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Political Studies Review:To give us a bit more context, how would you characterise the current political landscape and regime in Turkey?
Professor Tijen Demirel-Pegg and Professor Aaron Dusso: Although an ostensibly multi-party regime, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has held power since 2002. AKP’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, served as the Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and has held the presidency since then. In 2017, President Erdoğan tightened his grip on power as a result of a constitutional referendum that changed the political system from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system with weak checks and balances
Your paper focused on the local elections of 23 June 2019. Why were these elections particularly relevant?
The annulment of the 31 March 2019 elections in Istanbul and the subsequently re-run 23 June 2019 elections is a blatant example of undemocratic behaviour by political leaders. We wanted to understand if voters cared about such a clear violation of democratic norms when casting their votes. When AKP’s incumbent for the mayor of Istanbul, Binali Yıldırım, lost the March elections to the opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, AKP refused to concede its defeat. Under the leadership of President Erdoğan, AKP challenged İmamoğlu’s narrow victory and pressured Turkey’s electoral authority to overturn the Istanbul elections, citing the inclusion of non-civil servants in supervisory committees at the polling booths. The electoral authority sided with AKP and called for a re-run of the Istanbul elections on 23 June 2019.
In 2017, President Erdoğan tightened his grip on power as a result of a constitutional referendum that changed the political system from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system with weak checks and balances.
You claim that the authoritarian shift in Turkey has been progressing for more than a decade. What is the timeframe of this shift and what were the major backslides from good democratic practices?
The first signs of democratic backsliding date back to the mid-2000s when the AKP government began to limit the freedom of the press. Over time, curtailments of civil liberties, further censorship of media outlets and tilting the playing field in favour of AKP candidates throughout election campaigns took a toll on the democratic system. Following a failed coup attempt in 2016, President Erdoğan declared an emergency law and purged thousands of military and administrative personnel from governmental bodies. After the referendum that changed Turkey’s political system to a presidential system, power has become almost exclusively concentrated in President Erdoğan’s hands. Media censorship, curtailment of civil liberties, and interference with judicial processes are ongoing, if not intensifying, and have tainted Turkish democracy significantly during AKP rule.
Could you tell us more about your research methodology?
A week after the 23 June elections, we administered an online survey of eligible voters in Istanbul. We used questions from the American National Elections Survey and European Social Survey and translated them into Turkish while also modifying them to the Turkish context. We analyzed the survey responses by using categorical data analysis (binomial and multinomial logit analyses.
How strongly have concerns for democracy been reflected in voting preferences in Turkey? Do these differ from the standard scholarly understanding of that topic?
Scholars have long established that partisanship, idealogy, and the economic context are the most reliable predictors of voting behaviour. Turkey is no exception to these findings. Scholars examining voting preferences in Turkey have also found that Turkish voters behave in a similar way to voters in other electoral contexts. Alternatively, democracy scholars have suggested that elections are one of the most important bulwarks of democracy, keeping leaders with authoritarian tendencies in check. Several scholars, such as Milan Svolik (2020) have shown that in a sharply polarized political context, voters are willing to turn a blind eye to democratic concerns and vote based on partisanship or personal interests. Given that AKP has won numerous elections since they came to power in 2002 while leading the country into a gradual democratic backsliding, concerns for democracy have not been a driving force for the majority of Turkish voters.
The popular narrative was perhaps too optimistic. Our analysis shows that partisanship, and not concerns for democracy, was the primary driving force behind İmamoğlu’s victory in the second round of Istanbul elections in June.
You write: “The popular narrative within and outside of Turkey often portrayed these elections as motivated by concerns about democratic backsliding after the nullification of the first election in March.” Were these narratives correct? What drives voters to challenge the AKP?
The popular narrative was perhaps too optimistic. Our analysis shows that partisanship, and not concerns for democracy, was the primary driving force behind İmamoğlu’s victory in the second round of Istanbul elections in June. Our study aligns with several scholars, such as Milan Svolik (2020), who have also suggested that elections are one of the major bulwarks of democracy, keeping authoritarian leaders in check. Our analysis shows that even in the context of a clear violation of democratic norms, voters cast their ballots based on their partisanship and not democratic concerns.
What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?
Our study is one of the few individual-level analyses of the concern for democracy in a polarized, competitive authoritarian context. Our study shows that the assumption that elections are a reliable check against leaders who are willing to violate democratic norms may not necessarily hold. We also found that economic dissatisfaction was not an important driving factor in the June 2019 elections, even though Turkish citizens had already been feeling the negative effects of an economic recession at the time of the elections. The effects of economic dissatisfaction on voting behaviour require further research in polarized and semi-authoritarian countries.
Tijen Demirel-Pegg is an Associate Professor of Political Science at IUPUI. Her research interests focus on contentious politics, political violence, human rights, and authoritarian regimes, with an emphasis on dissident-state interactions.
Aaron Dussois an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Political Science at IUPUI. His work focuses primarily on the political psychology of electoral behaviour, with an emphasis on the Big Five personality traits, authoritarianism, civic aptitude, and correct voting.