Turkey: The Development of Democracy?

After election results came out for the mayoral elections across Turkey late Monday night E was flabbergasted. How could how could Istanbul elites, how could Ankara educated, how could Antalya beachgoers vote for the pro-Islamic, proven-corrupt, increasingly dictatorial government in democratic elections? For those not familiar with Turkish politics, this would be akin to George W. Bush winning a third term after not just Halliburton and issues with Iraq, but also Watergate, a Lewinsky scandal, dismissing supreme court judges, meddling in army affairs, firing on protestors, and shutting down social media outlets across the country (click here for a short list). I mean, who would vote for this guy? To urban intellectuals and professionals, it doesn’t make sense – how does a party controlled and headed by a man like this get elected in a democratic contest?
But people did vote for them. The AKP (Erdogan’s party) won mayorship in almost every major city, sweeping the country with 44% of the vote. In some (eastern, conservative) cities, their share was over 60%. And the votes didn’t all come from illiterate, religious-conservative country bumpkins and recent internal immigrants from Eastern villages. And why? As one Istanbul resident interviewed by Al-Jazeera summed up her decision to vote for the AKP:

I’m going to vote for [Erdogan’s] AK Party. I can’t think of any better option than AKP. There isn’t any.
They built hospitals, roads and invested in the eastern region of Turkey, which was ignored before the AKP took over.
We are very pleased with AKP’s assistance on social issues. The country developed a lot under AKP rule… they inaugurated many hospitals and addressed health issues.
There is progress in education. Turkish people are enjoying more income now. You can see even the poorest ones using mobile phones worth $1,000.

The article below outlines it pretty well: delivery of promised economic development and structure, stability, pork-barelling (giving jobs to constituents who would then lose those government jobs if the AKP fell from power), and lack of real vision and leadership from the opposition:

What Do Local Election Results Whisper About Future Of Turkish Democracy – Analysis | Eurasia Review.

By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp
Local election results confirmed that Turkey is going through a belated, yet organic democratic transition. In absence of Turkish military’s looming shadow, the liberals and social democrats are learning to own the process rather than merely follow.

According to the unofficial results, the pro-Islamist AKP in Turkey has scored around 44% at the local elections that took place over the weekend. This could easily be interpreted as the beginning of a long decline after 12 years in government. Many among Turkey’s democratic opposition hoped for a clear defeat for the AKP. However the election results indicate that the decline will be much slower and painful. There are a number of reasons for the slow pace of political change in Turkey.
Lack of a viable alternative

Over the years, the AKP has managed to build a functioning social security infrastructure along with an efficient and mostly free healthcare system. The lower middle class Turks who try to make ends meet, naturally are scared of a change that they fear could threaten their meager benefits. Many find employment opportunities through patron-client networks in the city governments. In the possibility of a change of government, those who maintain such positions are scared of losing their jobs. Similarly the recent tape leaks about a corruption scandal including his son, Bilal Erdogan and Reza Sarrap, an Iranian businessman did not make any significant impact on the choices of the lower middle class masses in Turkey. Many either chose to ignore or simply not believe the graft allegations.

Promises of Stability and Pro-Sunni stance in Syria
Erdogan is a great manipulator; over the years he mastered the technique of public polarization to his benefit. In the wake of the Gezi protests Erdogan has managed to portray the Gezi protestors as vagabonds and consolidated his base with the promise of keeping the public order. Furthermore, the developments in Arab Spring countries – especially the instability in Syria and Erdogan’s tough pro-Sunni stance in the conflict – allowed him to receive support from the conservative voters in central Anatolia. Risk averse voters chose to gather around Erdogan against any looming uncertainty.

Future direction of Turkish Democracy
Local elections’ results are the start of a steady and long decline for the AKP. Compared to an earlier vote in 2011 where AKP received 50% of the general vote, there is a 6-7% drop in the overall votes. This is a considerable decline considering that Erdogan banned Twitter and Youtube and introduced strict control over the mass media. Still 56% of the general electorate voted against the AKP. This itself indicates the limits of authoritarianism in Turkey. Another outcome is that polarization politics are not a winner in Turkey. Risk averse voters prefer stability, but do not buy into polarization politics.

There is a growing disenchantment towards government institutions including the judiciary and official news agency. There was a great discrepancy between the results announced by the government controlled official Anadolu News Agency and Cihan News Agency, that is close to the Gulen movement. There was a lot of noise among twitter users on election results throughout the night, especially in the very tight race in Ankara and Istanbul. The activists protected the ballot boxes from police and other government officials in order to prevent election rigging. 56% of the population have lost their trust in state institutions. This is a clear crisis of political legitimacy. Next two years will be very critical for Turkish politics as Erdogan will prepare to run for presidency. AKP without Erdogan is bound to lose even more votes as the coalition of conservatives under the party banner will continue to crumble. It would, therefore, not be wrong to expect further turmoil in Turkey.

Consolidation of the Kurdish Vote
Kurds also consolidated their votes in the eastern and southeastern provinces. This region has developed into a powerhouse for a pro-autonomy Kurdish political movement. The southeast provinces of Turkey operate in their own political reality. It should not be surprise to anyone if the Kurdish political movement pushes for autonomy more vocally in the coming two years. This of course will very much depend on the continuation of the peace talks.

Overall, local election results confirmed that Turkey is going through a belated, yet organic democratic transition. The AKP government will continue to step up its authoritarianism while the civic opposition will continue organizing across different urban areas. In absence of Turkish military’s looming shadow, the liberals and social democrats are learning to own the process rather than merely follow.

Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp is a scholar and practitioner of international conflict, human rights, development and democratization. He has a PhD from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University, and currently works as a Professorial Lecturer at the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program of the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington, DC.

And, of course, there are still claims that the election results were imperfect, or may have been tampered with (which would have swung the balance in the opposition’s favor in Ankara):


2 thoughts on “Turkey: The Development of Democracy?

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around Turkey’s elections and Erdoğan’s influence, especially after the Gezi Park protests last summer. Your post cleared up a lot of things!

    Really enjoyed browsing your blog. Hope to see more in the Turkish/Russian pages above. Cyrillic is hard.


    • I’m glad you found it useful! It’s still a confusing election (especially as the results in some cities are still contested).
      I will be posting more in the Turkish and Russian pages once I get (re)settled into Bishkek – but, fear not, Cyrillic isn’t that hard! It took me about 2-3 to learn it and, even before I knew much Russian, really helped when traveling around due to all the cognates.


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