ANKARA – Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won yet another election victory in Monday’s municipal elections. While the results saw a five percent decline in support for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) over the 2011 parliamentary elections, it was also a 6 percent improvement over the AKP’s results since the last municipal elections in 2009. Erdoğan’s party will continue to control the metropolitan municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara (although the Ankara results are disputed and may yet be reversed), and it won a few new major cities such as Antalya, an important tourist destination on the Mediterranean. What makes this victory even more significant is that it came in the aftermath of several setbacks for the AKP: the Gezi Park protests, a corruption and graft investigation against a group that included ministers’ family members, and a torrent of wiretaps that embarrassed the prime minister, his sons, his ministers, and businessmen close to him.
Erdoğan’s secret for galvanizing his supporters and voters – against all odds – is a function of what he has achieved, his style of politics, and his tactics. Over his twelve-year tenure as prime minister, Turkey’s economic situation has significantly improved, and the country has been largely shielded from the global economic crisis. Erdoğan has also improved social services in areas like health and education. He has implemented several mega-infrastructure projects, such as an underground railway tunnel below the Bosporus. While the AKP’s economic growth model – based on major construction projects financed by international debt – may be losing its sustainability, things still look much better than the day Erdoğan first came to power.
It is not only material benefits that Erdoğan has provided. Even more significantly, he has given his constituents dignity and self-confidence. Erdoğan has been very successful in associating his personal grievances with those of urban conservative groups with rural family backgrounds. In the past, these social strata were openly looked down upon by secular groups. When he came to power, Erdoğan chose to reinforce conservatives’ grievances rather than heal them, and used it to create a very strong bond between himself and his voters. He went one step further, and associated the past grievances of his core constituencies with those of Muslims internationally towards the West. For example he compared last summer’s Gezi Park protests with Egypt’s Tamarod Movement, suggesting that the Turkey protests were similarly aimed at initiating a coup d’état and implying that both were conspired by some circles in the West.
But by associating his personal grievances with the past grievances of the religious conservative masses in Turkey, Erdoğan has also reinforced the cultural polarization between conservative and secular groups and between his voter base and other political parties. The derogatory language used by some of Erdoğan’s opponents further contributes to Turkey’s cultural polarization, isolating the AKP voter base from outside influences. Thus, it has become very easy for Erdoğan to frame any discussion on his own terms, for consumption by his own constituency. What was a peaceful protest movement for secular Turks became a coup attempt and treason for AKP supporters. What was a graft probe for the opposition became another coup attempt, according to the AKP. What was censorship for secular Turks was, for the AKP and its supporters, an issue of protecting the nation from external enemies and their domestic collaborators.
Erdoğan’s secret recipe for success, then, appears to be a combination of providing social services, identifying strongly with a voter base, and isolating them from other parties through polarization. This has helped him win six parliamentary and local elections and two referenda, and could help him win several more in the future.
Alas, polarization is also making Turkey less governable, which in time could make Erdoğan’s strategy less functional, particularly in the event of an economic slowdown. As he prepares to run for president of Turkey, will Erdoğan assume a more conciliatory approach? Will the opposition parties develop a language, which shows that they genuinely empathize with Turkey’s conservative groups? The answers to these questions will determine whether Turkey can overcome the current political crises and consolidate its democracy.
Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı is the director of German Marshall Fund of the United States’ office in Ankara.