Impressions from a polling station
“Didn’t Cemal come today? I wonder if he’s sick,” asked the overweight man in a suit. “And then there’s Sevim, Veli’s daughter. Why didn’t she come?” asked the man, who was later revealed to be the neighborhood head.
A man in his 20s, who was on duty as the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) observer, answered: “Sir, because she works at a mall and it’s Sunday, she might not have the day off. Do you want me to call her?”
I was privy to all this because I was a volunteer election observer for the non-partisan Vote and Beyond group, which gave me the opportunity to make priceless observations as a social scientist. What stuck with me most was that AKP officials knew and inquired about almost all voters by name. This is what engaging with voters is all about and the exchanges highlighted how the AKP’s organizational prowess continues to give it success.
The election outcome frustrated the opposition, which ran a far more dynamic and colorful campaign than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in spite of the state of emergency. That said, there was always a good chance that Erdoğan would capture the presidency (even if it required a second round), both because of the difficulty in facing the president’s charisma and because it was unlikely opposition parties would successfully rally around a single candidate.
But the opposition’s biggest disappointment was the failure to prevent Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance from gaining a majority in parliament. In the days to come, there will be many analyses about the relative drop in the AKP’s vote totals, as well as the unexpected rise of its coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). An initial glance, however, suggests Turkey might have deep-seated problems but that a majority of Turks doubt the opposition has the competence to deal with them.
The elections were held amid serious economic problems, but it appears that 42.6 percent of voters deemed foreign powers to be responsible for this turbulence instead of the ruling party, which has been in government since 2002.
In order to understand how collective traumas and fears impact individuals’ political choices and how the perception of threats leads them to rally around a charismatic leader, have a look at Konda’s report “The Citizens of the New Turkey: A Study of Political Attitudes, Values and Sentiments in the Wake of the 15 July Coup Attempt,” which was released in May 2017.
Without question, politics is about the allocation of resources, and parallel to its consolidation of power, the AKP has enlarged its chain of services. Besides, the trauma of the Feb. 28 process, in which the secularist military forced Turkey’s first Islamist government from power in 1997, continues to influence people’s choices. Accordingly, it is important to bear in mind how a person who carries feelings of inferiority and resentment can identify with a leader who rose to power from Kasımpaşa, tolerate the leader’s mistakes and in times of crisis tend to believe “the leader needs me now more than ever.”
In truth, opposition parties possess neither the resources nor the organization to challenge the government in the allocation of resources. Unless this network unravels due to diminishing benefits, voters are unlikely to alter their choice in next year’s local elections.
Already, Republican People’s Party (CHP) presidential candidate Muharrem İnce is being crucified for outperforming his own party instead of receiving praise. If İnce leaves the CHP, which has been criticized for being an elitist party, it could perhaps lead to the creation of a new political formation that could reach more people as it sheds some of the CHP’s baggage.
For the opposition, the only victory was that half the country was able to unite around a vision for a more democratic Turkey, in spite of their political differences. The opposition’s room to maneuver will narrow under the new executive presidential system, but in the interests of winning voters’ trust, it must continue with a long-range strategy that is not solely focused on elections.