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As Turkish politics draw global attention, book explores 65 years of national elections

Monday, August 24, 2015


LAWRENCE – Turkey’s complicated political terrain was highlighted this summer when it simultaneously attacked the Islamic State and the Kurdish militants fighting ISIS. Providing fresh insight into the country’s complex political system, a University of Kansas researcher maps the evolution of Turkish elections in a new book.

Michael Wuthrich, assistant director for the Center for Global and International Studies, is the author of “National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System,” which was published by Syracuse University Press this summer. He said the West often forgets that Turkish politicians, just like American ones, are concerned with popularity ratings.

“Turkey has to think about foreign policy decisions differently than most of the other countries in the region,” Wuthrich said. “When you have an authoritarian government, the leader largely does what he wants to do. In an electoral democracy like Turkey, politicians have to think more seriously about how this is going to play at home.”

In his book, Wuthrich details four patterns in Turkish elections that have emerged over the past 65 years that challenge conventional wisdom on politics in Turkey. He researched newspaper archives, campaign speeches and election data from the 16 elections held between 1950 and 2011.

“Scholars often take elements of what is happening today and interpret everything through that lens. But when I went back to look through the data, these interpretations didn’t fit,” Wuthrich said.

From 1950 to 1960, the determinants of citizens’ voting behavior were highly localized, Wuthrich said. Through backdoor agreements and material promises, candidates catered to pre-existing community leaders, who had the ability to mobilize voters.

“It had nothing to do with their political beliefs or ideology. It was just a matter of taking sides based on local logic,” he said.

As Turkey shifted from a rural population toward a more urbanized one, political parties saw the power the urban poor and laborers had to swing elections.

While politicians’ populist promises tended to work, it resulted in a dynamic where no party had enough support to control the government. An ineffective coalition government led to a weakening economy and violence in the streets.

After the military intervened in 1980 to quell the violence, Turkish politics became more moderate and ideologically center-leaning. This period was highlighted by the colorful Turgut Özal, who appealed to Islamists and free market capitalists.

The center party’s power faded as voters became disillusioned with corruption charges and economic mismanagement. Meanwhile, the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, began to engage in violent actions against the state. Parties on the far right such as the Turkish Nationalist and Islamist party saw a chance to grab votes and on the far left, a split developed between the Turkish and Kurdish leftists.

Cultural and religious identities began to play a more significant role in politics, Wuthrich said. The dynamics lead to the dominance of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In June, the AKP lost its majority in Parliament, creating the necessity to set up a coalition government and the possibility of early elections if a coalition can’t be formed, which currently appears to be the most likely scenario. Cultural and religious identities remain important, but Wuthrich said new influences, such as the effect of a dominant party on a corporatist media structure and the use of social media to introduce scandals to influence campaigns, are once again challenging long-held assumptions about Turkish politics.

“Current approaches to the politics of elections in Turkey appear to be in flux precisely when their regional environment is in flux,” Wuthrich said.

In recent days, Wuthrich sees Turkish politicians following a number of long-standing behavioral patterns noted in the book — general distaste toward coalitions and compromise, intense polarization among political leaders who are the most ideologically similar and authoritarian party leadership — but also the worrying new trends in media control and manipulation.

“The key question is whether the current political environment will revert back to the old pattern, or will it ultimately go in a new direction?” Wuthrich said. “For both Turkey and its tumultuous neighborhood, a lot rides on the answer to that question.”

Photo: The Justice and Development Party holds an open air campaign meeting in Avanos, Turkey, in 2014. Photo by Christian Dedrick


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