What Recent Data Tell Us -- And Don't Tell Us -- About Turkey Right Now

Much of the discussion about the Turkish elections has centered around whether, by supporting the Islamist-leaning AKP, Turks are turning toward political Islam and away from the secularist tradition upon which the country was founded. As is usually the case, it's more complicated -- and simpler -- than that.

We've got access to three different sets of data -- the same data sets that anyone else can get their hands on. So let's see what public opinion can tell us about what's happening in Turkey right now.

First, let's start with the obvious: the election on July 22nd. AKP (referred to as Justice and Development Party in English), the ruling party, called early Parliamentary elections last month. It strengthened its hand by winning 47% of the vote, giving it 62% of the seats in Parliament-- more than enough to rule without troublesome coalition partners. CHP, the second party and the one generally referred to as the "secularist party" and "center-left," lost seats. The nationalist MHP picked up a few seats and remained a distant third.

Personally, I was not at all surprised at the result. I predicted AKP was playing on their opponents' side of the field and would come out stronger. There are a couple reasons for this:

  • All elections are referenda on the incumbent. AKP fumbled the Presidential candidate nomination process back in April, but voters rarely care about process. They care about results. AKP ran a classic, message-driven incumbent's campaign: judge us on our record --on economic growth, on judicial reform and on community improvement. All these are areas about which voters care a great deal and AKP had specifics to point to. "Continue on the same path" was AKP's slogan. Because the campaign messages supported the slogan, I think most Turks had a very clear idea of what that meant and cast their vote accordingly. The result: AKP has a mandate. While James in Turkey points out that this mandate needs careful management, lots of parties in this part of the world -- secular and Islamist -- could learn from AKP's message-driven campaign.
  • Feeble competition. One of my favorite pre-election questions to ask non-religious, non-activist, mainstream Turks was "who are you going to vote for?" Lots of people are rightfully suspicious of AKP, but where else were they going to go? CHP is backwards, reportedly corrupt and has few accomplishments -- even as a minority party -- to point to. "We're Secularists and Will Carry on the Ataturk Tradition." That's a fine message, but you'd better explain what that means and make it relevant to voters' lives. CHP failed to do this in a meaningful way. Some of my friends refused to say who they planned to vote for. My favorite answer from a secularist, "I just want one party to govern." I think lots of people smack-talked AKP to their friends, then voted for them in the privacy of the booth. While I don't agree with everything he writes, Mustafa Akyol has some sharp words for CHP.
  • Optimism: The headline in Gallup's analysis of its May 2007 poll (released just last week) in Turkey sums it up: "Most Turks Satisfied With Current Standard of Living." Voters that are happy with the status quo don't toss out incumbent parties.

Let's look closer at the survey data.