Why Erdogan Keeps Winning

The Turkish prime minister has managed to fuse Turkey’s center-right and Islamist-right.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses lawmakers and supporters of his Justice and Development Party on Feb. 1, 2011, in Ankara, Turkey.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party won 43% or 45% of the country's overall vote in elections on March 30.

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By: Mustafa Akyol, Columnist for Al-Monitor
Al-Monitor

The March 30 elections will go down in history as yet another political victory for Turkey’s powerful Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The national average his party won at the ballots — 43% or 45% of the overall vote, based on the counting method applied — is certainly a big success. Even if all the claims of fraud are true, especially in Ankara, it is clear that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is still very popular after 11 years in power.

This might come as a surprise to those observers, especially in the West, who thought that Erdogan would lose support because of all the recent political scandals and controversies in Turkey, such as corruption, authoritarianism and the shrinking of certain liberties. Why, they might wonder, does Erdogan still triumph despite all these problems.

[OPINION: Turkey's Twitter and YouTube Bans Will Hurt Economic Growth]

To find an answer, one should first look deeper into Turkish society and its political patterns. The first thing to note is that for more than 60 years, throughout which Turkey had regular free and fair elections, Turkish society has roughly been divided into two unequal parts: “The right,” which constitutes some 60%-65% of the votes, and “the left,” which constitutes the remaining 35%-40%. The right, in this context, is defined by respect for tradition — especially Sunni Islam — and a focus on economic development. The left, in return, is defined by secularism and socialist themes of “equality,” along with Alevism, an unorthodox branch of Islam. (That is why today, Alevi music halls on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street feature posters of Imam Ali, Ataturk and Che Guevara in the very same hall of fame.)

The right traditionally has three components: center-right, Islamist-right and nationalist-right. Erdogan’s big success is that he combined the first two under the AKP banner and thus created one of the largest voting blocs in Turkish history. (The nationalist-right is still alive separately, under the banner of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which won some 15% of the national average on March 30.) Erdogan’s great achievements regarding economic development — all the highways, skyscrapers, shopping malls and hospitals built under his rule — is the hallmark of the center-right. His Islamic rhetoric and symbolism is the bliss of the Islamist-right.

Therefore, for the center-right or Islamist Turkish voter, who makes up roughly half of society, there is no reason to abandon Erdogan and opt for any of his current rivals. The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) is out of the running for two main reasons: The CHP looks very incompetent when compared to the AKP with regard to the economy and government services. Also, the CHP’s ultra-secularist past, defined by the oppression and humiliation of the religious conservatives with policies such as banning the headscarf still makes the party a bete noire of the right in general.

In fact, the CHP is trying to change both images under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, but the progress he has introduced is too little and too shallow. The CHP should change more significantly by moving closer to the center. That the party’s main boost in this election was in Ankara, thanks to its brand-new candidate Mansur Yavas, an export from the center-right, is a telltale example.

But what about all the corruption scandals that could have hurt Erdogan? Well, believe it or not, as shown by a Turkish polling company: “Corruption claims had no effect on local polls.” One reason is that the average Turkish voter recalls that every government recently has been guilty of corruption, so the AKP, at worst, is no exception. (“They steal, but at least they work hard,” is a common line one hears from Turkish taxi drivers.) Second, many religious conservatives also believe that what looks like corruption is in fact some form of informal fundraising for the “good cause” — such as sponsoring Islamic foundations and charities.