Surprised AKP Is Still Strong? Don't Be

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately among the international commentariat about AKP's prospects for a strong performance in the upcoming (30 March) local elections, which, despite a corruption scandal that is breathtaking in both its scope and cravenness, appear only slightly diminished. How, they howl (with no small amount of condescension), could Turkish voters still support* such a corrupt party?

I don't find it surprising at all. Here's why.

First, voters vote according to their self-interest, period. Their self-interest includes issues that affect them personally in their everyday lives: education for their children, jobs that provide a decent wage, good health care when they're sick, safe and healthy neighborhoods in which to live. Like it or not, many Turks are going to respond to a version of Ronald Reagan's famous question "are you better off than you were before AKP took power?" with "evet." AKP knows this and campaigns accordingly.

Voters do not vote according principles or abstractions. In Turkey, these include democracy, freedom of speech (including the internet), laicity, jailed journalists, international affairs, the EU or any number of non-salient issues that opposition parties here focus on to their detriment. These issues appeal to opinion leaders and the elite, not regular voters.

Second, there has to be an alternative. It is extremely difficult to oust an incumbent party, even one with as many negatives as AKP. A new party must not only convince voters there's a problem with the incumbent, it must convince them it is qualified to take over. It's expensive, time consuming and requires message-driven campaigning to both introduce a party to voters and convince them it's worthy of their support. For a variety of reasons, there is no emerging political force in the Turkish political environment right now, so take that option off the table.

The job is even harder for a party like CHP with which voters are already familiar. Not only must CHP convince voters that there's a problem with the incumbent and that it's qualified to take over, it has to overcome the negative perceptions it has worked so assiduously to build over the last 75 years. Tossing out an incumbent party is very hard for a well-known party with sharp messaging, a ton of money, a lot of time and generally positive perceptions. I'm going to go out on a limb and say CHP lacks those resources.

In short, disaffected AKP voters have to have somewhere to go. There isn't anywhere.

But what about this corruption scandal? It probably would take down governments in other countries. But corruption is a funny issue. Most voters assume politicians are corrupt and shrug it off, especially if they are otherwise pretty satisfied with a government's performance and the corruption doesn't affect them personally. "He may be a snake, but he's our snake," is a famous quote about Willie Brown, one of California's most spectacularly corrupt (and effective) lifetime politicians. Voters are very forgiving of corrupt parties that deliver (and not at all forgiving of corrupt parties that don't. Ask Viktor Yanukovych).

Should one of AKP's opponents effectively make the case to voters that this corruption scandal hurts the economy, makes it more difficult for them to educate their children or hobbles their favorite football team, they'd probably get traction. Instead, all I see is stupid marches at which people throw fake Euros into the air. That's not message; that's litter.

 

*I have no data. Like everyone else, I assume that the scandal, so far, has had a small impact on the party's level of support. Maybe that's wrong, but let's follow the crowd.

Stop Reporting the Bilgi Poll!

Like many of you, I have visited Gezi Park over the last few days. While walking around, I noticed that a lot of the protesters are young and they seem new to the business of protesting. They had strongly held views on a lot of topics but are not overtly political.

My observation is about as scientifically valid as the poll released by Bilgi University earlier this week. I'm not going to repeat the findings. That so many respected journalists are citing and retweeting it without mentioning (or probably even looking to see) that, according to the exceedingly vague methodology statement, it's a 20 hour online survey of 3000 people, is vexing. I'm going to assume (probably incorrectly, but I'm struggling to be generous) that there's more information about the methodology in the Turkish, but when I saw the word "online" that's when I clicked "close tab."

Polling 101: Online surveys are representative of nothing except the universe of people who 1) knew about it, 2) had internet access during the 20 hours it was open, 3) felt like responding.  Participants were not randomly selected; they choose to participate, which makes them different at least one way from those who did not. It's called selection bias.

Even worse, it appears that a lot of folks are repeating data from the poll because "it seems to make sense." That's confirmation bias, which is also sloppy.

If you really have to cite that poll, I suggest phrasing it thusly, "According to a worthless online survey of Gezi Park protesters publicly released by Bilgi University, which you'd think, as an academic institution would know better......"

There are ways to randomly select a sample of protesters and find out more about their demographics and attitudes. It's time consuming and expensive, like good research usually is. Wait until someone does that, then report it.

