It is no easy task to analyze the ongoing political crisis and its roots in Turkey, which already received a good deal of attention from international media and organizations. Local elections of March 30 are fast approaching and the tension in the political arena has escalated, driven by the fierce competition between AKP, the ruling party, and CHP, the main opposition party.
The voice recordings of AKP parliamentarians and the Gulen Cemaat, which is a religious movement known to be an opponent of the government, have been continuously leaked to the media. In combination with these voice recordings, the massive graft probe and the resignation of three ministers raised a couple important questions regarding the future of Turkish politics and economy: How do the voters respond to the current situation? And, will this escalating political tension hurt the decade-long stability of the economy? Whatever the answer to these questions is, the political and economic life of Turkey will likely be undergoing significant changes in the coming years.
"Oddly enough the government still seems to be succeeding in diffusing the responsibility for the worsening economy and the current graft scandal
There is a plethora of research seeking to explain how voters reward and sanction the incumbency, and what affects voters’ capacity to assign responsibility for political outcomes. We know that voters are either retrospective (rewarding or punishing current incumbents by taking into account past successes and failures), or they are non-retrospective (assessing the party based upon estimations of future performance). Considering the fact that Erdogan did not lose ground after the important problems his government faced, we can argue that these reward-punishment theories fall short of explaining the current situation in Turkey. On the other hand, we also know that rationalization of voters is not the case where the current incumbent diffuses responsibility. As expected, incumbent parties will be more likely to stay in power for another term in these cases.
The AKP government is under a lot of pressure from both international and domestic actors, but oddly enough the government still seems to be succeeding in diffusing the responsibility for the worsening economy and the current graft scandal. This is particularly surprising given that an ongoing graft probe, problematic foreign relations and a deteriorating economy would likely be enough for a government to fall in another European country. Though the government appears to pull through its huge mistakes, there is no doubt that AKP will have trouble regaining its reputation.
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The question one may raise, therefore, is what makes the government carry on its authoritarian policies while pretending to be unrelated to the graft probe? There are three reasons that I can present for the current accountability problem, two of which are closely related to voters’ reward-punishment mechanism.
The ambiguity stemming from the fierce competition between the government and Gulen cemaat appears to be the first reason. The voice recordings from both sides have revealed that the current situation is way more complicated than ordinary citizens expected and this is what makes it harder for voters to decide whom to hold responsible. Although there is enough reason to suspect government’s accountability, particularly right leaning voters tend to ignore it. Therefore, it is not too much to argue that the average reaction of voters to the current situation is unusually lenient, which apparently underpins the government’s diffusion of responsibility and increasing authoritarian attitudes.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, political belief systems in the society affect voters’ capacity to reward and sanction, leading to an accountability crisis. More specifically, voters believing that ‘there is no incorrupt politician’ tend to prioritize other factors such as infrastructure investment or economic stability while voting. That is to say, voters appear to tolerate AKP’s graft probe as long as they presume that current policies will make them better off. Simply put, voters prioritize economic well being over civil liberties and this problem, which is chronic in numerous developing countries, may be attributed to society’s civic culture and political institutions.
Last, but not least, authoritarianism and systematic pressure can be considered an important factor intimidating anti-government groups and encouraging pro-government segments, which is likely to contribute to the escalating polarization of society. In addition, although increasing authoritarianism may not alter the voters’ ability to reward and sanction directly, it has very significant effects on media coverage and transparency in politics. This means that very small portion of voters will have the chance to know more about government’s deficiencies before going to the ballot box.
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Regardless of what happens, several questions will be left unanswered until the local elections: When does the increasing authoritarianism and polarization come to an end? How do voters respond to government’s unexpected change? And, what will the near future bring to Turkey?