In the first round of the Turkish elections on 14 May, the incumbent AKP, led by President Erdoğan, won a narrow victory. This was a crushing blow for the opposition, who had pinned their hopes on Turkey's economic crisis, and crippling inflation, ending Erdoğan's authority. Erdoğan Altun explains how the AKP's electoral campaign, patronage and social assistance were all crucial to its success
On 14 May 2023, parliamentary elections took place in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 35.63% of the vote; down from 42% in the previous elections. On the same day, in the presidential elections, the incumbent President and AKP leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, attracted 49.52% of the vote. More than 27 million people voted for him.
The presidential election will now go to a second-round runoff election, on 28 May. But after AKP's unexpectedly strong showing, many Turks remain shocked and baffled at how the country's dire economic crisis failed to unseat the president in the first round.
Former Turkish prime minister and present Süleyman Demirel once claimed, 'there is no government that an empty pot cannot overthrow'. And in Turkey, with inflation currently at 43% and rising, the number of households with 'empty pots' is rapidly on the rise. Indeed, many households are destitute. The question, therefore, is: What drove voters to support a politician who has presided over their economic destitution?
What drove voters to support a politician who has presided over their economic destitution?
The explanation may well lie in the way the AKP handled its election campaign. The ruling party machine is very effective, especially at district level. It succeeded in convincing voters that Erdoğan and the AKP could protect them from future economic hardship.
To understand the AKP's success, it is important to recognise how the party machine operates alongside the 'regime of presidents'. In this regime, Erdoğan is the president at the national level. Below him are presidents at provincial, district and village levels. In a hierarchical structure, each president conveys the needs and demands of the electorate to the president above him.
This structure is critical both for 'identifying needs' and 'solving problems'. The presidents, who are the 'brokers' between the headquarters and the voters, are the determinants of local politics, especially through the canvassing activities of party members.
Turkish political parties usually go canvassing door-to-door in the run-up to elections. Yet there are key differences in the methods they use. Representatives of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) tend merely to introduce themselves and hand over a leaflet. However, they do not return to knock on unopened doors, or pursue unreachable addresses. Theirs is a passive style of canvassing.
AKP's canvassing tactics, in contrast, focus on identifying the needs and problems of core or potential voters. As a result, the people being canvassed tend to react more positively when a representative comes to call. They sense that the party genuinely cares about their needs and situation.
AKP understands that being sympathetic to citizens' economic plight is more important than the empirical fact that people find themselves in this condition under AKP rule
We should not understand this type of vote for Erdoğan and the AKP as an emotional vote. Rather, it is rational behaviour from a retrospective and prospective point of view. Voters know which parties are unsympathetic to their cause. They also know which parties are most likely to be supportive in the future. AKP understands that being sympathetic to citizens' economic plight is more important than the empirical fact that people find themselves in this condition under AKP rule. This paradox is the secret of AKP's success.
It also means that the demand of the so-called periphery to be recognised by the centre is met. Under AKP rule, people perceive that they are connected to the centre through a new ‘community’ established through a type of membership mediated by brokers. They see themselves not only as distant acquaintances but also as direct interlocutors and determinants of central politics. All this is made possible through their most effective resource: their vote.
This is not, of course, to falsify economic facts. Yet even those hard economic statistics are not the full picture. We must consider, too, how the President and AKP exploit temporary patronage jobs and 'social assistance'.
A longstanding Erdoğan policy is to identify voters in need, and use public resources to offset their difficulties. Temporary employment thus creates indebtedness in the form of gratitude to the party. Meanwhile, social assistance creates a form of welfare addiction. The people dependent upon such aid rationalise it in the following terms:
'we are hungry, but without the government’s assistance, we would not be able to eat at all'
In recent months, the economic crisis has deepened, and poverty has worsened. Turkey has seen a commensurate increase in welfare payments, and a rise in the number of people who qualify for them. The AKP is confronting the destructive effects of unemployment mainly by creating patronage jobs. When people need more help, business owners – who are also AKP party members – step in to fill the void.
In short, Erdoğan and the AKP can win, even in the face of Turkey's desperate economic and social corrosion. The AKP has not quite abandoned those citizens who lack jobs or resources. The economically destitute are thus left clinging to the hope that their relationship with the centre will continue to give them support they so urgently need.