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.