Turkish local elections on March 30, as was expected by knowledgeable objective observers, resulted in sweeping victories for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul and many areas of the country. The AKP held the Ankara mayoralty and even had a surprise win in Antalya.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) saw its provincial hold weaken from 29 to 22, while the AKP increased itsnationwide vote percentage by nearly seven percentage points, to 46%, over the 2009 local elections.
What do the results mean?
The essential lesson that Turkish elites and international observers must take from these results, and with alacrity, is that the current options present on the Turkish political table provide only one choice for a great swath of the Turkish citizenry: the AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turkish opposition is now comprised of a variety of opposites that have found themselves thrown together only out of desperation – and political incompetence. The party most clearly representing the Turkish elites, the CHP of Kemal Kilicdaroglu lives on its historical reputation as the party of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
The problem is that this understanding automatically eliminates the CHP as a voting preference for around 60% of the Turkish population (in this election the CHP received only 28% nationwide) since, despite the historical narrative otherwise, the vast majority of Turkish people resented Kemal Ataturk’s social reform projects. They will not vote for the CHP unless a radical change takes place in the party; thorough changes in ideology, narrative, personnel, and structure are the minimum requirements for giving the CHP wider appeal in Turkish society.
The most difficult aspect of creating a political alternative for the Turkish elites is that they have no real experience, or understanding, of how modern politics work. The reason for this is extremely simple: they never had to learn how to run a political party because the Turkish military always had their back. This meant that the CHP never had to think about the grassroots. In fact, most CHP voters display a condescending attitude towards the grassroots.
This attitude simply will not work in modern politics. Turkish elites will have to learn, as soon as possible, how to appeal to voters in all classes of Turkish society, not just the rich, secular, comfortable elites living in the best neighborhoods of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.
Many commentators will ponder the “unfathomable” results from this election and resort mostly to tired, condescending cliches: “The Turkish people are ignorant (cahil), so what can we expect?”, “Erdogan has an authoritarian grip on the country so everyone votes for him”, “the AKP gives free stuff (bread, coal, appliances) to the poor, so they vote for AKP”. The list goes on. In reality, the reason for these pundits’ confusion stems from their patronizing attitude towards the Turkish masses.
Mumtaz’er Turkone probably drove home the last nail in the coffin of the opposition’s hopes in early February, when he let slip a fatal gaffe: “I think the AKP should be closed down.” That was in a live political talk show, on the Turkish channel HaberTurk. Oops.
Mumtaz’er Turkone is a well-known columnist for Zaman, the newspaper most closely associated with the Fetullah Gulen movement. Turkone is probably the most influential columnist at Zaman (maybe sharing that title with Ekrem Dumanli), and for many years he was accused by the secular elites of being an AKP toady. All that changed with the move to close the Turkish cram school (dersane) sector last November, and then a series of corruption scandals, seen by most everyone in Turkey as Gulen’s counter-move against the AKP, which erupted on December 17, 2013.
By making the “close the AKP” statement, Turkone stepped on an extremely sensitive point, and revealed the true intent of Gulen’s adherents for everyone to see. One should remember that the Turkish military and the secular elites made a last-gasp attempt to close down the AKP in 2008, which narrowly failed in the Turkish Constitutional Court.
Turkish people understand what kind of people want to close the AKP and why: the vested interests, the beneficiaries of connections to the state, the people who desire the old system, the elitist system that the AKP has been slowly uprooting for the past 11 years, to continue. Previously the Gulen movement had tacitly presented itself as being with the AKP on this project.
That changed when the dersane issue was tabled, and became an outright war on December 17. Although most Turkish people understood implicitly what the Gulen people were trying to do, Turkone made it overt. The Gulen movement also wanted to shut down the AKP in order to protect their interests and money. For any voters who might have been wavering as a result of the corruption scandals, the choice was now clear: either the AKP or another bunch of oppressive thugs with no accountability. The (mostly illegally obtained) wiretap recordings that began to appear on the Internet in late February made no difference to this reality.
So I want to ask these questions of the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Economist, Al-Jazeera, and of the many other international press outlets that have consistently published anti-AKP, anti-Tayyip Erdogan, and anti-Turkish feature articles, columns, and blog posts for the past 11 years: “When will you take the time to actually do the work necessary to understand Turkish politics? When will you take the time to try to understand the reality that the average Turkish voter lives in? When will you realize that the information you are receiving from your sources is faulty, and that you are damaging your profession through this adamant refusal to see or understand the double standard you apply to your reporting concerning Turkey?”
After the massive failure of pollsters and journalists to accurately predict the 1948 US presidential election, immediate steps were taken, by both the pollsters and the media, to identify exactly what went wrong. The results helped pinpoint errors in data gathering and assumptions that greatly improved the science of polling and, eventually, restored respectability to the polling profession and to the journalists utilizing those polls. Nathan Silver’s performance in the 2012 US presidential election was the latest illustration of how careful, and realistic, polling can accurately predict results.
The 2012 Republican insistence on self-delusional polls mirrors the situation for the vast majority of polls conducted in Turkey. When it comes to Turkey under the AKP, every poll, no matter how distorted or marked by faulty data-gathering, is usable as long as it takes the AKP down a notch. Every type of information, no matter how detached from the Turkish reality, is respectable in the eyes of the international press as long as it portrays the AKP and Erdogan in a negative light. The elections be damned. The Turkish voters and their opinions be damned. The single important thing is to maintain the dire doom-and-gloom narrative: Erdogan is a dictator, the AKP are secretly anti-Semitic religious cultists with designs on the state and security apparatuses, the Turkish economy is collapsing, Turkish foreign policy is an Ottoman revival, all of the AKP ministers are inept, all of their children are corrupt takers.
Until you are able to rescue yourselves from this weltanschauung, until you take the AKP, Erdogan, and most importantly their voters, seriously, and until you understand that Turkey is a true democracy and that Turkish politics now are run as they are in other industrialized democracies, you will not be able to understand what is happening in Turkish politics or society, and you will constantly be shocked and dismayed by Turkish election results.
Adam B McConnel is a History PhD student at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He specializes in 20th century Turkish history, 20th century Turkish-American relations, and 19th and 20th century world history. He has lived in Istanbul since 1999
(Copyright 2014 Adam Bennett McConnel)