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.

Turkey and the Dilemma of Democracy

Sargasso, a Dutch political and social blog, graciously invited me to participate in an online roundtable (in English) about Turkey's democratic future.

Each day for the next five days, participants will react to statements made by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, Turkish president Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Dutch documentary called 'Turkey - the Dilemma of Democracy' to be broadcast on Dutch television on October 8th.

For today's post, a wide selection of journalists, academics, rappers and bloggers all responded to a statement Prime Minister Erdogan made in Der Spiegel back in April.

"Is Europe a home for an alliance of civilizations or is it a Christian club?"

The roundtable is part of the Dutch democracy week WijZijnDeBaas (WeAreTheBoss) and is the Dutch contribution to the International Week for Democracy. More information here.

Stop by and join in the discussion. It's pretty civilized so far!

The New Turkic Empire

Turkey's former President Suleyman Demirel made a speech last week at the European Society of Asian Studies conference held at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. The Turkish Daily News ran a translated version of the speech entitled "Changing Central Asia in the New World Order."

Read more: The New Turkic Empire

Turkey, the EU and Public Opinion

I'm never surprised when data from non-EU countries come back showing low internal public support for EU membership. Too often, opinion leaders are far, far ahead of the electorate in terms of support for EU-accession. According to the recently Transatlantic Trends Survey released by the German Marshall Fund, 40% of Turks think that Turkey's membership in the EU would be a "good thing." Frankly, I'm surprised it's that high.

Read more: Turkey, the EU and Public Opinion

Turkish Political Campaigning Enters the 20th Century

Spending 80 million YTL in public funds for rallies, flags and posters? That's how the CHP, the leading secular party in Turkey, plans to allocate its resources this election, according to the Turkish Daily News.

It's hard to know where to start describing everything that's wrong with that approach. As a noted opponent of rallies and posters of party leadership as a political communications strategy, I hope they have simply decided to tell a reporter that they plan to do all these ineffective, wasteful activities, so they could keep their real plans under wraps. Why else would they reveal their strategy to a reporter?

Rallies do nothing but make your base feel good. They organize no one, they persuade no one and are huge drains of time and resources that could be better spent organizing and communicating with swing voters. If my party was in the low double digits, I might spend more time identifying messages that persuade people sitting on the fence to support me. Flags don't do that. Buttons don't do that.

I am not privy to the AKP's plan, but their political behavior, ranging from calling early elections to the banners "He's still got a lot of work to do" I see hanging around town, suggests they use strategic polling to guide their activities. That message is appropriate for an incumbent party that has concrete accomplishments to point to. It provides a concrete rationale for voters to stick with the incumbent. Turkish voters are no different than voters anywhere else in the world: they want to know what a party is going to do for them personally. AKP's message assumes that voters want more of what they've been doing.

Another TDN article describes what happened when a woman reporter approached different party branches inquiring about how to get involved in the campaign. It's less revealing about the parties' efforts to engage women than their general approach to organizing, period.