What did the Turkish electorate say on the Sunday elections?
Why, after all these corruption charges, listening to humiliating video recordings, the crisis in Syria, the possibility of seeing the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan released from jail, have people still voted for the Justice and Development Party (AKP)?
This is the question the AKP’s opponents have been asking since Sunday’s municipal elections. For years, they have provided the wrong answers to the AKP’s increasing success and a wrong analysis of the AKP’s constituency has been at the core of the failure of the opposition parties.
Basically, the AKP voters did not say, “I don’t care about corruption.”
They said this:
“For years, we have been under represented in this country. Turkey’s former ruling elites, the republican, secularist, Kemalist elites looked down on us; they ignored us. The AKP is one of us. Not only did the AKP improve our economic situation, it made us feel we are also important in this country.
It made us feel that we are now in power. We do not feel humiliated because we are not part of the small minority that graduated from the best universities, know two languages and spend holidays abroad. The AKP has conservative values, so do we; Erdoğan believes in God, so do we. Some among the AKP are not religious, but they act as if they are; that is pardonable; because they are the exception. We do not identify ourselves with the CHP or the MHP. Perhaps AKP officials are corrupt. But our fear of being excluded - of being treated as underdogs - if the CHP or MHP came to power, is greater than our disappointment about the dirt in the AKP’s hands.”
At the end of the day, Prime Minister Erdoğan proved successful in using the strategy of polarization, as the AKP voters went to ballot boxes with the “us vs. them” mentality. Identity politics was the key in determining the election results. The fact that AKP voters have not felt any serious consequences in their economic situation was the second key factor. The failure of the opposition parties to convince AKP voters that they genuinely understand their needs and what they stand for is the third key element explaining the electoral outcome.
There is no lesson that the AKP will draw from these elections and, unfortunately, Erdoğan will read the election results as a renewed mandate for his authoritarian governance.
There are, however, tremendous lessons to be drawn by the opposition parties and as yet, there are no signs they will have a genuine questioning of their failure.
One of the biggest surprises of the elections came, for instance, from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), as it was expected to increase its votes due to the Kurdish reconciliation process. But in fact the AKP voters said, “I’m happy that there is finally peace in the southeast. I am not worried about the cultural and administrative gains of the Kurds.”
The Syrian policy, the heartbreaking scenes of Syrian children beggars in the streets, seems not to have affected the AKP voters either. That does not mean there is appreciation for the Syrian policy, but in the “struggle of us against them,” the Syrian issue is a bearable side effect.
The MHP is an anachronistic party, the CHP has locked itself to the well-educated voters; as long as both don’t take the necessary steps to become “mass parties,” as the AKP is, their supporters will continue to be disappointed and frustrated.