A new mandate for Turkey’s opposition

A new mandate for Turkey’s opposition

After the local elections in Turkey, liberal intellectuals and Istanbul-based columnists have a new sports activity, and it is called non-stop CHP bashing, Turkey’s main secular opposition party, the Republican People’s Party. To the best of my knowledge, this was the same crowd that heightened the expectations, wrote harsh criticisms of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, yet Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP, would never be their first choice, even if he gets 60% of the votes. “He is not enough,” they say while sipping their Starbucks lattes. “There has to be someone that can get the Kurdish vote, conservative vote and be tough and be charming.” Yeah right.

I sat down with Kılıçdaroğlu early this week in his office before the punching incident in the Turkish Parliament had taken place. He looked tired, but clear in his thoughts. He was more worried about the polarization in Turkish society than a possible loss of a recounted Ankara vote. “The entire world saw that this was not a fair election” he said, “We had the entire state apparatus against us, with governors, mayors, security chiefs etc. But we could have done better in the women’s vote. We still have a lot of ground to cover there.”

Turkey’s main dilemma lies in the fact that more than a decade of “aid-based” economics in city slums and small villages, has created almost 10 million voters that are strictly dependent on these handouts.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has created its own middle class, but also such a vast low-income voter base that it can win at least three more elections with this. Despite his claims in investing in technology and distributing tablets in high schools, Erdoğan is actually building a very low educated, highly manual labor working class that will be mobilized from rural areas to city suburbs in every election cycle. This only resembles the poor working class in India.

Take young girls and women for example. According to recent surveys, more than %43 of girls/women between the age of 15-24 in Turkey are neither going to, or want to go to school nor aiming to work anytime at all. OECD defines this group as NEET, not in education or employed. They are just happy to be sitting at home, watching TV. The AKP has made life easy for women to stay at home, bare children, never work and live dependent on handouts and government giveaways. Some of them still work in very low level jobs to make ends meet in big cities, but the majority prefers not to even leave the neighborhood.

High school education is in deep darkness. Vocational school graduates can hardly do math beyond basic add-subtract-multiply-divide. The PISA results that compare education standards in Europe and OECD countries show that only half of Turkish students older than 15 receive basic education. Science, math and literacy levels are so low that in a decade, the country could easily slide into Middle Eastern standards. Authorities are keeping a tight lid on the results, but the wider statistics show that in the most recent university entry exams, around 900,000 students could not even score one math question correctly. Now with this kind of demographic, Erdoğan can win ten times if he wants to, just like Mubarak did. But, would this create the 10th largest economy in the World? In your dreams, baby.

During his campaign, Kılıçdaroğlu could have talked about the economy and the projects till the cows came home. But if you have an army of people constantly stuck in low income, low education, very little social expectations and deeply conservative small town values, your “clean and honest” economy wishes will never ring a bell.

If Turkey’s GNP is rising, its living standards should too. Election results show us that with better education and better income, voters resist the urge to rally around Erdoğan’s cult of personality and look into the fine prints of politics, search for “what is in it for them.”

The CHP’s new challenge will be to break the deadly “low income trap” to create a new working and voting class among city dwellers. Kılıçdaroğlu hinted that the CHP will focus on less educated and lower income families and their problems; voice their concerns and share their values.  Surprisingly, politically active Kurds may be his greatest ally in this endeavor.