What happens when the AKP keeps failing to read societal change?

Besim F. Dellaloğlu writes: The reason why the AKP lost the June 23, 2019 Istanbul election - the first one since its ascent to power in 2002 - had to with the fact that society evolved, while the party remained largely the same. In contrast, the CHP evolved with society.

Besim F. Dellaloğlu

Years ago, I watched a documentary entitled "Sociology is a combat sport" about Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and public intellectual. In the documentary, Pierre Bourdieu responded to the question “What does a sociologist do?” He answered in the following manner: “A sociologist examines why things are the way they are.” I believe it would be insightful review recent developments in Turkey through Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of sociology. I'm talking about the change that began on the elections of March 31 and June 23, 2019.

Those elections marked the victory of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). What was behind such a watershed?

A sociologist is able to look at society beyond the narrow framework of politics. To use a flowery metaphor, politics are like soil, they heat up as quickly as they cool down. On the other hand, society is like the sea, it warms up and cool down more slowly than soil. Societies evolve, they do not "progess" or "regress". "Forward and backward" are concepts that apply to the automotive sector, not sociology.

In fact, the reason why the AKP lost this election - the first one since its ascent to power in 2002 - had to with the fact that society evolved, while the party remained largely the same. On the other hand, the CHP also evolved.

Some recent statements from the CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu point to this change: "We also have had a lot of faults and flaws. We have made the headscarf issue the most essential issue of the Republic of Turkey. As a matter of fact, one should ask ‘What is it to you?’ A woman may put on a headscarf or not according to what she wants. Is she able to go to the university? Is she able to receive education, are we able to provide her the means; this should be our issue. Our children should educate, learn science and question life. They should ask ‘Why Turkey is in this situation?’"

Research on voting behavior found out that two Turkish parties that had the least voter transitivity were the AKP and the CHP.  

Voter transitivity prevails between the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) and the AKP and also between the AKP and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). There is a segment of voters in the southeast that goes back and forth between the AKP and the HDP. Likewise, in Central Anatolia, the line is tenuous between the AKP and the MHP. There is some level of transitivity between the CHP and the MHP as well as between the CHP and the HDP. On the Aegean coast and Mediterranean coasts for instance, voters tend to swing between the MHP and the CHP. In Istanbul, there are important shifts between the CHP and the HDP.  

Yet ever since the inception of the AKP, there have been almost no voter transitivity between the AKP and the CHP. In the recent rerun of Istanbul's mayoral elections, it was the first time a voter shift occurred between the AKP and the CHP.

I believe two factors explain this. The first one can be termed "subjective". As demonstrated the previously discussed statement of Kılıçdaroğlu as well by Ekrem İmamoğlu’s election strategy, the CHP clearly embraced a stance that minimized “cultural” cleavages.

In contrast to Europe, where the right-left divide is based on economic and class cleavages, in Turkey that divide is grounded in cultural cleavages. In a society polarized between secular and religious, modern and conservative, Western and Eastern axes, politics are primarily determined by lifestyles, rather than economic interests. This is the reason why the AKP's grassroots is “culturally” inaccessible to the CHP.

The second factor behind the election milestone in Istanbul can be termed "objective". Turkey is urbanizing at a rapid pace. Its citizens now enjoy widespread public services and its schooling rates are increasing. Yet the AKP has been unable to address the youth. The party's opinion leaders have repeatedly failed to address the youth that grew up during the AKP reign. In other words, the AKP is lagging behind Turkey. The results of the June 23, 2019 elections are partly explained by this.     

Pierre Bourdieu observed the current situation of society and looked for the causality behind it. Sociology is interested in what has happened not what should have happened. It is the science of change.

Parties that build their programs according to sociological analyses would probably win more elections. It appears that the ability to "read" societal changes has changed hands from the AKP leadership to the CHP leadership.