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.