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Turkey: The Perils and Promise of Prediction

Supporters of Republican People's Party (CHP) celebrate on a main square in Ankara, Turkey, April 1, 2019 REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Last updated April 2, 2019

Supporters of Republican People's Party (CHP) celebrate on a main square in Ankara, Turkey, April 1, 2019 REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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A few days before Turkey’s local elections, I wrote an article for Foreign Policy.com titled “Erdogan is Weak. And Invincible.” Well, at least the first part was accurate.  The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost in major metropolitan areas including the capital, Ankara, as well as Antalya, Izmir, Adana, and Mersin.  There is strong evidence to indicate that it also lost Istanbul. The party still controls most towns and cities in the country, but this was a defeat for AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  Needless to say, this was an outcome that I did not expect.  No excuses—I blew it.  

So what went wrong? I pinned my analysis on four factors, three of which turned out to be incorrect:

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1)   It is no secret that I am an admirer of President Erdogan’s political savvy.  Over the years he has proved to be extraordinarily shrewd, always a step or two ahead of his opponents.  I got carried away, however.  Somewhere along the way that admiration for Erdogan’s political chops blinded me to the fact that he does not have a perfect theory of politics.  It seemed to me that Erdogan’s effort to capitalize on the Christchurch massacre was a genius—albeit cynical and disturbing—move to mobilize Turks ahead of the elections. Clearly, the Turkish leader and I thought that national identity, religious identity, and fear about the division of the country at the hands of the Kurds would outweigh a recession, 20 percent inflation, and 25 percent unemployment in the minds of voters.  Both Erdogan and I miscalculated.

2)   I torched the Turkish opposition for failing to capitalize on the AKP’s failings and its inability to develop a coherent, appealing, and positive message that would give Turks a reason to vote for them. That still may be the case.  Nevertheless, Ankara’s new mayor, Mansur Yavas, and the apparent winner in Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, both of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), are formidable politicians.  I was too focused on CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.  He has allowed Erdogan and the AKP to intimidate him and rendered his party little more than a front united only in its strong distaste for the president.  It remains to be seen whether the CHP and other parts of the opposition can capitalize further on the weakness of the AKP, but hats off to Yavas and, especially, Immamoglu.  Yavas’ victory was not unexpected, making Imamoglu the big story of this election. He likely won in Istanbul.  I did not think it would happen.  I should have paid closer attention to his campaign.

3)   The AKP is trying to steal Istanbul, claiming its candidate Binali Yildirim won more than 50 percent of the vote.  No one believes it and a fight is underway.  I cynically believed the AKP would be better at rigging the vote as the party did in the 2017 constitutional referendum. I dispensed with the notion that the party could lose Istanbul by a large enough margin that its rigging would stretch credulity.  Yet, here we are.  In addition, I had come to believe that AKP had wired the country from end-to-end with enough supporters through patronage, a compliant press, and the power to intimidate citizens and opposition politicians alike that the party could lose, but win anyway.  One note of caution: In the June 2015 general elections, Erdogan did not like the outcome of the elections so he forced new ones the following November that produced a result more to his liking.  What might happen next in Istanbul does not negate the fact that I considered a win for the CHP candidate a remote outcome.

Experts are supposed to re-evaluate their work, especially when their analysis goes awry in order to better our collective understanding of how the world works.  It is a difficult exercise, especially in this era of Twitter obnoxiousness and when fellow scholars are quick to call for one’s pound of flesh when a colleague’s analysis misfires.  That is the way the world works now, but without these kinds of re-assessments we would not learn. So bring on the Twitter trolls…

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Elections and Voting

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