The Last Word with… Erik Tillman
You have previously written that Turkey’s recent crackdown on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is designed with politics in mind. Can you please elaborate on this statement and the ‘rally ’round the flag’ effect? The “rally ’round the flag” effect describes an observed pattern of increased public support for national leaders during a diplomatic or military crisis. This rally effect is part of a general wave of patriotism or nationalism. It may also result from a feeling of threat, which leads more citizens to support national leaders in the hopes of keeping the country safe. Finally, it may result from a tendency of opposition leaders and the media to refrain from criticism of national leaders during a crisis. The existence of rally effects is pretty well documented, particularly in democracies such as the US or the UK that have a long track record of reliable public opinion polling. The start of a crisis can cause a substantial increase in the public approval of a leader (e.g., president or prime minister) of more than 10 percentage points.
In the present context, the timing of the re-escalation of the PKK conflict seems motivated by electoral concerns. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) primarily lost two sets of votes in the June 7 elections (compared to 2011): Kurdish voters switched their support to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and conservative, nationalist Turkish voters switched their vote to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). A re-escalation of the conflict with PKK seems geared toward regaining the support of this latter group of voters. In that sense, it may be the result of selfimposed constraints. One reason for declining AK Party support is the unpopularity of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to create a “presidential” system. Since he wants to continue to pursue this goal of expanding his presidential powers, he and the AK Party must find other ways of increasing their electoral support. Because rally effects typically only last for six to 12 months before that increased support begins to decay, it makes sense to go forward with early elections in November. How likely is it for the AK Party to increase its support through rally effects and hold on to a majority during the Nov. 1 elections?
There are some caveats to the rally effect that may be relevant in this case. First, I noted that one of the proposed causes of the rally effect is that opposition leaders and media engage in self-restraint during a crisis. That has not been the case in Turkey; opposition leaders have accused Erdoğan of manufacturing the crisis for his (and the AK Party’s) electoral benefit. So that has made it less likely that anyone who voted for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the MHP would rally to the AK Party. Second, prior research has shown that rally effects depend on trust in the leader. When citizens do not trust the leader, then they will not rally to support him or her. Given how distrustful many opposition supporters are of Erdoğan, it seems unlikely that many would switch their vote to support him. Finally, and related to the previous two points, Turkey’s electorate seems very polarized. Those individuals who switched from the AK Party to the MHP in the June 7 elections may be persuaded to return their support to the AK Party.
So, how could this strategy work for the AK Party? First, changes in election results depend not only on voters switching their party loyalties; they also depend on changes in turnout among different groups of voters. Given the advantages that the AK Party possesses in control of state resources and the media, it may have an advantage mobilizing voters for yet another election (the fourth in less than two years). Through continued attacks on the HDP and its leaders, it may also seek to try to divide and demoralize Kurdish voters. Second, there is also a darker side to this. Since the re-escalation of the conflict, a number of HDP leaders have been detained and a number of areas in the southeast of Turkey have been declared security zones. I think there is real cause for concern about the fairness of the upcoming election if it is conducted while areas of HDP support are under a form of emergency rule.
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