, my expectation was for AKP to get about 43% of the vote, with CHP also up slightly and MHP/HDP both losing votes. So I got the general trends right, but woefully missed the size of the AKP surge. And I thought turnout would be down slightly on the last election. Oops!

What I Got Wrong, and Why

Turnout: I honestly expected turnout to decline slightly from its 7 June level. I thought that election fatigue, plus a sense that the results would be the same, would reduce voters' motivation to turn out. Instead, perhaps we missed a small story of declining turnout during the 7 June elections among AKP supporters (along with their defections to MHP and HDP).This is perhaps ironic, as my own dissertation research focused on that dynamic of continuing to support one's party or not voting. But AKP voters surged to the polls in high new numbers. How much of that was a result of improved mobilization efforts by the party, and how much by the conflict with PKK is something I can't say.

Election Day Problems: I thought that 1 November would be long and contentious. It wasn't. The election went rather smoothly, and I am happy to have been wrong about that. Perhaps the mobilization of groups like Oy ve Otesi has generated a sort of equilibrium.

Rally Effects: I was right in expecting that there would be a rally 'round the flag effect. But I thought it would be modest, reflected in that 43% projection for AKP. In hindsight, I imagine that I read too much into the defection of AKP supporters to MHP in the 7 June election. I thought that represented more of a decisive break--a lost of trust in Erdogan. I understood the psychology of voters well enough to realize that these would be the ones most persuadable to return to the AKP fold. So perhaps I should have known better.

The Kurdish Vote: I really didn't expect any Kurds to return to AKP. Instead, I thought the more likely effect of the renewed PKK conflict would be to demoralize and split the Kurdish vote among various intra-Kurdish factions.

What I Got Right 

The Unfair Political Environment: The most important point I got right before the election was pointing out that this whole campaign was fundamentally not free and fair. Turkey's descent into competitive authoritarianism means that opposition parties are competing against AKP on an uneven playing field. AKP uses state resources to mobilize its own voters, suppress opposition party and media, and it seemingly tolerates mob violence against the opposition. International election observers agreed with me yesterday. Unfortunately for Turkey's opposition, this is what it is.

What Now For Turkey's Opposition?

I told journalist Alev Scott that this loss provides an opportunity for the opposition parties to re-evaluate their strategies and find ways to attract new voters. With new elections unlikely until 2019, the opportunity is there.

Realignment Efforts: The problem for CHP in particular is that it has hit a plateau of about 25%. To get beyond that, and become a credible threat to win an election, it must make inroads into Turkey's large population of urban poor. In other words, it must do what every Western social democratic party has done previously. This requires becoming a physical presence in these communities, offering services and support, and becoming a true alternative to these voters to the AKP. In terms of message, it requires focusing on economic issues, schools, and opportunity, rather than cultural fights over religion. It also means doing whatever possible to build bridges between Turkish and Kurdish communities. I don't see how the left can win in Turkey without merging these two sets of voters.

Leadership Changes? It has become fashionable for Western observers to criticize opposition party leaders Kilicdaroglu and Bahceli for not resigning after each election defeat. This is a bit of a 'gotcha' ploy. And it's also a bit mistaken: I think Kilicdaroglu has done an excellent job as CHP leader. And those pointing out that Bahceli 'lost' half the MHP seats on Sunday fail to point out that he also won those seats on 7 June. But, with this election cycle over, it is surely time for new blood in the CHP leadership who can help to push a realignment strategy forward. It will be a long time until the next election.

The Pacted Transition: In many cases where authoritarian leaders have left power, they have done so via an agreement that protects them from prosecution from crimes committed while in power. This is a tough suggestion to make, but it may need to be part of an eventual opposition strategy. Not so much for Erdogan or those at the very top; they are not going gently. But, for other mid-level leaders in AKP, offering them a way out that doesn't include going to jail may be important to get them to abandon Erdogan. This is more speculative, naturally.

The Worries

Is Erdogan the West's New Aliyev? (Hat tip to Alper Boler for that analogy) Or Mubarak, etc? In watching the dealings between the EU and Turkey before the election, it was striking that the relationship now seems to be purely transactional. The Commission held off on releasing its critical report of Turkey until after the election. This highlights a pretty obvious point: Turkey is dead to the EU as a candidate country. Instead, it is merely a 'partner' to the EU on regional problems, much as Egypt might be. If the world has made its peace with the notion that Erdogan is a 'president for life,' then that is bad news for Turkey.

The Continuing Descent into Authoritarianism: While the next four years will give the opposition time to regroup, it will also give Erdogan and AKP time to further consolidate its power. Some observers are hoping that Erdogan will 'relax' now that he has won a majority. Unlikely. Leaders like him seem to see threats everywhere and won't be happy until they have all been eliminated. Expect further crackdowns and seizures of opposition media, further consolidation of control over the judiciary, military, and police, and so on. The political environment at Turkey's next elections will be even more unfair than 1 November. How can the opposition win? Simply by being too numerous to suppress. And by opening and exploiting cracks within the AKP's unity.

The challenges for those who want to see a pluralistic and democratic Turkey are very real. It will take a sustained effort for the long-term to confront and overturn them.