Foreigners in Turkey often joke about his seemingly wild remarks. As a casual visitor to Turkey, talking to Turks may leave you with the impression that no-one, absolutely no-one, is in favour of the AKP. After all, Turkey is meant to be a democratic country, so someone must be voting them in. Every time an election comes around, the AKP wins. Who is voting for the much-maligned AKP? Quite simply, most average working-class Turks.
To understand the current situation, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning of AKP rule. In 2002, when the party came to power, Turkey’s economy was in a mess. Erdogan, as prime minister, brought the country out of the doldrums and turned it into an economic powerhouse. Quality of life for the average Turk increased substantially. Today, the availability of easy credit has meant that ordinary people can afford a standard of living that would have been inaccessible to them in the past.
Glancing around on public transport in Istanbul shows that most people own expensive smartphones. Turkey has become a consumerist society, reflected by its jam-packed shopping malls. Many people buy their homes on credit. A lot of voters believe that if another party gained power, Turkey’s current economic strength would be at risk and they may lose their current standard of daily life.
What does the typical AKP voter look like? Much of the time they are working class, religiously conservative, live outside of Istanbul and Izmir, and have a fairly low level of education. They have more immediate things to worry about than freedom of speech and accessing Twitter. These are matters of luxury. Instead, the average Turk’s daily concerns include keeping their homes going, feeding their families and maintaining their standards of living. If the AKP can facilitate all this, then it must be the best party to vote for.
What about the Gulen question? We hear a lot of talk, some of it bordering on the hysterical, about the ‘parallel state’, led by the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, apparently plotting to bring down the Turkish government. But just a few short years ago, the Gulen movement (known as Hizmet) and the AKP were political allies. What changed? Some analysts say that the tipping point was the difference of opinion between the two regarding the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010. Others insist that conflict and power struggles between the Gulen movement and the AKP were bubbling under the surface long before this public incident brought them out in the open.
Whatever the case, the relationship has frozen solid. Gulen and anything associated with him have become ‘bete noir’ in Turkey. This is bad news for those institutions linked to the Hizmet. Graduates of Hizmet universities are suffering because many employers refuse to hire them. When these students started their courses, their university was considered strong and a solid choice for good future prospects. Now the political climate has changed dramatically, and these young people are experiencing problems as a result, because they just happened to choose a Gulen-linked institution.
Foreigners living in Turkey, especially those with basic or no comprehension of the Turkish language, often develop a distorted picture of the country’s political views. The types of Turks we make friends with tend to be those with higher levels of education, who are secular and have European leanings. They are usually English speaking members of the middle class who are active on social media and would consider themselves ‘intelligentsia’.
In practical terms, it would be difficult for a foreigner with limited Turkish to casually discuss Turkish politics with the average working class Turk. So as foreigners we often end up thinking that most Turks despise the government and scoff at the president’s ridiculous remarks. We hear them bemoaning the perceived loss of various freedoms, and airing their views on Turkey’s slide towards becoming the next Islamic Republic. When we see a picture like this, it’s easy to think ‘who on earth votes AKP?’ But the reality is, so many Turks do.