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The following interview by Selin Ongun with Prof. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu appeared in the Cumhuriyet newspaper on 10 November 2015. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton

Turkey is under a ruling party system

An interview with Prof. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu by Selin Ongun

Let me summarise Sabancı University Faculty Member Prof. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu’s prediction following the 2011 elections: “With the AKP coming to power for a fourth time, this marks the passage to a ruling party system.” As the 1 November results emerged, I discussed what lies on the political horizon with Prof. Kalaycıoğlu.

-Where are we – does 1 November mark the passage to a ruling party system?

If a party wins four elections in a row, the system assumes the character of a ruling party system. Yes, we are there. The critical infrastructure for this results when the distribution of voters in terms of their mindsets forms a massive and permanent cluster in a specific place. A party emerges that represents this cluster and, once its deeds win the approval of that block of the electorate, that party is supported from election to election in a spirit of great solidarity.

One of the first examples of this is the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan. It remained in power with a crucial majority from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. It collapsed in 1993 in a big real estate scandal. The opposition only managed to come to power for a while. After that, there was a return to a Liberal Democratic Party government.

-You are speaking of a rule lasting forty years.

Indeed. In the same way, India was ruled for forty years - from 1947 to 1987 - by the Congress Party. The Congress Party collapsed with Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Coalitions came and went for a while. Now Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said to be Hindu nationalist, is at the helm of a one-party government. Japan and India are not countries having very strong democracies. The only country to have been under a ruling party system without veering at all from democracy, and where democracy was entrenched, is Sweden.

-You said that the ruling party has a considerable cluster of voters in its infrastructure.

Yes, we call this the alignment of voters. This happened among us in 1995. The middle ground of Turkish politics collapsed and the electorate shifted conceptually to the right. A thick cluster of voters formed on the right. The electoral and political participation surveys that I have been involved in over the past twenty years show without exception that the distribution of the electorate in Turkey has clustered markedly between the centre right and the right wing of the right. The main party here is the AKP, then the MHP, followed by the BBP and the Saadet Party.

Even so, none of the latter can be compared to the AKP in terms of attraction. As the AKP regime blundered and in particular economic performance faltered, votes shifted to the other parties. However, another factor emerged in this election.

-What was that factor?

The two dominant parties of the cluster of voters on the right, the AKP and MHP, made a huge effort to prevent a coalition in the aftermath of 7 June. The AKP was extremely successful at planting the idea in voters’ heads that they were about to lose what they had gained and if the government dissolved stability would we sacrificed.

Contemplating the prospect of interminable coalition talks, voters who had lost faith in Bahçeli’s MHP supported the AKP and brought the AKP to single-party power. The electorate’s yearning for a single party to be in power took precedence over economic and political concerns, democratic demands, freedoms, corruption and all else. These were all put to one side. Voters appear to have taken the stance that there should first be a government and then they would demand these things from the government.

-Let me ask with reference to your comment that “As economic performance faltered votes shifted to the others”: With the dollar at record levels, curfews, conflict, etc. - after such a summer, how did the AKP come to harness five million votes in five months?

This is crux of the matter. The AKP came to power without having scored any success in either economic or political terms since 7 June. What’s more, this increase of five million votes is no mean feat. This is a significant electoral slide. The voters’ priority here was to see that Turkey was not left without a government. In Sabancı University’s survey in October 2015 covering 65 provinces and 1509 voters, the percentage of those saying, “In the past year the economic situation has worsened on account of the economic policies implemented by the government” had risen by a further five points as against last May.

With it coming to curfews and conflict, people were staring disaster in the face. If we were to put it in Mithat Sancar’s words, they were taken to the verge of civil war. In the interests of avoiding this, it was as though they said, “Let’s not leave the country without a government.” The quickest route to forming a government came through supporting the AKP which in any case was attractively positioned in ideological terms. It was this perception, fostered in particular by the government media, which influenced the choices of those voters who boosted the AKP’s total to 23 million.

-In the examples from the world you have given of the ruling party system, there were periods of office lasting forty years. The message given by 49.5% of the electorate was for the AKP to continue until 2019. If Turkey has moved to a ruling party system, what is on the horizon? Another twenty years of rule?

There is no way of predicting this because we do not know what internal and external developments Turkey will encounter. In order for Turkey to transform into having a socio-economic structure that will sustain a pluralistic democracy, there will have to be a decline in the weight of the urban poor class and an increase in that of an economically independent middle class. Such a transformation will not be easy or rapid, either; it is a process that will take several generations. Within the current configuration of electoral blocks, the largest block is made up of the urban poor.

That is, a body of people who have recently migrated from the countryside to the city, had no opportunity in the countryside for any kind of human resources development and have the potential to be unskilled workers but are not in fact employed. This is Turkey’s largest electoral block. This, at the same time, is a body of people who are extremely conservative, pious, traditional and nationalistic, and who are even easily capable of being chauvinistic. This group of which I am speaking is in the region of 40%. And it is the AKP which has currently proved to be the most successful representative of this critical electoral block that we are contemplating. For as long as these conditions continue, the AKP’s political future appears to be bright. For this to change, a body of voters having different demands must emerge.

Such as?

I mean, for instance, it will demand the rule of law. Who is going to call for the rule of law? Those who go about managing, investing, manufacturing and trading in compliance with the law, issue and receive cheques and promissory notes, tend to settle their disputes within the judicial framework and operate in conjunction with the market, that is the middle class, will demand this.

Turkey does not yet have a middle class of adequate size and political independence to be capable of hosting a democracy and its system of values. Our middle class is very feeble. The body of people in Turkey we could describe as constituting the lower middle class is in the region of 20%. This makes their demands easy to silence.

-Will the ruling party system also lead to debate about the regime?

