How Turkey’s social conservatives won the day for HDP

(Note: This post has been updated to 1) add Istanbul to the provinces where Kurdish parties were active in 2011, 2) adding the other large cities Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, and Adana to the neighborhood-level analysis, and 3) adding graph of partial correlation between Refah vote share in 1995 and HDP vote swing in 2015.)

Given yesterday’s tumultuous election in Turkey, I thought it might be a good idea illustrate using the data available what just happened.

There’s the obvious: AKP lost about 10 percentage points of its vote share, and the Kurdish-and-what-not HDP received around 13 percentage points, pushing it above the ten percent threshold, allowing it to take seats in parliament – as far as I know, the first time a political party with such a clear pro-Kurdish constituency has done so. This means AKP’s seats in parliament fell from the 327 it won in 2011 down to 258.

Then there’s what it all means, which there’s no way I can discuss in one post. Instead I want to focus specifically here on the HDP and what kind of electorate brought it above the ten percent threshold.

Some herald Demirtaş. the HDP, and its electoral success as the comeback of the left or liberalism (here and here), noting amongst others his supportive stance toward the LGBT community as well as his background as a human rights lawyer. It is not for nothing that many refer to him as “Kurdish Obama”.

A following question is then to what extent HDP’s electoral success is a manifestation of the voting power of progressives and liberals in Turkey?

Despite talk of “borrowed votes”, i.e. strategic voting by (I assume) predominantly traditional CHP supporters, an initial look at the election suggests that what pushed HDP into parliament was a shift among traditional right-wing voters – the socially conservative Kurdish communities in the East and some living in the large cities who abandoned the AKP for the HDP.

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Pandora’s Ballot Box and Turkey: Kurdish edition

I recently (finally) had the chance to take a look at the Turkish presidential elections data from August 2014, with the aim of comparing some of the measures of election irregularities I documented from the earlier local elections in March of the same year. The analysis from those elections were essentially a snapshot of potential irregularities with little to say about how this evolved over time.

What I focused on last year was the rather peculiar degree with which the share of invalid ballots appeared to be positive correlated, at the ballot-box level within voting stations, with AKP vote shares (or rather the vote share difference between the AKP and the largest opposition party). Now, with the presidential elections data, I can compare how this correlation differs between that election and the local elections. As for the interpretation of the correlations, here’s what I wrote in April last year:

“An obvious question mark in the analysis is to what extent any correlation represents systematic mistakes, not systematic fraud. Suppose the AKP has a higher support among the illiterate who are more likely to make mistakes when voting. In this case, we would not be surprised if there was a correlation between invalid ballots and AKP support. An explanation would be that those more likely vote for the AKP are also those more likely to make voting mistakes and have their ballots declared invalid. Given the large difference across districts in the large cities in Ankara and Istanbul, one can easily imagine this as a plausible explanation for the simple unconditional correlations.

It is here that the fixed effects used in the previous analysis becomes crucial, i.e.  including fixed effects (FEs) to regressions of vote shares on invalid ballots control for all factors that vary across the FEs. Adding FEs for districts (Ilce) means we’re only looking at variation across ballot boxes within districts, whereas adding FEs for voting station means only looking at variation across ballot boxes within voting stations.

When doing this, although voters going to the same station to vote may still differ along several characteristics, it is much more difficult to argue that this systematically affect their likelihood of making mistakes in voting. The strength of the FEs is thus not that they control for everything, but that they reduce these differences to the point where it is less likely that the remaining differences represent an competing explanation for the correlation.

Furthermore, to the extent that this represent fraud, one would expect the relationship between AKP’s vote share and invalid ballots to be stronger in races with significant competition and less likely in races where the AKP was safe. (For the obvious reason that there is little return to engaging in fraud in races where you’re expected to win without fraud.)”

