Election Analysis #3
Rallies, runoff dynamics, Erdoğan's resilience
It’s election week!
Below are some of my thoughts on election rallies, the mood during a probable runoff, and the resilience of the Erdoğan block.
I’m going to be posting more heavily in the coming days. I’ll also probably be an observer again someplace in Ankara, and could write about it.
Rallies and crowd control
The last stretch in elections is always heavy on rallies. I’ve had politicos of every political tradition explain to me how important it is to breathe in “the air of rallies,” and how it helps them situate themselves in the campaign. I haven’t been to one recently, but I enjoyed this piece by veteran journalist Kemal Can on the big opposition rallies he observed in Izmir and Istanbul.
Can says that he started going to political rallies as a kid in 1973, and that the most important thing about them is that they establish a two-way flow of energy between leader and crowd:
Rallies are not held because they are the best communication channel to explain something, nor are they held to compare crowds and assess numerical ratios. Of course there are much more effective means of communication, from conventional to social media. Those methods also yield results immediately. Likewise, polls are conducted every week or even every day.
Rallies are the only place to observe the transfer of energy. No technological trick will give you that. Just as a perfect broadcasting technology cannot hope to match game day at a stadium, or a perfect sound system cannot come close to a concert, rallies are unrivaled for observing whether there is a connection between those on the podium and those in the square.
The issue during this election, as I wrote before, has been that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of energy on the street-level on either side. The opposition Izmir rally was the big post-Ramadan opening, and both sides have picked up the pace since. Can says that Kılıçdaroğlu is starting to set the mood, and has been energized by the crowds he has met. Erdoğan’s side too, has picked up momentum (more on that below) and bussed well over a million people to his rally in Istanbul.
What to make of this late start, but sudden acceleration in the mood? Can has a good answer:
It seems that voters buried their excitement, not because they don’t believe that the election is critical, but because they believe it too much. [These two rallies] gave voters a place to externalize that feeling a bit.
Can is writing about the opposition side here, but I’d extend that across the board. People are taking the election too seriously to “play” politics. Populists always claim that elections are existential, and at some point it becomes true. That’s why, on one end, you see increasing violence, while on the other, there is an army of opposition lawyers and highly organized election observers. The voting mechanism will be bearing more weight than it ever has before.
The opposition space also continues to go through sharp ups and downs. I think the last burst of excitement was with Akşener’s departure from, and return to, the table of six. The opposition deflated a bit in the last week, but yesterday’s mob violence against Ekrem İmamoğlu has blown life back into it.
If this goes into a second round, the tension will climb higher and be harder to control. I think the Kılıçdaroğlu team is right in telling people to stay at home and not to engage with the other side on the street level. They know that if things spill over into the street, they’ll lose control. A Gezi-like decentralized protest movement would backfire. Someone I talked to recently said “the murder of Kurds and Alevi is permitted [katli vakip] in the regime’s eyes,” saying that it would have to be mainstream CHP and IYI nationalists who take the lead in something like that. It would have to be organized top-down, impeccably peaceful and massive.
Pathways to victory revisited
In Election Analysis #1, I made an argument for the pathways to victory of both candidates. There are two things I’d like to add to it.
My first point is on the margins in the presidential race. I argued that the parliamentary race was key for second-round dynamics. It was likely that the race went into a runoff, and there, the side that performed strongly in the parliamentary race would generate momentum and have a high chance of winning.
I’m no longer sure that emphasis on the parliamentary vote was warranted. The margins in the presidential race could be just as important. If, for example, Kılıçdaroğlu performs as pollsters expect and wins a plurality, that in itself will be huge. Erdoğan’s entire politics rests on the idea that the country belongs to a Sunni nationalist majority. Even if the thing goes into a runoff, Erdoğan will have been beaten by an Alevi from Dersim in league with the left. The bigger the margin, the heavier the blow will be. The idea that the opposition is an “azgın azınlık” or a “promiscuous minority” will have been shattered once and for all. A margin of more than two points could be devastating and lend so much momentum to Kılıçdaroğlu that the Erdoğan camp would freak out. The country would start to imagine change more seriously. That’s also when the winds of change would start to blow across the bureaucracy, as well as the spheres of business and mainstream media.
