INTERVIEW: Michael Wuthrich on the history of elections in Turkey and the future of Turkish democracy

INTERVIEW: Michael Wuthrich on the history of elections in Turkey and the future of Turkish democracy

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Michael Wuthrich on the history of elections in Turkey and the future of Turkish democracy

A rally in Istanbul for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the 2007 election campaign.

The belief that Turkish politics has for decades been defined by unchanging cultural divides is very widely held. An essential cleavage between religious and secular, educated and uneducated, central and peripheral voters is said to be the essential dynamic underpinning decades of political turbulence. 

American political scientist Michael Wuthrich challenges this in his book “National Elections in Turkey” (reviewed in HDN here). Through close analysis of electoral data and campaigns since 1950, Wuthrich shows how Turkish voters have primarily been motivated by material and economic considerations, with ideological considerations a distant second.

He argues that today’s social divides are real but they cannot be mapped neatly onto political preferences in previous decades. The empirical data paints a far richer and more complicated picture. However, Wuthrich also suggests that this kind of close attention to electoral dynamics may now be a historical relic as Turkey moves to an authoritarian, dominant single-party system.

He spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the history of elections in Turkey and the future of Turkish democracy.

Belief in essential “center-periphery” divides going back decades are very popular in Turkey. But you paint a more complex picture. What’s the argument you put forward in the book? 

The book is intended to respond to several different existing approaches to elections in Turkey. One major approach was to assume that the Turkish electorate or voters were static in their voting: They voted according to social cleavages and identities, and tended to hold onto that regardless of what was happening. Another problematic approach to studying elections has been paying attention to just the campaign speeches or campaigning or focusing on the micro details of each election. 

I wanted to argue that yes there were patterns in how people voted in Turkey over time, but those patterns were changeable and they were strongly related to how the political parties themselves were trying to woo and mobilize voters. As those strategies morphed and changed over time, along with conditions, so did voting outcomes. In my book I lay out what I see as some important voting patterns based on different strategies that different parties used.

You talk about how Turkish voters have generally been motivated by practical considerations rather than national or ideological concerns. Could you explain that with some concrete examples through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond?

A pragmatic, materialistic understanding of elections and voting has been ingrained in Turkish politics since the 1950s. It started with the Democrat Party [DP]. When the DP campaigned in the 1950s it wasn’t really trying to woo voters with identity or religion-based appeals - especially on the national scale or in campaign speeches. That remained true at least until its last election in 1957, when you see identity-based and religious appeals cropping up because they knew they were losing votes. But in the beginning the DP basically tried to make very pragmatic appeals to voters and communities. It was doing a lot of work on the ground, things that don’t show up in campaign speeches. 

INTERVIEW: Michael Wuthrich on the history of elections in Turkey and the future of Turkish democracyA lot of voters in the 1950s had little knowledge of what was actually being said in the official campaigns of the two major parties. What seems to have generated the outcomes on election day were the patronage, clientelism and canvassing that party members did in various towns and villages in order to get people to vote for them for very practical reasons. 

Of course parties rarely use just one strategy, but that pragmatic sense of trying to use policy or patron-client relations to attract voters has continued to today. Even in the 2011 election, when there was a relatively high amount of ideological or identity polarization, the parties were often trying to woo the pocketbooks of voters. That’s true for the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], the Republican People’s Party [CHP], the Justice and Development Party [AKP], and even to some extent the Peace and Democracy Party [BDP], the pro-Kurdish leftist party. Although they all had other elements in their platform, they mostly used economy-based pocketbook appeals to voters.

People often look back at the DP as the first example of the periphery fighting back against the central republican elites. But you point out that if you look at the electoral map of results in the 1950s, the DP’s stronghold was in the western coastal regions, which is today seen as the “secular stronghold” of the CHP. The CHP, meanwhile, had its stronghold in the Kurdish-majority southeast. What explains this?

Some of it had to do with different campaign strategies. The CHP had two strategies of interacting with the people. Areas that were remote from Ankara in the east, for example, were decentralized and weren’t strongly connected to the center or to national society. So the CHP developed relations with local notables, people who were basically the local political elites of the area. They developed relationships with them and made them the liaison for those areas. They knew they wouldn’t have great direct communication access with the people in those remote provinces, so they worked through local notables. During the single-party era, the CHP in the more centralized areas of the country sent political elites out to the local populace to talk and hear their grievances and find out what they wanted. 

