Ola Claësson
Last updated: 6 February, 2014

4 Reasons why Erdogan is still popular

Despite an incriminating graft scandal Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his AK Party are still relatively unharmed politically. Why? Ola Claësson has the answers.

Turkey is currently going through a period of extreme turmoil, since a graft probe, targeting three ministers from Erdogan’s government was made public on 17 December 2013. The government later obstructed a second probe, implicating Erdogan and his close family.

It is the biggest setback for Erdogan since he was elected prime minister in 2003. The timing is also sensitive since 2014 contains two critical elections, starting with local elections on 30 March, followed by the presidential elections in August.

However, recent polls show that the AK Party is relatively unharmed by the graft scandal and would still get above 40% of the votes. To understand how this can be, it is important to understand some facts about Turkey and the demography of its population.

1. Conservatives’ relation to Erdogan
Tourists visiting Turkey mostly spend their time in the historic parts of Istanbul and along the western coast. Here, most of the country’s liberal and modern citizens live. However, a big part of the Turkish population holds conservative values. For example 50 percent of the women in Turkey wear headscarf, and about the same percentage of the population look upon themselves as religious persons and visit mosques regularly. Erdogan, who efficiently used his own conservative background and religious beliefs in his political career, has become a hero for this part of the population. Therefore he is more immune to political crises.

2. Attitude towards corruption
Another reason why the graft scandal has not hurt AK Party more is that the attitude towards corruption in Turkey is more relaxed and pragmatic than it is in Western countries. Not only does Turkey have a long history of political corruption, but corruption can also be said to be part of the culture, in the sense that family, friends and informal networks always play a big role in business life on all levels. What surprised people when the graft probe against the government became public was not the graft itself, but that the police did something about it.

3. Access to information
Access to unbiased information is also difficult in the country. About 50% of the population do not have access to Internet and many of those are the conservatives that voted for Erdogan in the previous elections. The source of information for this group is mostly pro-government newspapers and TV-channels, who consistently report the graft probe as a plot against the government. Critical newspapers are hard to get hold of in conservative parts of the country. 

4. Lack of alternatives
There is also a lack of political alternatives contributing to the AK Party’s continued support from the conservative voters. CHP, the left wing main opposition party, would be unthinkable for many them to vote for, because of the party’s close ties to the old military regime and their secularist stance. The other main alternative, MHP, would also be complicated due to their extreme nationalistic history.

All the above factors taken together make many conservative voters stick with Erdogan and the AK Party, despite the graft allegations. However, it is generally considered that this decision might change if the political turmoil transfers into serious economical difficulties for the country. And such difficulties might be on its way.

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On the 27January the Turkish central bank increased the one-week lending rate by double, from 4.5 to 10 percent, as a response to a quickly depreciating Turkish lira. This has, however, had relatively little effect. In a situation with high interests and a continuing weak lira, a drastic economic slow down is inevitable.

The only question is: will the political effect be felt before the elections?

Don’t miss Ola’s blog What’s Up, Turkey?