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Understanding the Turkish election result

By our local correspondent
Now that the dust has settled we can begin to evaluate the significance of the Turkish elections which may have come as a surprise to outside observers. The first thing to note was the extremely high turnout ? more than 86% voted in these elections for town mayors, councils and district representatives, far higher than in most countries for such local contests. The first reason for this record level of participation was the rising level of political tension in Turkey that was sparked off by the brutal government treatment of last summer?s environmental protests in and around Istanbul?s Gezi Park, protests that rapidly spread across the country (for more details see our articles Talking Turkey and Turkish Spring or Turkish Geyser). This massive protest movement and the government?s violent reaction to it showed the increasingly authoritarian face of the ruling party and its leader, Tayip Erdogan.

A few months later we saw the breaking out of a split within the previously united Islamic movement with the Government accusing the Fetulah Gulen movement of creating a parallel state. This was followed quickly with the eruption of a massive corruption scandal that erupted last December (see our article A Turkish can of worms). Undoubtedly, the supporters of the Gulen movement helped in exposing the affair which led to the resignation of four government ministers. Initially, the scandal came to public knowledge with the sudden arrest of the sons of some leading cabinet ministers along with businessmen and various government officials. Apparently this was the culmination of a year-long secret investigation by the police including listening to the phones of the suspects as they arranged commercial deals with local and central government insiders. When the police raided the homes of the accused among other things they discovered millions of dollars stored in shoe boxes in the home of the manager of a state bank, while in the Ministers? son?s apartments there were cash counting machines and numerous safes.

A second list of suspects including the son of the Prime Minister were also due to be arrested. At this point the Prime Minister?s office intervened and suspended the police chiefs and prosecutors involved in the anti-corruption operation. In the following weeks hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police officers, including some of the most senior operational officers, were removed from their posts, and most of the suspects released.

Not surprisingly, this exposure of wide-scale corruption only to be immediately followed by such an obvious cover-up, caused an uproar among large sections of the public. The opposition parties seized on these events with glee calling the government a bunch of thieves and gangsters with the Prime Minister acting more like a mafia godfather than the elected guardian of the country?s welfare. The added fact that the families of the government ministers were deeply involved in the wrongdoing raised the stakes and added fuel to the fire on all sides.

However, the government?s closing down of the anti-corruption operations has not stemmed the flow of revelations which have included the release through social media of a stream of recordings of damning telephone conversations involving the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayip Erdogan, his family and fellow officials. If the telephone conversations are to be believed the scale of the corruption is much bigger than most people expected, running into the tens of billions of dollars and affecting almost all areas of government. Perhaps the worst example was a series of increasingly frantic recordings of the Prime Minister as he urges his son to move large quantities of cash from the various properties owned by the family, a removal job that is alleged to have involved a string of armoured trucks.

The latest leaked telephone conversation involved the Turkish Foreign Minister and the head of the country?s intelligence agency in which they appear to be plotting a covert operation in which Turkish special forces pretending to be the Syrian military would attack Turkey to provide a pretext for Turkey to invade Syria with NATO support.
The government tried to deny the accuracy of the leaked phone calls, running an elaborate media campaign to convince the public that the recordings were fabricated. Unfortunately, they have had to admit that some of the recordings were accurate which tends to lend authenticity to the rest. Their next response was to ban Twitter and then Youtube in order to prevent further leaks coming out in the run up to the local elections. Clearly the AK Parti government was rattled and feared that the elections would produce major losses.

With this sensational and tense background it was not surprising that most Turks turned out to vote in the local elections, turning it into more of a referendum on the government rather than on the performance of their local authorities.

The exact result of the election is still disputed but the trend shows that there was a 4.5-6.5% fall in the governing party?s support compared to the last elections in June 2011, in which its vote share was 49.8 percent. In absolute terms, the AKP has lost more than 2 million electors. But this a far better result than many observers expected and demonstrates that the ruling Party is still by far the most popular party in Turkey. And given the first past the post system used in Turkey?s local election system, their 43+% vote was enough for the governing party to see their mayors elected in most parts of the country. The notable exception was in the south east which was mostly won by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party.

Continuing Popularity

The obvious question in the minds of most foreign observers is to wonder how in spite of widespread street protests and the exposure of massive corruption, that the AK Parti can remain so popular with large sections of the Turkish population.

The first and most important factor has been the relative success of the Turkish economy in the last ten years. In contrast with the weak and crisis-prone state of the economy since the 1970s, the last decade has seen a huge and continuing expansion of activity with rates of growth sometimes equalling that of China. As a result Turkey has now become the 16th largest economy in the world passing by long-established advanced economies like Holland, Sweden and Austria. Turkey is now a major force in construction and logistics and one of the world’s leading producers of agricultural products, textiles, motor vehicles, ships, construction materials, consumer electronics, home appliances and so on. This expansion can also be seen in its national output per head of population which has tripled from $3,492 in 2002 to $10,497 in 2012.

This unprecedented economic growth came directly from the neo-liberalisation of the economy. This occurred in response to the financial collapse of 2001 which brought mass unemployment and a major fall in living standards for ordinary Turks. Previously, Turkey had received very little outside investment. Its decision to open itself up for international exploitation and the adoption of legal and financial arrangements to facilitate this opened the way to a major rise of foreign investment. This investment was able to take advantage of a working class who had been forced by the crisis to work considerably longer hours for much lower incomes.