When Turkey became a multi-party system, the CHP mostly relied on its strong relations with local notables. The DP politicians, meanwhile, adopted an approach of going out, trying to find what people wanted. You see an almost paradoxical consequence in the 1950s elections: The CHP was able to get votes from the least developed, least centralized, most peripheral areas of the country, while the DP was far more effective in the more developed urban and rural communities. 

On the “center-periphery” question, the DP was basically founded by CHP elites. Both parties were staffed with people who would have been considered part of the “center.” They both campaigned as central elites trying to woo the periphery in different ways. The DP was able to initially woo the more developed, centralized areas, while the CHP was able to woo the areas that were furthest from the center.

We can also see a similar pattern in the 1960s and 70s. Particularly interesting was the 1970s, the high-watermark of the CHP’s success under Bülent Ecevit, when the party tried to woo poor urban voters through pocketbook, bread-and-butter issues.

Ecevit was ingenious in his ability to recognize where votes could be mobilized. In the 1950s and 60s, when rural voters began migrating into the urban centers, initially it was the DP and the Justice Party [AP] - which was the legacy party of the DP - that was working in the squatter areas, the poorer urban areas. But Ecevit realized this was an opportunity that the CHP, based on its ideological position, could move into. So he crafted his political identity based on catering to these poor urban voters. He was also aware of the growing strength of the trade unions in Turkey at the time. 

So what you see is a huge change in the fortunes of the CHP. It went from having a base in the far eastern and most peripheral areas to losing all that vote and gaining big time in the urban industrial centers. It was particularly big in Zonguldak, for example, a place where there were mines and where there was a lot of blue-collar labor. It was making the same kind of pragmatic appeals and promises that the DP had made before.

After the 1980 coup there was a big crackdown on all political parties and labor unions and groups that the CHP was interacting with. And a big vacuum opened up for new Islamist groups to do the same kind of work on the urban periphery. That was really the foundation of success for the Welfare Party [RP], which built up through local municipalities. Even though you had very ideological political Islamists, their foundation was built on pragmatic concerns about providing services to needy people.

Yes absolutely. In the late 1980s the successor to the CHP was the Social Democratic Populist Party [SHP]. It had a key opportunity to govern the municipalities of all the major urban areas but it absolutely failed. Even things like just taking out the trash, the SHP absolutely blew that opportunity to show people that it was taking care of the little people and was really concerned about governance. 

The RP, meanwhile, benefited from its leader Necmettin Erbakan’s approach: Yes it was Islamist but it also had this kind of conservative social democrat appeal to it. That gave it a huge opportunity. Erbakan basically benefited from the failure of other parties to do the basic things we expect local governments to do. And ever since, what we call the center-left has never really recovered from its poor performance in the late 1980s when it had an opportunity.

This center-periphery meta-narrative that you critique in the book was first proposed by Turkish sociologist Şerif Mardin in 1973. It has had a very pervasive influence on scholarship ever since. Why do you think it has been so seductive? 

Part of it is that the idea of a center and a periphery seems experientially true. This might be true in every society if you sit back and try to think about how things work. You imagine there are people from elite circles who are calling the shots while the vast majority of the people have no say. You can certainly feel that in Turkey. 

Şerif Mardin’s article actually spends most of its time on the Ottoman Empire. That’s exactly where you expect the center-periphery to be most applicable, and I actually agree with him on that. But the notion of a powerful center and a powerless periphery is confounded as soon as democracy and universal education enter the picture. The lines get blurred. 

Mardin did touch on the multi-party system toward the end of his article, but the center-periphery meta-narrative wasn’t really latched onto until the 1980s. Scholars started to see an east-west divide that looked kind of similar to it. But a lot of the studies that have tried to trace the center and periphery, especially in elections and party affiliation, have found it to be a bit of a Holy Grail. It seems more real in legend than what one finds in the data and the empirical evidence. 

