Some argue it’s the little things that count most in life – and as I enjoy a leisurely Monday I feel a sense of gratitude towards whoever is responsible. Yesterday was Election Day in Turkey. Voters were getting a chance to reconsider the options five months after an earlier poll had produced an inconclusive result; followed by a day off to catch their breath, lick their wounds or celebrate, depending on how things had gone.
So I went for a bike ride along the Marmara coast, dropped into our local bakery for a couple of simits, and our next-door supermarket for a newspaper. Normally I just grab our paper of choice, pay and go – but today I lingered, letting my eyes run over the headlines screaming from the front pages of the multitude of brightly-coloured rags that daily deplete the nation’s forests, catering to every shade of political opinion and the average guy’s appetite for scantily clad young ladies.
‘Terror increased, our currency lost value, the votes went up . . . the sultanate continues!’ cried Sözcü, the one favoured by the government’s more vociferous opponents. Cumhuriyet, inclining more to the left-leaning intellectual, announced ‘A Victory for Fear.’ The folks at Sözcü, as is their wont, went on to speak of a social media frenzy accusing the AKP government of electoral jiggery-pokery, and quoted Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders as saying ‘any Turks in his country who voted for the dictator Erdoğan should go back and enjoy his Islamofascism’. Well, if that guy ever wins enough votes in Holland he may send them back, whoever they voted for. But were not discussing Dutch politics.
The English language edition of Zaman, generally acknowledged to be the mouthpiece of Fethullah Gülen’s Cemaat, contented itself with polling the opinions of the main opposition parties, whose only point of unanimity is blaming the government rather than their own limited vision. Most bitter, understandably, was Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the extreme nationalist party MHP. He started well, ‘noting that the MHP of course respects the nation’s choice’, before his magnanimity vanished in a declaration ‘that every vote cast for the AK Party will lead to more disasters for Turkey.’
A quick glance around foreign media suggested that most observers were ‘shocked’ by AKP’s ‘unexpected’ victory. The BBC echoed unknown informers who fear that ‘the political polarisation stoked by President Erdoğan could deepen and a clampdown on free speech worsen as the AK Party feels emboldened.’ CNN quoted a couple of Turks working for the Brookings Institute as sayng ‘What is certain is that distancing Turkey from the brink of a civil war will be one of the greatest challenges for the country’s next administration.’ The Guardian wrote balefully that ‘Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, tightened his grip on power’, referred ominously to ‘the conservative, Islamic-leaning AKP’ and predicted that ‘the result could exacerbate divisions in a country deeply polarised along both ethnic and sectarian lines’.
I couldn’t find any immediate response from The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times, usually quick to criticize Turkey and its government. Seems they have more on the minds with their own farcical presidential election, whose candidates haven’t even been selected yet.
As for my own New Zealand Herald, the folks back home are still too busy rejoicing over the national team’s victory in the final of the rugby union World Cup to care much about what’s going on in the rest of the world, although minor interest was apparently sparked by a naked woman having been spotted on the roof of an arts studio in East London.
So what do I think? I’m sure you’re dying to know. Well, briefly, first of all, no one should have been unduly surprised by the election result – unless they had been paying too much attention to the loud, inharmonious but largely ineffectual choir determined to demonise the AK Party government, and belittle their every achievement. Second, while Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdoğan, whose position under the constitution is largely ceremonial, will no doubt be very happy with the result, he was not actually a candidate for any office in this election. Third, as the more moderate daily Hürriyet said in its own Monday headline, ‘The Ballot-box decided.’ If Mr Erdoğan is a dictator, he clearly needs to take lessons from more qualified exponents of the art of rigging elections. Allowing his party to lose its parliamentary majority in June, and giving the country a second chance to vote in a free election where his party managed only 49.4% of the vote are unlikely to be recommended in ‘The Dictator’s Guide to Successful Autocracy’ – if such a book exists.
Interestingly, all sources agree that 87.3% of Turkey’s registered voters took the opportunity to express their opinion on Sunday – the highest number so far this century – and almost half of them voted for four more years of AK Party government. Well, admittedly that does leave half who wanted something else. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on exactly what they do want. At least Turkey’s proportional representation system allows for smaller parties to gain parliamentary representation, unlike the United States and the United Kingdom. Three other parties have a substantial minority presence in the legislature, including the predominantly Kurdish HDP.
For comparison, 58.2% of American voters turned out in the 2012 presidential election, of whom 51.1% voted for Barack Obama. To save you the trouble of reaching for your calculators, that means an approval rating of 29.7% in the only poll that actually counts for anything. The UK had a better turnout in their 2015 election with 66.1%, but only 39.6% voted for David Cameron’s Conservatives. In spite of that his party won 330 seats out of 650 and continued governing the country. So check the state of your own democracy, guys and girls.
Still, I know, you’ll say that doesn’t make the situation in Turkey right. Most Americans know their democracy stinks even if Brits still have some illusions about theirs. To understand why a large block of Turkish voters continue to support the AK party after 13 years, you need to have some knowledge of the country’s recent history and how its electoral system works.
Let’s start with the easier of the two, the electoral system. Turkey operates under a voting system that allocates parliamentary representation proportionally within each of its 81 electoral districts – to parties gaining 10% or more of votes cast. This threshold is arguably too high, but it was fixed under the constitution brought in after the military coup of 1981 with the intention of keeping out left wing parties. In the last three elections, supporters of the latter have got smart and tended to coalesce around the Kurdish cause, allowing the newly formed HDP to gain substantial representation. It is possibly worth noting that it is under AK Party governance that Kurdish ethnicity has gained respectability to the extent that this could happen.