Since then average income has risen rapidly but as is usual in the neo-liberal model the rich have taken a large share of the increase. According to recent statistics Turkey is now the third most unequal country among the 33 member states of the OECD, only ranking below Chile and Mexico. Nevertheless, household incomes for working people have risen significantly and most importantly work for the majority has been regular enough to accumulate household equipment, buy enough clothing etc.

On top of this, the ruling party, in common with some other Islamic-based governments, has a commitment to distribute part of the government?s income back to the poor through a variety of social programmes. This has meant that at the same time as most of the advanced countries have been cutting back their welfare states Turkey has been increasing its own. Thus free health services via health insurance has increased from 71% of the population in 2003 to 99% in 2011, alongside a major hospital building programme and increases in medical staff. Similarly, education has been expanded with 1.5 million students being added to the secondary school system and the number of years of compulsory education raised from 8 to 12 years.

More controversial has been the distribution of free food, coal, detergent and other basic items to the poorest sections of the population which the ruling party has undoubtedly used to bolster its voting constituency. The governing party has also used its control of public sector employment to distribute local and central government jobs and services to its own people. All this has helped it to build a party ?membership? of five million which is far more than is normal for party memberships elsewhere. Clearly, such a ?for favours? operation on this level is very expensive and partly explains the sheer scale of the corruption being carried out. It seems that anything up to 20% is demanded for most central and local government contracts as a form of tax that can be redistributed via the pockets of the favoured elite who take their cut and then down through the regime?s religious foundations to its millions of registered followers. Through this the governing party has built a large and solid core of support among the population especially among the poor who see this administration as ?their? government.

Added to this is the religious dimension. The Ak Parti has successfully exploited Islam to mobilise and hold onto a cross-class layer of followers. Among other things it has expanded religious educational institutions, relaxed the official ban on the headscarf and introduced limited restrictions on alcohol. In some cases these changes have been little more than tokens to keep its religious supporters happy while the ruling party gets on with its main activity ? making more money for its own leaders and the wealthy elite.

Last but not least, the ruling party is still benefiting from those progressive measures it has taken since coming to power in 2002. These have included supporting moves to reunite Cyprus, reducing tensions with Armenia, cutting back the political power of the army, and seeking to end the isolation of the Kurds. In the case of the latter this helps to explain why so many religious Kurds now vote solidly for the AK Parti.

Government Control of the Media

Another important factor in explaining how the ruling party has been able to shrug off the fallout from the last year?s protests and corruption scandal is its growing control of the mass media. Taking a leaf out of Putin?s playbook in Russia, the Turkish governing party has used not only its control of the state television channels but has engineered the takeover of the more popular private television channels and newspapers by sympathetic businessmen in return for government contracts. Thus the ruling party now has direct or indirect control of a majority of the media. As a result we have witnessed the sacking of hundreds of journalists who have been unwilling to act as mouthpieces of the government line or to please Prime Minister Erdogan. In effect, much of Turkey?s media is now subject to one-man rule. Things have got so bad that there are even cases where TV programmes have stopped mid-air without explanation after an angry phone call from the prime minister.

On the various phone recordings of politicians and businessmen discussing their corrupt deals, the government was able to use its control of many media outlets to peddle the incredible line that the recordings were fabricated. Many of its loyal followers swallowed this explanation whole while others responded more cynically by declaring that all the politicians are swindlers but at least with the AK Parti they get something back.

Undoubtedly, the social media that has grown up through the internet has provided an alternative channel of communication. But even here the government has striven to rein it in, recently temporarily banning Twitter and YouTube, for example. More worryingly, the government has rushed through a new law giving them power to close down websites at will.

Looking Ahead

The longer the AK Parti has been in power the more dictatorial its leader, Tayip Erdogan, has become. This process particularly accelerated after the dramatic events of 2007 when the army and the opposition tried to undemocratically bring down the government and failed. Undoubtedly, this recent electoral victory will temporarily reinforce Erdogan?s power and self-confidence, especially if the same success is repeated in this summer?s Presidential contest and next year?s parliamentary election. But history has demonstrated over and over again that the bigger rulers become the harder they fall.

Of course, as long as the ruling party is able to preside over a growing economy it is likely to be able remain relatively popular. In the increasingly competitive world of globalised capitalism there are some winners as well as many losers. For now Turkey is one of the winners. But this modern era of increasingly rampant and mobile capitalism is inherently unstable and crisis-ridden. The next world economic downturn may hit Turkey much harder than the last and the country could lose its attraction for foreign capital.

Meanwhile, the ever increasing gap between rich and poor will eventually undermine the faith of the poorest sections who now form the bedrock support of the regime.

Another major advantage of the current regime is the weakness of the mainstream opposition parties who are unable to present a convincing alternative. This is compounded by the lack of strength of the trade unions who have still not recovered from their suppression in the devastating military coup of 1980. Moreover, the socialist left are divided into scores of relatively small and marginalised factions unable to effectively connect with the progressive majority in the population and give voice to their aspirations. Making this worse is the electoral system in Turkey which is particularly weighted against smaller parties requiring them to gain 10% of the vote before entering parliament, and banning the formation of joint electoral platforms that might have been a way of bringing together representatives of the Left, the Kurds, the Alevis, progressive muslims, the trade unions and so on. But as we saw with the rise of the Islamic political party in Turkey in the 1990s, new powerful movements can arise and break through into prominence. However, this will require the emergence of a credible alternative to modern capitalism backed up by a united movement that connects with the mass of Turkish people.

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