I have something to say approximately every four years. I'm like a pollster cicada.

Why Facebook Hurts Democratic Movements

There are lots of things about Facebook that annoy me (mostly how it went from being a useful way to find out what your coolest friends were doing, listening to or reading to becoming an echo chamber of your most annoying friends' scores on idiotic quizzes, but that's a different blog post on a different blog) but the thing that bothers me most these days is all the groups and petitions devoted to "supporting" various democratic movements.

Moldova introduced itself to hundreds of thousand clicktivists earlier this year. Then there was Iran. (The online response to China's cracking some Uighur skull has been, at best, muted, at least in my network. I suspect it's because there aren't as many hot girls involved). The most recent example comes from Baku, where two Azeri youth activists were beaten up by sportsmenki and tossed in jail for doing little more than having dinner at a downtown Baku restaurant.

Since this happened, I have been invited to no fewer than six groups that express support for them, but have not joined one. I feel bad about this, but the only things less effective than Azeri youth activists are the Facebook groups set up to "draw international attention" to their situation. (Harsh? I know from Azeri youth activists).  Furthermore, they fail to achieve even that amorphous goal: the tepid support most of the groups receive does little but illustrate what is already screamingly obvious -- very few outside Azerbaijan care what goes on there.  And after generating all the international attention, then what?

Like Twitter, Facebook democracy support groups bug me for several reasons.

First, Facebook groups prolong the illusion held by many in opposition movements in the Former Soviet Union that democratic change can come from anywhere but inside the country.  One of the Azeri opposition's favorite strategies for achieving power was writing lots of letters to foreign leaders, taking expensive junkets to Brussels and beseeching visiting OSCE diplomats plaintively. Really, who can blame them for wanting to spend more time in Vienna than Yevlax? However, challenging despots requires hard, risky groundwork, convincing skeptical voters in your own country that you're responsible enough to be trusted with the reins of power and that it's worth the risk to join you.

Second, it prolongs the illusion that organizing is as easy as clicking a button. It's a lot more fun to organize several thousand Europeans and Americans to support your "cause" than it is to mobilize IDPs still living in train cars 14 years after the oil-rich country lost a war. It's a lot easier to broadcast a Twitter to the universe than it is to go out and talk to people in Lenkoran who don't have electricity, much less internet, face to face.

Third, it diminishes the stakes. If people in Azerbaijan truly want to boot the kleptocrats (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest most don't), they have to join civil society organizations or political parties or labor unions that oppose the government. They have to volunteer to monitor elections. As a result, jobs will be lost, university places sacrificed, nights spent in jail and heads cracked. The idea that it can be done any other way is an insult to the people who have tried and succeeded (or, tried and failed).

The situation in Azerbaijan right now is terrible. It was terrible before Facebook and will continue to be terrible long after Facebook joins Friendster and MySpace in the dust-bin of social networking history. If you're going to click, click on something like Daily Puppy or your favorite porn site. It will have about as much impact on Azerbaijan.

Memo From a Failed Revolutionary

Shout out to the five people who still read this blog who aren't related to me. I noticed that the last post I started to write and didn't finish was about this same topic: colored revolutions. After exhausting myself on Twitter and Facebook responding to others' comments - both insightful and ridiculous -- about what's happening in Iran right now, I figured it was time to write a coherent analysis using this regretfully neglected blog.

While I am no expert in Iran, I do have more experience with failed and successful "colored revolutions" than I care to remember and I am a pollster by trade and temperament. Besides, I get irate when I read blogs like Andrew Sullivan's, overflowing with gloppy idealism about democracy and freedom.  This is serious stuff and if the Iranians were serious about regime change, they should have been more organized about it. Successful democratic transitions are not spontaneous; they are planned and this one was clearly not planned. Spontaneous demonstrations of public outrage are heartwarming to people watching from a distance who love to see purple fingers and green banners and big chanting crowds, but under dictatorships like Iran's, the stakes for ordinary people are incredibly high. People die and lives are ruined.

