BACKGROUND: The results of the March 30 municipal elections in Turkey came as a surprise to the opposition as well as to many observers. The allegations of corruption that had been leveled against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) did not resonate among the electorate to the extent that had been expected by these observers.
However, the fact that the election was a relative success for the AKP does not mean that the accusations of corruption did not have any effect at all. The AKP won 43.3 percent of the votes in the elections to the municipal and provincial assemblies on March 30; that represents a net loss compared to the 49.8 percent the party garnered in the general elections in 2011. In 2011, the AKP received more than 21 million votes; on March 30, 2014, the total number of votes that were cast for it was little more than 19 million. The voters that left the AKP went to the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Felicity Party (SP) and the Grand Unity Party (BBP) – all right-wing, Turkish nationalist and religious conservative parties.
Yet these losses notwithstanding, the election did not result in a mass desertion from the AKP. The AKP has succeeded in solidifying its voter support at what represents a historically high level in Turkish party politics. There are several reasons for this success. First, the AKP can count on a loyal base that is ideologically committed and which is not swayed by daily events in politics.
But to explain the electoral successes of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his party in solely ideological terms is nonetheless misleading. Indeed, the importance of the economic development that has taken place during the decade of AKP rule and the rise of income levels that has accompanied it has been pointed out as the main factors behind the party’s continued popularity.
However, what tends to get overlooked is the precise nature of the material conditions that have ensured the AKP the continued loyalty of its voter base. In other words, the question that is not properly addressed is whether this is a result of economic growth per se or redistribution through social services. A closer look at voting patterns reveals that there is a direct causality between, above all, welfare policies and voter behavior. Meanwhile, rise of income levels and change of class are not – which is often assumed – the main engine behind the electoral strength of the AKP. To put it simply, the fact that people rise to the middle class do not guarantee that they remain loyal to the AKP, on the contrary; what does guarantee voter loyalty are rather welfare policies, when people are the beneficiaries of social redistribution. The AKP is above all the preferred choice of low income strata.
There has been a vast improvement of economic conditions for broad masses during the AKP’s time in power. In 2002, when the AKP came to power, 30 percent of the population of Turkey earned less than 4 US dollars per day; by 2012, that percentage had dropped to less than 3 percent of the population.
Of great importance for the improvement of the economic conditions of the poorer strata has been the expansion of welfare entitlements. In 2002, these amounted to 1.4 billion Turkish liras; by 2013 they had risen to 24 billion Turkish liras. In 2002, welfare entitlements made up 0.5 percent of GDP; by 2013 they had come to make up 1.5 percent of GDP. These numbers do not include the additional welfare aid that is provided by the municipalities. The welfare aid includes a vast array of programs that are directed to support poor families; only heating support reaches nearly three million households.
Eight million individuals receive aid that supports their payments of the mandatory health insurance. By the first half of 2013, three million households had received temporary or permanent welfare aid; that corresponds to 10 million voters. This population is concentrated in rural areas; in these parts of Turkey, support for the AKP tellingly ranges between 70 and 90 percent. There is also a gender factor at work: Women make up 60 percent of the welfare aid recipients; the fact that 55 percent of the voters of the AKP are women further underlines the correlation between welfare programs and voting patterns.
IMPLICATIONS: The importance of welfare programs for sustaining the AKP’s hold on voter loyalty raises the question of the sustainability of this model for political success. The model depends on an income redistribution that has the potential of adding another conflict dimension to the already divisive and polarized social and political landscape of Turkey.
While Turkey has experienced a significant economic growth during the last decade, this growth has been fueled mainly by the influx of foreign capital, and prosperity has effectively come at the price of a mortgage. The middle class is heavily mortgaged and Turkey is showing signs of being stuck in the middle income trap.
Low investment ratios, and the lack of innovations that are necessary to take industrial development to the next stage of high value added production put breaks on Turkey’s growth. The expansion of welfare programs is another factor that works to the detriment of economic development; the redistribution of incomes through social services to the poor is one reason why the middle class – through the taxes that it contributes – is seeing its available incomes stagnate.
The voting patterns in the March 30 municipal elections were revealing in this regard as well: While the support for the AKP is massive in rural, poor areas, the levels of support for the party decrease significantly below the average in the rest of Turkey in urban metropolitan areas. What is noteworthy is not the lack of support for the party among the established, “secular” middle and upper classes, but the fact that those – conservative voters – who have recently risen from poorer strata to middle class status along the way tend to get alienated from the AKP.
This pattern is notable in the metropolitan suburbs, developing areas that have been settled by these voters. One explanation is sociological, with urbanization leading to a loosening of the grip of conservative values. Yet another explanation is that the new, lower middle class is increasingly economically dissatisfied; it expects its incomes to rise, an expectation that is not met as result of income redistribution to poorer strata through taxation.
The fact that the lower middle class is growing dissatisfied suggests that Turkey can expect a socioeconomic polarization, in addition to the ethnic, cultural and ideological polarizations that afflict the country. This will be a further challenge for the AKP. The populism of the party puts it at odds with economic dynamics and middle class interests; in fact, the AKP is in a position similar to that experienced by European social democratic parties, when these were caught in the contradictions of maintaining welfare programs that ensure voter loyalty and at the same time making sure that economic development is not endangered.
The AKP has so far been able to surmount this challenge – and has been able to be social democratic and liberal at the same time – thanks to the inflow of foreign capital. However, that is not a model that is sustainable in the long run. Turkey’s economic development will remain erratic and dangerously vulnerable to external factors beyond control as long as the internal foundations of sound and sustainable economic growth are not put in place. The AKP’s policies have helped to broaden the middle class, but they have by now reached a point where they are increasingly at odds with the interests of the middle class.
CONCLUSIONS: Redistribution through social services and welfare programs is a critical source of electoral strength for the AKP. However, this model for political success is economically unsustainable in the long run; it is also politically hazardous since it strains the relation between the AKP and those societal segments that support the welfare programs with their taxes; that conflict did not play out as long as income levels of the new middle class were rising, but it is becoming more pronounced as incomes are getting stuck in the middle income trap.
The results of the March 30 elections demonstrates that support for the AKP is declining from the national average among the newly urbanized, conservative middle class, and show that the party faces a new challenge.
Kemal Kaya is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image accreditation: World DataBank)