Michael Wuthrich is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. He is the author of National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System, published by Syracuse University Press. His research interests include electoral politics, contentious politics, and public opinion in the Middle East and North Africa with a particular focus on Turkey.
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Mehmet Yegin (MY): In your book, you move beyond left/right and center/periphery arguments in explaining voting behavior in Turkey. Why do you think these categories are inadequate?
Michael Wuthrich (FMW): In the book, I wanted to understand the dynamics of “why” and “how” people were mobilized to vote for different parties across time. Much of the previous research on Turkish elections had oversimplified the issue within these left/right and center/periphery parameters. Nonetheless, the data, and especially the voting outcomes at provincial levels over time, were clearly indicating that people were voting for different parties. This has been the case, even if the party name, its category, and what it represented stayed similar. Even though more or less the same number of votes stayed in those camps of left and right, there were still major changes in how the votes were being gathered across the country.
When it comes to the center/periphery argument, I think it is more of a narrative than an empirical reality. Who constitutes the center and the periphery has had to change over time to fit into the box of that narrative. If you have to change what is contained in those categories then it becomes less meaningful as an explanation. I think what is often described as center/periphery in Turkey is actually the political populist discourse of the country. I hope that future studies look into the relationship between populism and this discussion of center/periphery in Turkey.
MY: Many political figures in Turkey are talking about an early election. What do you think about this?
FMW: I actually think that declaring early elections would be the AKP’s last choice, because there is absolutely no need for them to have early elections. The AKP’s current coalition with the MHP gives them enough of a majority to pass any legislation in parliament, therefore there is no real pressure for change. Even if something were to break down in parliament, it wouldn’t change the government’s ability to govern because in a presidential system such as that of Turkey the government does not need a vote of confidence by the parliament to continue its rule. The people appointed into the various ministries can also stay there until a different president is elected. Additionally, early elections would also shorten the constitutionally provided time that Erdogan could remain in office as president. Legally, he can only serve one more presidential term anyway. Why would he rush to prematurely end his first term that ends in 2023?
Nonetheless, if there is so much social pressure for an early election that makes the government call early elections, then this is a very powerful sign that the Turkish population is speaking and not the government. The government has absolutely no incentive to do this. If you’re looking for change to the status quo of Turkish politics, that would be an unexpectedly positive sign. I really question the idea of early elections in the presidential system because the core argument behind ushering in this system in Turkey was that it would bring stability. My analytical assessment is that if Erdogan has any say in whether or not early elections will take place, he will decide against them and continue his full term until 2023.
MY: The CHP pursued a new strategy called “Radical Love” during the municipal elections in 2019. Why was it successful and what could be its implications for upcoming elections?
FMW: Populist leaders create a strong dichotomy between their supporters, the “good people”, and others, who are seen as obstructing the “good people’s” political will. This world view makes sense to populist leaders’ supporters, but generates fear among those on the outside. The opposition usually reacts severely and angrily to such a construct out of anxiousness and fear. But this works to the advantage of populist leaders because such reactions confirm their base argument that the opposition will attempt to stop them at all costs. The populist leader can then easily turn this dynamic into propaganda that shows the “others” blocking the will of the people.
When Muharram Ince (CHP) ran for president in 2018, the approach was to fight the AKP’s populist worldview with an oppositional populist worldview. He tried to paint Erdogan as an elite, living in a fancy palace and out of touch with the common people. The CHP campaign also held huge rallies with impressive attendance. They gathered huge crowds in in places like Izmir and Istanbul in the final days before the election, but in a way this kind of campaigning actually hurt them. This is because the AKP and MHP populists pointed to these crowds as a physical manifestation of the opposition that was intent on blocking their will. This actually mobilized the AKP’s base.
The more recent “Radical Love” campaign turned the game plan for populists on its head. Rather than focusing on huge rallies, the opposition went to the Bazaars, talking to older people and regular folks, asking them questions, and listening to them. They didn’t focus on peoples’ political identities. Instead they actually listened to these people, many of whom would fit the profile of a person who would normally support Erdogan. This didn’t necessarily change everybody’s mind but it fought against and reduced polarization. Populists want a wall between their supporters and others, especially once they have power. Because they have the parliamentary majority and the presidency, the AKP/MHP populists fight to stop their supports from seeing over this wall. The CHP candidates running for mayor in big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul worked to dismantle this wall and some people actually crossed over.
According to Avrasya Araştırma, a local research center, 10 of the top 15 most popular mayors are from the CHP. My book suggests that this is really important, as it allows the CHP to have localized control and oversee the distribution of goods and services at the municipal level in Turkey’s largest cities. The AKP can’t do this anymore but the CHP can. We do see elements of potential change in Turkey’s political future because of what we saw in the local elections. This is another reason why I suspect that the government doesn’t want to call for early elections.
MY: Do you think this strategy has limits? What about intra-party opposition in within the CHP?
FMW: The CHP’s biggest threat is itself. Even during the local election campaigns, on the surface the party agreed to go along with the “radical love” strategy and it worked, but there were a lot of people who didn’t want to tow this line and they were quite vocal about their discontent. After seeing the success of the strategy after the elections many tried to walk back such opinions.
The CHP and its success in the local elections also boosted the courage for fragmentation on the right, as seen with former AKP party members Davutoglu and Babacan creating their own parties. But it if the opposition fragments as well, any momentum that the CHP gained in 2019 could easily be sidetracked. While CHP Leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu was important in creating the “Radical Love” approach, his leadership is not necessarily strong enough to prevent the fragmentation of his party.