Demystifying Turkey’s Vote: How Erdoğan took the election


Supporters of Turkey's ruling AK party (AKP) cheer as they follow the election's results in front of the party's headquarters in Ankara, on March 30, 2014. The party of Turkish Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a strong early lead in local elections, despite turbulent months marked by mass protests, corruption scandals and Internet blocks.



ISTANBUL, Turkey — Whether out of lack of contact with ordinary Turks, an attempted self-fulfilling prophecy, or just pure wishful thinking, many both inside and outside Turkey had predicted a large drop in the vote for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the local elections.

Even the AK Party had lowered its threshold of success to 38 percent, a slump from its last general election figure of 46 percent. So when the party managed to snatch 45 percent and declare a resounding victory, many asked themselves the question: how could our guesses have been so wrong?

Of course, the AK Party has made genuinely worrying moves in recent times. After a corruption operation implicated government ministers, well-known businessmen and members of Erdoğan's family, the government carried out a slick hijacking of the judiciary and purge of the police. When we compare this with Turkey's sluggish progress towards European Union standards, this gives us a good idea of the AK Party's priorities.

In terms of human rights, the government fares no better. A record number of journalists remain behind bars.

Erdoğan has deported critical journalists, admitted to censoring news channels run by his friends, and threatened to ban caesarean sections. Police have raided private student residences where single men and women are believed to be living together.

The government's foreign policy shows a disturbing disregard for international law. Prosecutors who stopped a National Intelligence Agency (MİT) truck bound for Syria have been arrested, which suggests that the government is running arms to the Syrian opposition. A leaked audio clip, allegedly recorded in the Foreign Ministry, has indicated a government plan to attack a Turkish enclave in Syria as a pretext for military action before the elections.

We can't deny that there is something rotten in the state of Turkey, and the ghost of Atatürk might well stalk the battlements. But if so, why has the impostor won by ballot, not by poison? And where is the son who can avenge these crimes?

The most convincing answer to the first question is the economy.

While it might be part of a general upwards trend in developing markets over the last 10 years, rather than a result of AK Party policies, it is reasonable for less-informed Turks to connect the AK Party's time in office with today's relative prosperity. Whether the country's addiction to unstable foreign money and its precariously unregulated business world are sustainable is also a question for economists, not the majority of voters. The average Turk has a better standard of living and greater social mobility than under previous governments, and the uglier side of this growth has yet to rear its head.

As for the corruption allegations, Erdoğan responded in characteristically absurd and provocative style. The first retort was that certain clerics do not consider his family's actions to have constituted corruption. He also repeated, as if this were a known law of economics, that the economy could not have grown as it did in the presence of corruption.

His other diversion was to accuse the Islamic Hizmet movement of cooking up the allegations to overthrow his government. This descent into religion, conspiracy theories and semantics is the political equivalent of thumbing your nose and saying, "So what are you going to do about it?"

The futility of these excuses aside, Turkey's ranking at 54 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 suggests something more important about the public sphere: corruption is not uncommon, and therefore not especially shocking, in everyday life. If even minor officials engage in corruption, the current allegations can have little weight when choosing sides in an election.

But on balance, the AK Party has done fairly well in the area of reconciliation. It has taken Erdoğan to apologise for the Dersim massacre of Kurds and Alevis committed under the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), and it is Erdoğan who began a peace process with the Kurdish minority in the southeast of the country. We should bear in mind that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is essentially a product of the CHP's lengthy repression of the Kurds, but it is the AK Party that is clearing up the mess.

Of course, the AK Party's appeal lies partly in the unearned innocence of youth. The much older CHP had the responsibility for turning the Anatolian remains of the Ottoman Empire into a modern country, and we can only guess whether the AK Party would have made the same mistakes if it had been around at the time.

What the CHP's lack of friendly gestures hints at, however, is that a strong part of its base still clings to the nationalist and anti-religious ideology of the past. This means that Kurds and most religious Muslims, which together make up a large majority of the population, will never vote for the CHP.

So is the AK Party's self-declared majority a lesser evil than the CHP's secular minority? The Turkish people should not be satisfied with such a false choice.

In a Western democracy, any one of Erdoğan's failings would have led him to resign. The obvious conclusion is that Turkey is not a Western democracy. Its political system is based on a constitution left over from the 1981 military coup.

That leaves us with a dilemma: until there is constitutional reform, there will not be a democratic government, and until there is a democratic government, there will not be constitutional reform. Perhaps instead of hoping for salvation from the ballot box, we should look to the energy of the Gezi Park protests as the catalyst for a new kind of social change.

Joshua Allen has been living in Turkey for about two years, and works for Today’s Zaman, the country’s leading English-language daily.