Let me start by saying I do think there was fraud. But, just because one side stole votes doesn't mean the other side won. The important question is was the scale of fraud big enough to alter the outcome? In the absence of an exit poll or PVT or a mission of independent domestic or international monitors documenting, quantifying and reporting violations, we may never know for sure. There's plenty of speculation -- some of it BS, some of it plausible -- but I think the strongest arguments for fraud are that Mousavi underperformed in the Azeri (he's an ethnic Azeri) part of the country (as well as other geographic anomalies)and the speed at which the count was reported. But neither of those can tell us that XX% of the vote was likely stolen, which is the critical data point we lack. If there was a PVT or exit poll (why those may or may not have been appropriate tools for the Iranian case are fodder for another post, but it doesn't matter. The regime would never have allowed them anyway) we would know. Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data. (super post about this topic here!)

By quantifying fraud, observers' reports and exits polls provide the foundation for protesting stolen elections. If there are credible exit polls or observers' reports, there can be a communications strategy to tell people about how many votes were stolen where; a legal strategy to flood the courts with evidence of violations (even if it's pointless, it contrasts the opposition's commitment to rule of law with the intransigence of the authorities); an organizing strategy to coordinate and channel public reaction (and prevent counterproductive violence); and, a political strategy to persuade security and political forces to switch sides and not shoot people. It's as simple as that. If the Iranians had any of these strategies in place, I might change my mind about the prospects for a transition.

Iran is different in other ways from other countries that have had democratic transitions. Ahmadinejad has a substantial and enthusiastic rural, lower class constituency. He is not Shevardnadze in Georgia, whose regime was rotten to the core, or the murdering Kuchma/Yanukovich regime which began to offend even the Russian-leaning east in Ukraine. I believe the Terror Free Tomorrow poll  (why is also fodder for another post) that states he was ahead a month before the election. If they were to release the crosstabs on who was undecided, it would be pretty easy to predict how those undecideds might vote on election day (especially since they interviewed all adults and not just likely voters). That would give us more evidence that the election was probably close, but no real insight on who actually won. They did point out that the only subgroup where Mousavi led was among the youngest. This dynamic was unlikely to have shifted much in the final month.

And yes, Twitter is 1000 kinds of awesome. Everyone agrees. All of us armchair revolutionaries can feel like we have a dog in the fight and read all kinds of unfiltered and probably wrong reports from the front lines, which is incredibly important. I am not going to diminish the importance of it being the only way information is getting out of the country right now, but I also want to point out that it is absolutely useless for getting information to people who are actually in the country (anyone have any numbers yet on the number of Twitterers in Iran? Maybe someone can look into that before we have Moldova all over again). Where are the 67% of Iranians who do not have access to the internet getting their news? What about the 90% who have never heard of Twitter? (I made that number up, but I suspect I am being generous). The Orange Revolution was pushed along when Channel Five (a BROADCAST station, which means "accessible to everyone") decided to stop telling the regime's lies. When the BROADCAST channels in Iran start to do that, I might change my mind about the prospects for regime change.

All this talk about this being the next Twitter/FB revolution strengthens my perception that this is an urban elite movement. Having a million people on the streets of Tehran, a city of 14 million in a country of 80 million, doesn't impress me much. Ukrainians had 500,000 in a city of 3 million. Urban elite everywhere tend to be completely out of touch with the views of anyone who doesn't live in their area code. Ask Misha Saakashvili if he's concerned about the Georgian opposition, which is almost entirely made up of urban elite. He knows he's ok with the folks in Kutaisi. When I start seeing reports about massive protests in Shiraz or Tabriz, I may change my mind.

And let's talk a bit about violence. There's a reason why people were so inspired by the Ukrainians and the Georgians: their revolutions were non-violent and utilized tools of civil disobedience and old-fashioned political organizing. There were plenty of times when things could have gone either way, but because the Ukrainians had a strategy and were organized, they were able to maintain discipline and keep angry people from setting fires and throwing rocks and behaving like thugs.  By seizing the moral high ground and eschewing violence, they encouraged ordinary, non-activist Ukrainians to camp out with them on Maidan in the freezing weather and made it harder for police to shoot unarmed people. It's hard to imagine the protesters in Tehran are going to persuade ordinary, non-activist people who may be on the fence about this whole issue or who support the protesters but are afraid of violence, to join them. It will never become a truly mass movement until that happens. When it does, I'll change my mind.

My single achievement in Azerbaijan in the 2005 parliamentary election was helping to organize the opposition movement to such a degree that they were able to prevent their people from responding to a stolen election with violence and getting people killed, as happened in 2003. The final post-election rally was brutally dispersed and the protests effectively ended, but the violence was on the part of the police, not the protesters, and no one died. We take our solace where we can. We can talk about all the reasons the opposition in Azerbaijan failed later.