If, on the other hand, Erdoğan surprises everyone by outperforming Kılıçdaroğlu in the first round, opposition morale could collapse. People would focus on blaming Muharrem İnce and Sinan Oğan, and Erdoğan would strut to the finish line.
My second point is about possible cheating in the race. If the government plays tricks in the first round, and people know it, the electorate is likely to punish them in the second (see Istanbul 2019). Whatever they have up their sleeve will come out in the second round. It’s in the nature of such action that it would need to be a fait accompli, or to cite one of Erdoğan’s favorite phrases, that “he who has taken the horse is already past Üsküdar.”
Even in that case, though, I don’t think the horse could get very far. If the government declares victory but the country doesn’t believe it, they won’t be able to stay on long. The only choice Erdoğan has to really hold on to power is to manufacture enough consent to get past the 50% mark, which is still very possible.
On the resilience of the Erdoğan block
I was never one to think that Erdoğan voters were very sensitive to economic ups and downs, but even I am impressed by their recovery in recent weeks.
Sky-high consumer inflation, a housing market in disarray, and unchecked immigration meant that up until a few weeks ago, Erdoğan polled in the low-40s. In the last few months though, he has been making progress, and now looks competitive again. He is still behind in reputable polls, which is unprecedented, but not by all that much. Even if he loses badly enough to concede, only 3-5% of voters will have changed sides since the 2018 elections. That is remarkable.
How to explain this?
I’m not really familiar with theories of voter behavior, but people talk about two explanations. The first is economic: public spending has gone through the roof in recent months, boosting salaries and retirement benefits. The government also increased the minimum wage several times to keep up with inflation. This probably threw a lifeline to some Erdoğan voters and made them feel like the government was looking out for them in desperate times.
The second is about the government’s worldview and regime set up. This, I think, is often underrated. On his campaign stops, Erdoğan barely talks about local issues anymore. He cuts straight to a very simple and familiar story: the opposition are terrorist-loving puppets of the West, and he is working to make Turkey strong again, developing attack helicopters and amphibious warships.
It’s no coincidence that he has been focusing on this - it’s probably what plays best in their focus groups. It’s also where the rally mostly comes from. People don’t always want politics to be about real change in their daily lives, they are interested in the geopolitics, the epic battle between good and evil. It’s strangely escapist. Yes, you’re dirt poor, and if you focused on your life, you’d probably feel bad about it, but here comes a movement that tells you that you’re special simply because of who you already are. It’s a pure shot of nationalism straight into your veins.
Mehmet Uçum, the chief architect of New Turkey’s legal structure, talked about this in a TV interview last week. Most people picked up on how he reiterated Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu’s line about the election being tantamount to a coup attempt, but it’s also interesting how he described voter behavior:
The 2023 election process is developing along different tendencies from the previous ones. Citizens are said to be making evaluations concerning their own lives - let's say about the cost of living. Such evaluations are made before every election. This election will probably break that orthodoxy [ezber]. The President and the government also acknowledge that there are such [economic] problems in this period. There is a will to solve these problems, especially by the President. [But] this election is the election where people will ask what Turkey needs to do in order to feel secure. What will be our situation in the Mediterranean, Iraq, and Syria? How will Turkey's role continue in the Russia-Ukraine war? Voters have feelings about this.
Uçum is essentially saying that their electorate gives them slack to tank the economy because they trust the government’s overall character, and especially because they are excited about the geopolitical direction it has embarked upon. He argues that voters do this because they want a “national state” a category Turkey shares with Russia and China, and are opposed to presumably “globalist” states in Europe and of course, the United States.
These things are sometimes dismissed as “irrational” factors, but I think the bond is real. By that I mean that Erdoğan doesn’t take on that geopolitical policy just because he wants the votes, he does it because it’s a dream he genuinely shares with his voter base. The flip side of the dream, of course, is shared hate for the opposition. It’s that deep connection that can weather the economic downturns and boost Erdoğan’s chances from the low 40s back up over 45, perhaps even to 50 percent.
If the opposition wins and succeeds in forming a government, they will have to think hard about unwinding decades of far-right institutional and ideological formation.