What has happened over time is that people look at the divide today and they just call it “center-periphery.” But are we talking about an absolutely powerful group versus a powerful group? Is that the right way to describe the political cleavage today? I don’t think so. It’s certainly not the same cleavage that we would have been talking about 20 or 40 years ago. The voters who support various parties that we now lump into the center-periphery have changed in important ways. 

Research today that talks about the center-periphery is usually talking about a non-religious vs. religious political divide. But this is really problematic. If you look at almost all Western democracies you have a right and a left, with the “right” and the “conservatives” correlating with more religious practice, while leftists and progressives tend to be less religious. So in Turkey to call that the center and the periphery, especially when we can’t really trace it economically or using any other indicators, becomes misleading.

One irony is that the center-periphery idea is subscribed to by both secularist and Islamist sides in Turkey today. Almost subconsciously it shapes the way they think about politics.

That’s why I see it as a meta-narrative. It’s a convenient polemic for both sides. Both sides have used it to explain their various fortunes or failures. A lot of secularists will use it to separate themselves from the others and say “people don’t vote for center-left parties because they don’t have the education or enlightenment that we have.” They take a tutelary attitude to their own people that seems derogatory. And this stops them from analyzing why they’re not resonating with a lot of voters in Turkey.

Meanwhile the conservatives, who like to represent themselves as the periphery, play off the martyr imagery: The powerless people who have been marginalized, oppressed or stomped down. But they are under-representing just how strong they have been, how the center-right and conservative parties have always had a major say in Turkish politics really since the 1950s. They have rarely not had control of the Prime Ministry.

So the center-periphery idea is preventing both sides of the current political divide from understanding each other and understanding their political motives.

The current ruling AKP initially rose based on this idea of competence and practical delivery. It still emphasizes that, but it has increasingly also heavily indulged in extremely ideological, polarizing, stigmatizing rhetoric, trying to motivate supporters in that way. Do you think we’ve reached a critical threshold?

My last chapter leaves a big question mark about whether the pattern I trace in the book is in fact changing. During the mid- to late-1990s, and even through 2002 to 2007, it was the parties of the right that tended to be least ideological in their campaigning and a lot more pragmatic. It was the parties of the center-left that based their campaigns on a cultural struggle: An “us vs. them,” “light vs. dark” appeal. But in 2011 those poles shifted with the leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in the CHP and also the contraction in the party system. This contraction, in which there was a smaller number of parties with less leeway, prompted the AKP to change its strategy to cater more in its campaigning in order to shore up the base. It’s true in any democracy that there’s often a benefit to political parties in increasing polarization, raising the stakes to try to keep voters from leaving. 

I also address the issue of the media in Turkey. So much of modern electoral campaigning - not just in Turkey but everywhere - is based on conventional and social media. So when a dominant governing party controls the media, directly or indirectly, it’s really not a completely free and fair election anymore. My book talks about the dynamics of democratic multi-party elections, but I wonder now whether those dynamics will become a historical relic in Turkey. Will we be able to continue seriously considering electoral dynamics in the same way as we did from 1950 to 2011? 

One way of looking at it is that there’s never been a party as dominant as the AKP, or a politician as dominant as Erdoğan. When they’ve been in power for so long they have such extensive access to state largess, as well as the ability to put such pressure on the media. You have to ask whether we can analyze electoral dynamics in the same way as before.

All the components of the trouble that Turkish democracy is experiencing now were in the system at least from the 1980s. It’s just that those problems stayed under the surface because of the fragmentation of the party system. But once a party was able to dominate for such a long period of time, these other features come to the surface as real problems. 

When you have major corporate media holdings with other businesses that need government bids to survive, it takes away any semblance of independence. Even the media that’s technically independent ends up self-censoring because too much is at stake for its economic interests. When power was fragmented they could be more independent because there wasn’t one player that everyone had to cater to; there was a rotation of power so they didn’t have to put all their marbles into one bag. Having a single dominant government in Turkey since 2002 has radically altered the landscape.

Recent events and regional and domestic instability also creates an opportunity for any dominant party to enhance its hold on power through security and governance policy. That’s not ideological, it’s just the nature of what happens when there’s a dominant party and not enough checks and balances.

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