And can we please abandon the narrative that the US or Obama has influenced this election, the Lebanese election on June 7 or any other? It's ignorant, narcissistic and diminishes the importance of the actions of people who actually live in these places. You mean to tell me that Joe Biden's pre-election stopover in Beirut had more of an impact on the Lebanese elections than the Maronite Patriarch guilting people into voting against Aoun? Are you for serious?  Accordingly, little the US did precipitated the Orange Revolution. The Ukrainians did it. Also, it's plausible that political change *might* happen in Iran, even without the presence of NDI, IRI and all the other beltway bandits charged with democracy promotion by USAID. All these arguments do demonstrate is that US arrogance has nothing to do with which party is in power.

Anyway, even if nothing happens and the protesters go home to nurse their wounds and try to spring their comrades from jail, what this election shows is huge split in Iran between urban and rural, educated and non, young and old, none of which is either terribly surprising or unusual in a country of its size and demographic profile. Maybe before the next election, young activists will study the lessons learned by folks in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Lebanon and even Azerbaijan, about how to plan a revolution.

The Azerbaijan Presidential Election Doesn't Matter, But..

I doubt anyone reads this blog anymore and it's my fault. I really should be posting on the Azerbaijan Presidential election because there are few people there who were there in 2005 (just as there were few there in 2005 who lived through 2003) and who can interpret the spin that will emerge from both the USG and GovAZ. On the other hand, the election matters not one bit and what anyone has to say about it matters even less. There are forces at work in that country greater than any of us.

Anyway, the Committee to Protect Journalists put out an excellent report on the murder of Elmar Huseynov, which happened while I was there.  This article brings back lots of bad memories of all the ridiculous things that were happening at that time, things about which I knew a great deal but was restricted from talking about publicly.

I'm sure the "obsevers" in town for the "election" will put together a thorough report that demonstrates how much better this election was than the last one (that was our strategic objective in 2005, as well).  Everyone will point out how weak the opposition is and that Aliyev would have won anyway and that he's the best bet for regional stability. Then, when Aliyev does something insane (a la Saakashvili, and it doesn't take much imagination to come up with insane moves he might consider), or is overthrown by a gang of competing kleptocrats, because U.S. "democracy support" programs in the Caucusus favor personalities over institutions, everyone will panic.

I have a lot of things to say on this topic. Maybe when I am out of Saudi Arabia, I'll revitalize this blog.

Turkey's Maturing Politics

Other blogs can bring you up to speed on the competing conspiracies that make it exceedingly unpleasant to talk to Turks about politics this summer. However, two recent insightful articles help shine some light on the current political situation here. They help support my theory that shutting down AKP may be the best thing to happen to Turkey, but not for the reasons you might think.

The first, and best, is the Economist's overview, Flags, Veils and Sharia. It cuts through the bullshit promoted by both sides in an attempt to get at how Islamist the country really is. The vague headline of a Guardian article written by Fadi Hakura, Turkey Turns West, does little to illuminate his argument that the turmoil in the country might be a sign of political maturity rather than impending doom.

Whether or not you believe the constitutional court will ban Turkey's ruling party (AKP) in early August (safe money says it will; though I believe that there's a chance a deal will be cut at the last minute), both articles touch on two very important points that tend to get overlooked in this overheated debate: First, AKP got in this mess because it misread its mandate and overstepped political boundaries. Second, this may be the best opportunity yet for a genuine opposition to emerge and check AKP's power.

First, AKP has enjoyed genuine public support. It won 47% in the July 2007 Parliamentary election. (The argument promoted by anti-AKP partisans is that it doesn't enjoy majority support is a ridiculous red herring. I'd like them to point to a ruling party in a European parliamentary system that has achieved majority support. Since when has majority support been a prerequisite for political legitimacy in a multiparty democracy anyway? Since never). AKP emerged from the 2007 elections with a mandate. However, as parties with weak opposition tend to do, it completely overplayed its hand.  The Economist writes:

Had Mr Erdogan made an effort to reach out to secular Turks, “we might not be where we are today,” concedes a senior AKP official. He missed several chances. The first came last autumn when the AKP was trying to patch together a new constitution to replace the one written by the generals in the 1980s. Mr Erdogan never bothered to consult his secular opponents. He ignored them again when passing his law to let girls wear headscarves at universities. Critics say that his big election win turned his head. “Erdogan accepts no advice and no criticism,” whispers an AKP deputy. “He’s become a tyrant.”