Below I show such correlations between the AKP’s vote share and the invalid share of ballots, with red representing the August presidential elections and blue representing the local elections. These are essentially the same kind of graphs as the first set of ones I posted here, the main difference being that I now from the start subtract the voting station means from the ballot-box level data. Another difference is that instead of plotting the raw voting data (which, with large amounts of data, makes graphs overly crowded and visually less attractive) I’m plotting equal-sized binned means – essentially a scatterplot of grouped data, with groups made up of equally large number of observations (see here for an easy way to implement such grouped scatterplots in Stata).

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Turkey’s Undemocratic Elections

Turkey’s heading for another election, arguably one of its most important so far, as made clear by the unusually vitriolic statements by leading government members (and opposition candidates too, I gather, if the Turkish media reported on them to the same extent), seemingly stumbling over each other to say anything that would make them noticed.

Much ink gets spilled over the main issue at hand this time around: whether the AKP will get the super-majorities required to either unilaterally write a new constitution, or to push one through a referendum. A particular trait of the current constitutional debate is President Erdoğan’s desire for a stronger presidency in Turkey (and one specifically without the checks and balances of, for example, the US). The focus on this issue is quite understandable, as it could change the formal rules of government in the country quite substantially.

A concern, however, is that a too singular focus on Erdoğan and his desire for a presidency draws attention away from what the problem of the current institutional setting really is. And that isn’t parliamentarism as a system of government, as Erdoğan would like his constituency to believe, but the poverty of Turkey’s democracy overall. And while Erdoğan and his AKP government may very well have improved the living standards of its constituency, they have so far failed abysmally in extending the same courtesy to the country’s democratic system.

This post is about one particular segment of Turkey’s institutions: its elections.

Last year, just after the local elections, I wrote a series of blog posts (1, 2, 3) suggesting all was not well with how votes were counted. At that time, although members of the opposition had been complaining about this for a while, this appeared to hit a raw nerve. Within a week of my initial post, my blog had been visiting more than 70,000 times, and the various posts had been cited or linked to in FT, Washington Post, The National Interest, Jadaliyya, Christian Science Monitor, Bloomberg View, Dagens Nyheter, Cumhuriyet (1 2, 3), and Radikal. In the comments section of my blog, pro-government trolls were threatening the election NGO that had shared their data with me, and the “newspaper” Takvim generously nominated me a member of the “banker lobby” together what they perceived to be my main co-belligerents: an Australian media mogule, referred to as “the Jewish Baron”, and a Swedish tycoon, dead since 1938. An unusual week, to say the least.

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A Game of Kurds

Many were taken by surprise by the announcement of the Kurdish HDP’s to run as a party in the upcoming 2014 elections, as opposed to running as independent candidates, which it has done until now. Running as independent have been the Kurdish political movement in Turkey’s way of circumventing the draconian ten percent threshold, which excludes parties from representation in the Turkish parliament if it fails to win more than tern percent of the national vote share.

The HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtas did receive nearly 10 percent of the vote in the last (presidential) elections, but given it’s 2011 vote share of ~7 percent, and opinion polls putting HDP at roughly 6-8 percent, it seems a rather tall order to expect HDP to pass the ten percent threshold needed for any parliamentary representation. Most likely it will fall below that, and if it has then run as a party, it will not receive any votes at all. These votes will then almost surely fall into the hands of the ruling AKP, likely giving it the supermajority needed to rewrite the constitution. In this case, the Kurds are dependent on the AKP to use its borrowed Kurdish votes to run through the institutional changes needed to accommodate Kurdish preferences. Failure to do so could result in another lost opportunity for Kurds to achieve institutional equality in Turkey.

As such, the HDP strategy is quite a gamble.

Several people more qualified than me have now written about this (see for example, recent articles by Amberin Zaman’s in Al-Monitor, as well as Gareth Jenkins in The Turkey Analyst).

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Problems With The Washington Post’s Press Freedom Heroes in Turkey

On January 1st, the Washington Post to invited Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of the daily Zaman newspaper, to write an op-ed related to his own arrest, as well as that of an executive at Samanyolu television network. Both Zaman and Samanyolu are part of the media affiliated with the Gülen movement in Turkey.

