politics : culture : economics

After Turkey’s referendum: how serious are the AKP’s opponents?

In Constitution, Turkey on September 14, 2010 at 12:35 am

Another visit to the polls, another comfortable victory for the Justice and Development Party (AKP). It won’t have escaped anyone paying even casual attention to Turkish politics that a pattern has emerged over the past eight years. The AKP wins. It is adept at the business of accumulating votes and it consistently punches above its weight. This raises a number of questions about the opposition. In particular, why haven’t policies and tactics developed to meet the AKP challenge more effectively? That’s a question I’ll return to in a subsequent post. But to use a cruder metric for the moment, why hasn’t fundraising and political spending risen on the back of the visceral antipathy that is so clearly felt towards the AKP by many people in Turkey?

Here’s a hypothesis to bounce around. When it comes down to it, many of the AKP’s opponents (parties and voters alike) still lack the seriousness of purpose that will be required if they really want to make inroads into the AKP’s developing dominance at the polls. They don’t like the AKP. But they don’t dislike them enough to spend the time, energy and money that will be required to oust them.

Let’s not dwell too long on the referendum’s most obvious instance of a lack of seriousness of purpose. Yes, it was a woeful failure for Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and his handlers to allow a situation to develop in which he wasn’t able to cast his vote. That initial error was made much, much worse by the lack of anything resembling an effort at damage limitation once polls had closed. There is every likelihood that Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s gaffe will haunt him in the months ahead. (It spins itself: “If he can’t get it together to cast a vote, how can he possibly hope to run a country as large and complicated as Turkey?”) But let’s not be over-hasty. Mr Kılıçdaroğlu inherited a more-or-less unwinnable referendum and he campaigned himself into the ground throughout the summer. His tour of the country should stand to him at the next election. His non-vote may have been an unmitigated disaster, but worse still both for his party and for the country would be the chaos of another leadership change.

But let’s leave Mr Kılıçdaroğlu to one side. Of greater significance is a more generalised lack of seriousness in opposition politics in Turkey—a failure by too many of the AKP’s opponents to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to the process of trying to win elections. There are many individual exceptions, of course. But broadly speaking it would seem to be the case that not enough people on the opposition side are giving of their time, their expertise or even just their money to advance the political arguments they support. You can argue that a similar political disengagement is evident in most democracies. But Turkey isn’t most democracies. The opposition here often expresses its political predicament in the starkest of terms as a fight to halt the country’s drift into an Islamist morass from which escape may be difficult. One would have thought that a prospect like that would provide a greater motivational spur than seems, in fact, to have been the case.

Take the fundraising gap. This was clearly in evidence again during the referendum campaign. Notwithstanding the CHP’s marathon tour around the country, the ‘yes’ campaign was more visible and more varied than its ‘no’ equivalent. This was particularly the case with key high-visibility messages provided on billboards, banners, vans and so on. (No doubt the parties’ referendum booklets were of minimal significance in terms of swaying voters, but it’s of interest all the same to note that whereas the CHP’s stretched to just eight pages, the AKP’s totalled 98.) This gap in the visibility of the two campaigns is difficult to understand. You’d think it should be a factor of their relative financial clout, and yet by any conceivable measure the financial resources of the 42 per cent who voted ‘no’ on Sunday must comfortably outstrip the resources of the 58 per cent who voted ‘yes’.

This is what I mean about the opposition lacking seriousness of purpose. The ‘no’ vote had a financial advantage and yet it contrived to run the weaker campaign. Think about the implications of this in electoral terms. The ‘no’ block wasn’t even able to convince itself to roll in behind its own campaign. What hope then of convincing others to do the same? Which is, lest we forget, the objective of the democratic exercise.

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  1. […] After Turkey’s referendum: how serious are the AKP’s opponents? from istanbul notes by istanbulnotes […]

  2. I think a key thing here is that the opposition don’t produce the same fervour from their supporters that AKP does. The opposition could pull together but don’t. They complain endlessly but don’t suggest (or implement) any solutions (we’ll see what CHP say about headscarves soon). It’s not that they don’t take things seriously, I think they do, but they can’t convince anyone that they will really be better if they get into power.

    AKP manage to produce an extreme emotional reaction from all, either downright hatred or full-on admiration. And those admirers are more than willing to put their money where their mouth is and pay for billboards and meetings and so on which when combined with the party purse, snowballs into a major publicity campaign.

    The question is how can CHP pull off the same feat?

  3. “You’d think it should be a factor of their relative financial clout, and yet by any conceivable measure the financial resources of the 42 per cent who voted ‘no’ on Sunday must comfortably outstrip the resources of the 58 per cent who voted ‘yes’.”

    Why would you assume this to be the case? First of all, not everyone who voted ‘yes’ in the referendum is an AKP supporter. Secondly, many AKP supporters do have considerable resources.

    • Jim, I’d agree with both of the points you make, but I would still argue (admittedly without hard stats to back myself up) that the balance of financial resources in the country still tips in the favour of the ‘no’ block. A crude indication is provided by the regional distribution of ‘no’ votes, which to a large extent mirrors income distribution patterns.

      But even if I were to cede the point about the ‘no’ side’s resources “comfortably outstripping” the ‘yes’ side’s, I would still argue that it is incontrovertibly the case that the ‘no’ campaign underspent relative to the financial resources that it should, in theory, have been able to be draw upon. (I’m not suggesting here that all ‘no’ voters are wealthy. I think you’re right when you say, in other places, that the meaning of the word ‘elite’ gets stretched to breaking point when applied to Turkey’s ‘secular elite’. My point in this paragraph is the more limited one that there is enough money among enough ‘no’ voters to have financed a bigger campaign if coordination/fundraising/motivation/etc had been stronger.)

  4. Nice blog, by the way.

  5. Funding from individuals is probably insignificant. I don’t think wealthy businessmen would fund AKP’s opponents. It wouldn’t make sense to go against a strong party controlling both the central government and big municipalities unless there was a good chance of winning. (Assuming that AKP’s economic policies are disliked may be a mistake, anyway.)

    If anyone told me thay wanted to do volunteer work against the [perceived or real] threat of political Islam, I wouldn’t point them to the CHP but to organizations like CYDD and its variants. Election time, with all the nonsense it comes with, is probably the worst time to do meaningful work.

    There are other options too. If people don’t worry about the Islam bit and do want to work, why not go to Saadet and help them transform? They do, after all, have a party organization that works very well. For people who are left-leaning, in what sense is, say, Mehmet Bekaroglu a worse person for the (economic) center-left than Kilicdaroglu? He has a good track record on human rights too. (I am not an SP person, I’m just pointing out CHP is not an automatic choice.)

  6. An incomplete analysis when you exclude how AKP oppressed nearly every branch of state during its campaign from governors to tiny local village heads called muhtars.

    The officials had to send letters to state employees reminding (!) them to attend AKP-Erdogan events. Poor and mostly uneducated people with Medicaid (called green cards in Turkey) have also been threatened by official and unofficial AKP personnel to vote ‘Yes’ at the polls should they want to keep their state aids.

    Your analysis would be incomplete also it lacks the fact that most educated people voted ‘NO’ at the polls. Why do you think they are threatened, why do you think AKP can not be just explained from simple western analytical tools. What is the effect of Fethullah cult, especially in small town and villages of Anatolia?

    There are more to tell but I have gotta run.

    Nice blog btw, will try to visit more often.

    Cheers.

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