In the 2002 election when the AK Party first swept into power, they actually won only 34% of the vote, but because the remainder were hopelessly divided amongst a host of other groups, only one of which, CHP, passed the threshold, they gained more seats than in any subsequent election. Is it a good system? Of course, that’s matter for debate, but it wasn’t set up by the AK Party – and you have to work within the system you’ve got.
Which brings me to another important point. A major argument put forward by opponents of proportional voting systems is their alleged instability, in that it is difficult for any one party to achieve outright victory. The most common result is coalition governments. Well, one could argue that compromise and cooperation may not be bad things in a democracy, but leave that aside. What we have seen in Turkey is a political party consistently winning, against the odds, enough support to govern alone in four elections.
For the explanation, we need to look at a little history. I can’t do better than quote from Wikipedia (a summary which has been extensively quoted elsewhere). For your convenience I have highlighted some key sentences:
‘Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey relied heavily on foreign investment for economic growth, with trade above 40% of GNP. The Turkish government and banking systems lacked the financial means to support meaningful economic growth. The government was already running enormous budget deficits, and one of the ways it managed to sustain these was by selling huge quantities of high-interest bonds to Turkish banks.
In March 1997 a coalition was formed between the Motherland Party’s Mesut Yılmaz and the True Path Party’s Tansu Çiller. The plan was for Yilmaz and Çiller to alternate the Prime Ministry. However, there was much public distraction caused by leader of the Welfare Party Necmettin Erbakan’s threats to investigate Ciller for corruption. Meanwhile, Erbakan, who had been excluded from the coalition, did everything he could to rally support for an Islamic NATO, and an Islamic version of the European Union.
The Motherland Coalition collapsed in part because of Erbakan’s widespread public support. Additional tensions wreaked havoc on the government. Yilmaz was forced to resign on June 6, 1996, with the government having lasted for only 90 days. Erbakan became Prime Minister on June 29 as the head of a Welfare/True Path coalition. The success of the new Welfare-Path Coalition was viewed with hostility by the military. Erbakan’s explicitly Islamist politicies resulted in a post-modern coup in which the military forced Erbakan to yield power to Demirel who yielded to Yilmaz on June 19, 1997. The political fighting between Yilmaz and Çiller on one side, and Erbakan on the other would continue, making coalitions difficult to create. In addition, corruption was rampant at this time. People were highly disillusioned with their government. This lack of faith and efficacy would cause foreign nations to carefully examine any investment in Turkey.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) team in 1996 warned of an impending financial crisis because of the deficit, which soon came into being. Turkey’s unstable political landscape led many foreign investors to divest from the country. As foreign investors observed the political turmoil and the government’s attempts to eliminate the budget deficit, they withdrew $70 billion worth of capital from the country in a matter of months. This left a vacuum of capital that Turkish banks were unable to alleviate because the government was no longer able to pay off its bonds. With no capital to speak of, the Turkish economy slowed dramatically.
In November 2000, the IMF provided Turkey with $11.4 billion in loans and Turkey sold many of its state-owned industries in an effort to balance the budget. In the case of Turkish Airlines, advertisements were placed in newspapers to attract offers for a 51% stake in the company. By 2000 there was massive unemployment, a lack of medicine, tight credit, slow production to fight inflation and increasing taxes.
On February 19, 2001, Prime Minister Ecevit emerged from a meeting with President Sezer saying, “This is a serious crisis.” This underscored financial and political instability and led to further panic in the markets. Stocks plummeted and the interest rate reached 3,000%. Large quantities of Turkish lira were exchanged for U.S. dollars or euros, causing the Turkish central bank to lose $5 billion of its reserves.
The crash triggered even more economic turmoil. In the first eight months of 2001, 14,875 jobs were lost, the dollar rose to 1,500,000 liras, and income inequality had risen from its already high level.
The crash was emblematic of the political and economic problems that had been wearing on Turkey for years. Confidence in the government had been eroded by corruption and the inability to form lasting coalitions. The stock market crash revealed Turkey’s economic situation to be not only extremely fragile but also entirely dependent on foreign investment.’
That’s pretty much how I remember it. In fact, at its lowest point, the Turkish Lira dropped to 1.7 million to the US dollar, making a mockery of claims that it is currently at a record low.
The AK Party was formed in 2001 by a group of people who believed they could do a better job of governing. The level of desperation in the country can be seen in the 2002 election result where a new and untested party was given a mandate to govern alone. AK actually has a double meaning in Turkish. The initials stand for Adalet ve Kalkınma (Justice and development) but together they spell the old Turkish word for ‘white’ – offering hope for relief from the black despair that had previously gripped much of the country. Another significant result of the 2002 poll was that all of the parties that had been in the national assembly were thrown out.
That’s a brief summary of why the AK Party was initially successful, and many still remember the bad old days of military coups, disappearances, political assassinations and police torture. What has happened since is an unprecedented period of political stability without military intervention, sustained economic growth, and increased credibility on the world stage. Not everyone is happy – but America’s own Abe Lincoln had something to say about that as I recall.
 As of 2014 the Brookings Institution had assets of $496 million. Its largest contributors include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Hutchins Family Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, David Rubenstein, State of Qatar, and John L. Thornton (Wikipedia)