The op-ed itself include a number of important sentences on Dumanli and Zaman’s strong defense of free speech in Turkey. For example:

The two critical turning points came in 2013: [Erdoğan’s] government’s harsh treatment of protesters in Gezi Park and the systematic obstruction of justice after a major corruption scandal. Since then, Erdogan has branded dissenters and critics as traitors who are part of a vast international conspiracy to topple him.In the eyes of the regime, the journalists, TV producers and screenwriters detained by the police on Dec. 14 are members of an “armed terrorist organization” threatening the sovereignty of the state. Don’t look for confiscated arms, attack plans or suicide bombers disguised as journalists. Our fault was to report on government actions that are undermining the foundations of a democratic Turkey.Anyone who strays is harassed or fired. But as members of the free press, or whatever is left of it in Turkey, we are simply doing our jobs. All it takes to be called a terrorist under Erdogan’s regime is speaking out against government corruption and abuses of power. Verbal attacks, smear campaigns by pro-government media and legal harassment soon follow.

In other words, Dumanli and his Zaman (and its English-language version, Today’s Zaman) were only doing their job speaking truth to power and taking a stance for free speech. The schism with Erdogan is about his reactions to the Gezi protests in 2013 and his government’s rampant corruption.

This is funny. And i don’t mean that Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism is funny, nor the state of free speech in Turkey. No, I think it’s funny to hear Dumanli – of all people – write this. Because, if you’d actually been reading his articles of the last couple of years, you’d have thought that the Dumanli writing in the Washington Post and the Dumanli writing for the Gülenist press all these years are not necessarily the same person. If you’d been reading the articles of Today’s Zaman as much as I’ve done during this period, you’d be excused for thinking that the Washington Post editors were in need of a doctor.

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The Limp Economics of Erdoğan’s Vagina Monologues

You would have to be half dead from egg-toddy to fail to notice that Erdoğan’s talking about the Ladies again. Especially: their privates.

At a recent wedding, Turkey’s president had the following to say:

“One or two (children) is not enough. To make our nation stronger, we need a more dynamic and younger population. We need this to take Turkey above the level of modern civilizations. In this country, they (opponents) have been engaged in the treason of birth control for years and sought to dry up our generation.”

Erdogan’s preoccupation with Turks getting it on, sans capote, is nothing new. In fact, he’s been giving Turkish women more or less subtle fertility advice for a while now, having previously called abortion murderpleaded Turkish women to have more children, frequently reminding anyone willing to listen that women’s primary role is motherhood and that the jobs of men are unsuitable for women.

According to the latest Demographic Health Survey in Turkey from 2008, around 73 percent of female survey respondents said they used some form of contraceptives (46 percent a “modern method” like the pill, condom, or IUD) and unmet need for contraceptives was around 6 percent. What makes use of contraceptives in Turkey stand out, even among its peers (let’s for a moment assume Tunisia is one, where use of modern methods is 50 percent), is that modern use in Turkey tends to focus more on condoms than pills, 16.9 and 5.3 percent respectively in Turkey, compared to the reverse in Tunisia, 1.1 and 19 percent respectively. As such, even though modern methods of contraceptives have become commonplace in Turkey, on interpretation is that the bias toward condoms reflects men exerting greater control over birth control.

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Why are members of the “liberal” Turkish media so willing to eat their own?

The latest arrests of journalists in Turkey are more bad news for its democracy in general and its declining press freedom in particular. Readers of this blog will be familiar with my noting how most measures of freedom of expression in Turkey have receded going back quite a while, overwhelmingly a result of government crackdowns, fines, arrests, and threats.

Yet a rather striking aspect of Turkish media is the degree to which journalists seem to accept, or even excuse, the imprisonment and prosecution of their colleagues. And I don’t mean those from the slightly more putrid segments of the Turkish media market but the more liberal (albeit self-declared so) segments.