The ruling party system can easily depart from democracy. If it does so, the ruling party acquires the status of a hegemonic party. An authoritarian regime operating with a sham opposition and elections may emerge such as we saw in Cold-War Poland and see in Russia or Egypt today.

-Is the AKP a hegemonic party?

It is slowly moving in that direction. Turkey is in any case recognised in the world not as being a democracy, but as a crossbred regime or a competitive authoritarian regime. It is a fact that countries in which poor urban voters weigh down on the configuration of electoral blocks tend to transform into authoritarian regimes. This is because they are incapable of sustaining democracy. Will we manage to sustain it? I doubt it. The conditions are not very conducive of this. Without a strong middle class or, as in Sweden, a strong working class with its organisations and sensitivities, democracy cannot be sustained. The socio-economic base for democracy is problematic.

For, a strong urban poor, a lumpen proletariat class in Marxist sociological terms, bears down on politics. We have absolutely no evidence from research into political science that a democracy is capable of being sustained under this burden.

-What if some were to say that this comment of yours reveals an attitude of “Look, the shepherd’s vote is no match for my vote?”

These are scientific findings. In what I am trying to get across, I am not coming from the position of “The shepherd’s vote is no match for mine.” What is critical here is the demands that voters will make of their representatives – freedom, respect for the law, clean politics? Or else work, preferential treatment for themselves and their relatives, various state benefits without making any contribution? Of course, if this is to be deliberately twisted and taken out of context, that’s another matter! What I am saying is abundantly clear: there are thinkers from Aristotle in the 300’s BC to Seymour Martin Lipset in the 20th and 21st century who have argued that there needs to be a strong and politically independent middle class for democracies to exist. And these arguments appear to have stood the test of time.

There is no strong middle class in Turkey; instead there is a massive urban poor stratum that is excluded from employment. The demands of the middle class are for freedom, rights and the rule of law. However, there is no evidence to show that the urban poor who are excluded from employment think that the law benefits them, not is there evidence to show that they are negatively affected by unlawful practices or, in particular, that they complain about corruption.

-Why?

Because the environment they inhabit is not within the law, anyway. We are talking about a stratum whose level of development in human resources terms is extremely low. This body of people knows nothing of the rule of law and, in the environment in which they live, compliance with the law comes at a fairly high cost. We are talking about large masses who live in shanty towns, work in the unrecorded economy, and, since they cannot afford services like electricity and water, strive to get these free of charge. Can living conditions of this kind support luxuries such as demanding the rule of law, justice and legislation in matters such as development, traffic and energy that complies with legal norms? It has been demonstrated in the books of Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson that the rule of law brings economic benefits; it spurs development.

However, the rule of law is at the same time expensive – you pay the bills for the electricity, water and sewerage facilities that you use, drive in obeyance of the traffic rules and build a house in compliance with development laws. In order to meet the cost of this, you need to have a profession and a commensurate income. That is why, in countries having a broad middle class, there exists the rule of law and a functioning democracy based on this, and the economy develops. Today, the problem that faces us is that there can be no rule of law without democracy, and there can be no economic development without the rule of law, but Turkey is still a competitive authoritarian state. So, what prospects await us? It will most probably be very painful and we will all find out first hand together.

-In the 7 June - 1 November saga how would you rate the HDP?

For the HDP to have exceeded ten percent shows that, despite everything, a significant portion of Kurds have stood by the HDP. A massive campaign was waged against the HDP in the period that has just ended. The PKK did all in its power to render the HDP ineffective in parliament. So did the AKP. It declared the HDP to be a terrorist organisation. Well-known figures from the HDP stood more or less accused of terrorism by those who hosted them on their television programmes and interviewed them. The MHP also declared the HDP to be illegitimate. It rejected them announcing that it would ignore them in parliament. In spite of all this, the HDP exceeded ten percent, but it also lost one quarter of its own vote.

-It appeared that following 7 June Erdoğan had lost the Kurds in their entirety. Is this no longer so?

Yes, because the conservative and in part middle class Kurds who had previously voted for the AKP saw that, under a scenario in which a party came to power and did not once more start to seek a compromise with the PKK, they would suffer very serious loss. They perceived the AKP to be the party that would be capable of changing this. They reverted to the AKP. This was a case of scaring them into accepting the lesser of two evils. The AKP followed just such a strategy and this strategy for the time being appears to have paid off.

-And the CHP’s vote staying the same?

This is quite normal; there are in any case very few voters in the ideological position occupied by the CHP. Turkey’s left is in a state of partial paralysis. Essentially, the percentage of those in Turkey who see themselves on the left is about 15-20 and the percentage of those on the left who see themselves in the space filled by the CHP is even lower – around 8-12% of the electorate. The CHP then gets 25% of the vote. People think of this 25% as being low, but this 25% appears to be two or three times the vote the CHP is naturally capable of winning. This increase stems from the votes of liberal or other more moderate people who are further to the centre of the CHP.

-Your opinion about the MHP’s meltdown?

The MHP’s ideological position is very close to that of the AKP and the same goes for its electoral base. In the eyes of the voters, the party in parliament furthest to the right is the AKP and the party just to its left is the MHP. Shifts can easily happen between these two parties.

Indeed, generally, when the economy gets worse, a portion of the AKP electorate shifts to the MHP and, when it improves, the opposite happens. However, the repeat election of 1 November 2015 was an election like no others and the cause of this appeared to be, rather than the economy, the role played by the MHP and its leader’s “Mr No” attitude. The impression was created that, if the MHP attracted votes, it would again for months say that this or that government was not on, and time would pass as it tried to kick the HDP out of parliament. Instead of this, a significant portion of the MHP electorate was quite comfortable about supporting the AKP, with its similar ideological position.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton