Monday, 13 June 2011

Turkey's Urbanization: the Secret Behind the AKP's Third Consecutive Electoral Success

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By Andrew Finkel (vol. 4, no. 12 of the Turkey Analyst)

At 12 June’s general election, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development party (AKP) pulled off a rare political hat trick, securing a third consecutive parliamentary majority and doing so with an ever-increasing share of the popular vote. The result is a clear endorsement of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose style and personality continues to dominate Turkish politics. It is also his answer to a growing chorus of critics at home but also abroad who accuse him of having abandoned his party’s EU-oriented reform agenda in favour of an increasingly centralised and autocratic style of rule.  The AKP is now the party of the new urban middle class. The party is literally building its own constituency, a process in which the opposition finds it hard to engage.

BACKGROUND: The AKP’s principal rival, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), increased its votes only negligibly. Fighting the election under a new leader, it showed itself unable to mount a credible challenge. The only true dissenting voice came from the Kurdish Southeast of the country where voters appear to be issuing a warning that the government was seriously out of step with their aspirations.

Yet the question remains, when elsewhere in the world democratic parties and party leaders begin to lose their lustre after a second term in office, how did the AKP manage to preserve its appeal? The answer on which most commentators focus is the success of its political rhetoric and the professionalism of its campaign. However, another important answer is the AKP’s ability to rebuild a political machine that had collapsed in the economic crisis of 2001. They have done so by harnessing the dynamic of Turkey’s continuing process of urbanisation.

The AKP came to power in 2002 in the wake of a profound economic crisis. Voters at that election set out to punish a whole post-Cold War generation of politicians who had failed the country badly. No party which had managed to secure seats in the 1999 election survived the political carnage. The only reason the CHP, the founding party of the Republic, appears to have soldiered on into the new millennium is because it had done so badly in 1999 (It had fallen below the ten percent threshold needed to qualify for  parliamentary seats in Turkey’s fiendishly complicated system of proportional representation).

At the same time, AKP was the beneficiary of a certain amount of chaos. It was able to win 363 deputies in the 550 seat assembly with a mere 34 percent of the vote – largely because 45 percent of the electorate’s votes were wasted – i.e. failed to elect no deputies at all.

The AKP did not squander its first years in office. It used its working majority to good advantage and while Erdoğan’s government did not design Turkey’s economic recovery programme, it had the tenacity to implement it. In 2005, Turkey completed an IMF standby package for the first time in its history – a case of eighteenth time lucky. And despite this austerity package, the economy began to grow. Chronic inflation and double digit interest rates—the tools which Turkish politicians once used to finance the political machine, became things of the past. People were better off and more optimistic about their future. The government’s ability to plough on with a programme of political reforms won Turkey a seat at the EU negotiating table in 2005 and this, too, increased market confidence as well as earning Turkey the respect of the international community.

The AKP relied on committed grass-roots organization but also the vote winning charisma of Erdoğan himself. His towering presence in an already hierarchical political system managed to secure intense party discipline. The opposition, by contrast, floundered – or rather, were in a state of denial. They did not so much attack the policies of the AK Party as it past origins in an Islamist movement. In effect, they questioned the very legitimacy of both a popular and popularly elected government. More to the point, the parliamentary opposition hid behind the skirts of an unelected opposition – a constitutional court eager to add AKP’s name to a long historical list of banned parties, and the military which viewed AKP’s consolidation as an existential threat. Thus, in 2007, while Prime Minister Erdoğan campaigned on the success of the economic recovery, the subtext to that election was the AKP’s defence of the democratic system against these extra-parliamentary opponents.

In 2011, the CHP tried to put the shoe on the other foot. They warned that the AKP had been all too successful in dismantling the old “tutelary” bureaucratic regime and, as a result, had accumulated excessive powers. The CHP served notice that they were critical of the Ergenekon trial, the wholesale prosecution of senior officers and other prominent figures on charges of conspiring to provoke a coup d’état.  They did so by including on its candidate list 4 Ergenekon suspects, two of whom campaigned from behind bars. It was not a successful strategy.

IMPLICATIONS: On 12 June, the AKP scored 50 percent of the vote. However, unlike 2002, less than 5 percent of the vote was “wasted,” in effect giving the AKP fewer seats than it had in the two previous parliaments. It is now four seats shy of the magic 330 deputies needed to change the constitution through referral to a popular referendum, and well short of the 366 votes necessary to change the constitution by simple parliamentary approval. This means any major changes will be subject to inter-party negotiation and that Prime Minister Erdoğan’s ambitions to create a French-like powerful presidency which he might inherit, have been thwarted.

Turkish voters have, thus, managed to master their own electoral system. A virtuoso display of tactical voting in the Southeast of the country meant that the Kurdish nationalists managed to produce a bloc of 36 “approved” MPs who stood as independents, all in multi-member constituencies. Turkish ultra-nationalists of the National Action Party (MHP), one speculates, may have also benefited from tactical votes from those eager to see that the party get over the ten percent threshold. The MHP received 53 seats with 13 percent of the vote despite being damaged by a well-organised if anonymous attempt to discredit leading party members with a series of leaked sex tapes. The MHP’s comparative success deprived the AKP of its “super-majority”.

Yet, the opposition is still smarting that the AKP is now confirmed as the normative force in Turkish politics. The electorate sees no point in slapping the wrists of a party which managed to pull Turkey quickly out of the world recession (8.9 percent GDP growth in 2010) and which has proved itself deeply efficient in mobilizing manpower to provide urban services. In short, the AKP has managed to revive the political machine which ran out of fuel in the economic crisis ten years ago.

Many Turkish analysts have noted that the AKP is now the party of the new urban middle class. In the 1970s, the CHP fought the now defunct Justice Party (AP) for the allegiance of the new migrants to Turkish cities which were growing rapidly – in some cases along the Marmara Basin by over 7 percent per annum. And while the growth rate in Istanbul is now down to a mere 1.7 percent, that is still over 300,000 new people per year.  In previous decades, politicians opened land to new and often higgledy-piggledy urbanisation. Now that expansion is more closely monitored with the state housing agency (TOKİ) acting as a primary developer. Thus, government agencies have control over every stage of the urbanisation process from land allocation, zoning, to the awarding of construction contracts, to the allocation and the financing of individual homes. The AKP is literally building its own constituency, a process in which the opposition finds it hard to engage.

Indeed, if one looks at the AKP’s campaign, alongside the skyscraper-sized posters of the prime minister were pledges to undertake a Roosevelt “New Deal–like” programme of public works. Among the proposed projects are plans to dig a second Bosphorus Canal through the Thracian Peninsula, a Third Bosphorus Bridge to connect “new town” on the European and Black Sea shores of Istanbul, and an undersea tunnel that would pipe private cars into Istanbul’s historical peninsula.

Given that the markets are looking for a cooling down of the Turkish economy (the current account deficit is headed towards over 9 percent of GDP this year), it is difficult to see how these projects can be launched even in the medium term. However, they are a weather vane to how the government is thinking and where it believes its long term electoral future lies.

CONCLUSIONS: Much of the pre- and post-election analysis in Turkey has focused on the impending constitutional debate and the difficulties the country faces in achieving a just balance of institutional power. On the one hand, the AKP government reiterates its commitment to EU membership and to rewriting the constitution in a way that is more concerned with protecting the individual and not the state. Yet the evidence from the run-up to the last election is of a government equally concerned with micro-managing the political agenda. Certainly the mood among Turkey’s journalistic community is that they are less free to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. The AKP’s pursuit of the Turkish nationalist MHP vote in the campaign seemed to slam the door on its much vaunted “Kurdish opening”.

Yet alongside these overtly ideological debates in which the opposition has a voice, is the background process of urbanization in which the opposition seems reluctant, indeed powerless to intervene. The government’s vast construction projects have been tabled without any feasibility or environmental impact studies, and indeed a “portmanteau” law passed last summer (what in Turkish is known as the “carry-all” law) creates mechanisms which allows central authorities to override local planning procedures.  AK is of course an acronym of the Turkish words for Justice and Development. The first concept dominates the political arena, the second is now the province of executive fiat.

Andrew Finkel is an Istanbul-based journalist and writer. He is the author of the forthcoming Turkey – What everyone needs to know (Oxford university press.)

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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