Take one example, which occurred in conjunction with the high-profile arrests of a group of Odatv journalists accused of being the “media arm” of Ergenekon, which at the time was alleged to be a secret terrorist network attempting to overthrow the government. The arrest of one of those journalists Ahmet Şık, became particularly controversial as he was just about to publish a critical book on the Gülen movement, and many of the key prosecutors of the trials are thought to be members of the Gülen movement. It didn’t help that, shortly after Şık’s arrest, a rather clumsy, if not comical, hunt started by the police to delete digital copies of the critical book. As with many of the other arrests in the trial, in many instances the suspects didn’t have much more in common than their criticism of the government and especially the Gülen movement.

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Tired of Bad Talking Points on Turkey

I recently ran across this old New York Times editorial, A Turkish Success Story, from January 28, 2004. It’s rather striking as it heaps praise over Erdogan even as he’s only been in power for less than a year:

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamic politician who favors democratic pluralism, it has enacted far-reaching reforms that are intended to meet the exacting admissions criteria of the European Union. Mr. Erdogan, who visits the White House today, is a strongly pro-Western leader

Now fast forward almost exactly 10 years later to another NYT editorial, Turkey’s Wrong Turn, from Jan 27, 2014:

[Erdogan’s] ruthless ways and his attempt to crush dissent are not new…. [his] actions trample on democratic reforms… and [is] increasingly at odds with… NATO.

and then another couple of months to October 31st 2014, to this:

“These days Mr. Erdogan stands for something quite different, having essentially pulled a Putin..”

In 10 years, NYT’s perception of Erdoğan has gone from pro-Western democratic pluralist to being Putin. Not many leaders of state have been able to accomplish that.

You’d imagine that such a huge shift in perceptions of one man would take years to develop. Well, not at the NYT. What is also unusual is that the NYT’s editorial team coverage of Turkey seems to have remained mostly positive until very recently – a recent article in Hürriyet Daily News showed, using a textual analysis that the NYT editorials that “[d]espite the speed of his decline in popularity, the New York Times largely continued to refrain from negative coverage about Mr. Erdoğan” except for parts of 2013 and most of 2014. Continue reading

The Illiberal Pull in Turkey

With Erdoğan’s victory in yesterday’s first round of the presidential elections, Turkey appears set for (at least) another five years of his rule. Whereas as Prime Minister, his powers were substantial (if not unprecedented in post-war Turkey), as President he will for now be holding a much more ceremonial post.

As a result, further institutional change is likely to be expected, as will be an attempt to reform Turkey’s political system into one with a much more powerful presidency. In doing so, we can expect attempts for a substantial institutional overhaul.

There are many problems with Turkey’s current institutions, and so reform is much needed. But whether new reform will lead Turkey towards more or less democracy is far from certain. What is more certain, however, is that Erdoğan will continue to rely on economic growth as a motor for his own popularity, and any institutional change will likely be infused with this.

As such, one would hope that Erdoğan and his team is currently reading up on key works of political economics to figure out how institutional change affects economic development. (Perhaps someone is plowing thru Why Nations Fail, or googling “Besley Persson”, “Acemoglu Robinson” right now.)

Another possibility is that Erdoğan and his team don’t care much for economics and instead start coming up with their own methods.

With Hungarian’s PM Orban’s recent proclamation that ““liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive,” and instead looking to “illiberal state(s)” like Russia and Turkey as a role models, one would wonder who Erdogan thinks of as a role model at present.

Given the weight Erdoğan puts on economic growth, for this purpose I made a graph of a number of selected countries and country groups’ GDP per capita path over the last two decades. It shows Turkey somewhere in the middle of the sample’s performance, increasing its GDP per capita since 2002 by 43 percent.



A noteworthy aspect is the ranking (given in the legend of the graph) which suggests many of the more authoritarian countries like China, Russia and Vietnam belong to those who have outperformed Turkey in economic terms, whereas many of the more democratic countries – both among emerging markets as well as the EU – have underperformed relative to Turkey.

A concern is that, like Orban, Erdoğan may end up looking towards China, Russia, and Vietnam as role models, not just because they offer authoritarianism per se but because they make up fast-growing authoritarian governments. His beliefs on whether a link between authoritarianism and economic development exists may very well end up determining Turkey’s institutional future.