In its early years, AKP succeeded because it did what smart political parties everywhere do: it built a base by focusing on bread and butter issues -- economic development, anti-corruption, unemployment, inflation-- that topped Turks' list of concerns. By doing so, it temporarily shelved the secularist/Islamist debate that has been simmering below the surface since it took power. When the party took its eye off the ball this spring and clumsily removed the ban on headscarves  in universities -- an issue far, far down Turks' list of concerns but important to AKP's religious constituencies -- its public support dropped accordingly (according to polls I haven't seen but it stands to reason) and, in a very Turkish twist, it found itself fighting for its survival in the courts. This was a serious miscalculation and the party is paying a high price.

The critical test for AKP (should it survive the legal challenge) or its inheritors (if it doesn't), is whether it learns from this misstep. AKP was born when its predecessor, the Welfare party, was banned in the late 90s for Islamist leanings. AKP emerged as a savvy, message-driven (by regional standards) party that learned that you win elections by paying attention to voters' top concerns. Local elections are scheduled for early 2009. If AKP survives, Turkish voters have the chance to weigh in and remind the party that if Turks wanted Islamists in power, they could have voted for Saadet (which they didn't).

Lesson one: In mature democracies, parties that misread public attitudes are held accountable (though I wish AKP could be punished at the ballot box, rather than in the courts).

The second important consideration that the Guardian piece briefly touches on is the impotence of AKP's opposition. I don't have the privilege of voting in Turkish elections, but if I did, I'm not sure who I'd vote for.  I'm not convinced that AKP will protect the rights of the non-believing minority, especially women.  Unfortunately, there is absolutely no other political force -- especially the incompetent, corrupt CHP -- that I would trust to look out for my interests. The lack of viable alternative  contributes to the hysterical insecurity of Turkey's secular urban elite. I'd be hysterical too if the only person representing my political interests was Deniz Baykal.

Fadi Hakura writes:

Recent opinion polls indicate plummeting popular support not only for the AKP but for all the major parties. The percentage of undecided voters has risen fivefold since January. The polls also show the AKP and the secularists are blamed equally for the political mess. Forty-five per cent of Turks - a figure rising fast - want new political structures. An electoral earthquake could be in the offing.

Rumblings can be heard from liberal-minded, secular-leaning politicians who wish to build coalitions of right and left, are comfortable with individual choice about headscarfs or alcohol, and are protagonists of radical reforms.

Further proof of these dramatic changes can be found in the unprecedented silence of the military throughout the court case. During past crises, the "guardians of secularism" were always to the fore, but not this time. Sensing that Turkey is fast becoming a diverse society, the military is attempting to adapt. Turkey is increasingly peppered with capitalist-friendly conservatives, liberal secularists and moderate nationalists, all of whom are at odds with the one-size-fits-all state system.

It remains to be seen whether the military really is adapting to an increasingly diverse society (there's plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise). Hakura is right, however, about the new space opening up for political parties that genuinely represent the contours of Turkish public opinion, rather than the artificial secularist versus Islamist construction we have now. I would love to see the data on which he bases this assumption.

Even a casual observer can tell Turkey's political landscape is too complicated to be neatly sewn up by two political parties. Where do pro-western secularists turn? Nationalist/statist Islamists? Old school socialists? Soros-funded provacateurs? Greens? Surely there's room for new parties and smart young leaders to emerge from the unwieldy bloc that was AKP.  A more capable political force representing Turkey's minority secularists might do more than anything to temper AKP and increase secularists' political confidence, even as the disproportionate political and economic power they've enjoyed for 70 years slips through their fingers.

In the end, it may be that the disbanding of AKP may be the best thing that can happen to Turkish politics, but not because it puts a lid on the creeping Islamism secularists see around every corner. A ban issued by a constitutional court is a bit harsh and hard for western liberals to stomach, but this undemocratic tool may, in the end, increase political accountability and pluralism in Turkey.*

*Worst possible outcome? AKP cuts a deal to save its ass, emerges from the court case with few challengers and its leadership punishes rank and file members who considered a post-AKP political life. That would be bad.