Rational Choice and How Erdogan Keeps Winning
Last week, the outcome of Turkey’s monumental parliamentary and presidential elections shocked many voters and analysts in the West. President Erdogan won 52.6% of the votes and claimed victory in the first round against a much-hyped secularist candidate Muharrem Ince. The MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) matched its performance in the previous elections and massively outperformed the polls; while the Nation Alliance stalled at 33.9% and failed to capture the parliamentary majority thanks to the CHP’s (Republican People’s Party) worst showing since 2007 and IYI Party’s underwhelming debut. The energy observed in the rallies did not translate to the ballot, and Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) extended their 16-year rule, promising a “new Turkey.” As the dust starts to settle on the results, a hauntingly familiar question seems to be on everyone’s mind: “How did Erdogan once again win easily?”
The short answer is, do not start blaming the voters - at least not entirely. This is the failure of the opposition parties and candidates who sold false hope based on flawed opinion polls, strategic miscalculations and hubris as much as it is Erdogan’s success. How could we explain the newest major political actor in Turkey, Meral Aksener’s claim that she would beat Erdogan in the second round (over Ince and Demirtas), otherwise? Erdogan sealed the deal in the first round; Aksener won a disappointing 7.2% of the vote while her party gained 9.9%.
Political scientists often approach modeling electoral behavior and decision making as a rational choice problem. This provides a utilitarian and functional framework, stripping it from all the noise and politicking and keeping the focus on the individual decision maker. In theory, the rational agent makes the best self-determined choice as a result of a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account all available information and probable outcomes. Every individual explores all available options and preferences, then reaches an informed final decision, which they are able to explain in a transitive manner, if asked. Therefore, the aggregate behavior on societal level is the sum of well-informed individual decisions. In democratic systems, therefore, elections are processes whereby presumably well-informed voters choose one party or candidate over others for a series of rational reasons. The problem, however, is more complex as rational choice assumes a series of perfect conditions that may not exist for every member of the society.
A simple rational choice model assumes that individual decision makers have perfect information about all alternatives. Here, a few issues arise pertaining to the Turkish electorate decision making process. First, Erdogan’s opponents faced an uneven playing field and had difficulty communicating with the voters, resulting in imperfect information. Turkish media is often criticized for being biased towards Erdogan and AKP. In the 45-day period leading up to the election, few private TV channels interviewed candidates in primetime to soaring high ratings but the combined airtime of all five opposition candidates on state television was less than one-thirds of that of Erdogan. While the candidates utilized social media effectively, previous analyses argue that social media algorithms keep voters in their own political bubble. In other words, it is likely that voters who do not actively look for information regarding other candidates and their platforms were not exposed to this information in social and traditional media. Second, President Erdogan refused to participate in debates with other candidates. Debates are essential to a democratic process, and allows voters to compare and contrast candidates’ positions on issues before casting their votes. By depriving the electorate of this opportunity, President Erdogan hindered voters’ access to information, hence their ability to make a well-informed decision.
Obstructing voters’ access to information also affect individuals’ ability to make informed decisions. Rational choice assumes that identifying and evaluating every single alternative (in and of itself and against each other) is time-consuming and requires a certain level of cognitive ability. In an environment where perfect information is not available or conflated, the process becomes more difficult. The best example of this is the fact that Erdogan and the AKP won in cities that voted against the presidential system engineered by them in last year’s referendum. In the referendum, there were two sides with clear positions and messages. The “Yes” camp of the AKP and MHP advocated for the passage of a series of constitutional amendments to revamp the Turkish political system to establish a presidency with extensive powers over all branches of the government and the military. The “No” campaign managed to bring together several opposition parties of different creeds, who collectively warned the electorate of the dangers of the new system, and especially of an omnipotent Erdogan with unchecked powers. Although the “Yes” campaign won with a slight majority, the united “No” front gave the opposition parties much hope, and to a certain extent influenced how the opinion polling was done and interpreted leading up to the election. Elections naturally involve more issues, generating more information to be processed by the decision maker. Because it is near impossible for every member of the society to find and process information pertaining to every candidate’s position on every issue, their final decision is weighted by their issues of choice as opposed to a simpler choice between yes and no. This is where the opinion polls seem to have failed, too. Many analysts argued that the opposition would either capture the presidency or the parliamentary majority if they could manage to carry the momentum created during the referendum.
Lastly, the applicability of rational choice is challenged by the assumption that humans are inclined to attach extra value to things they are already familiar with, even if the alternative is equally as good or better. In the crudest terms, Ince, Aksener, and Demirtas lost to an Erdogan who has been a constant figure from TV screens and public transportation vehicles to billboards and public buildings for the last sixteen years. It is a widely accepted fact by now that the opposition candidates seemingly controlled the narrative for the most part, but played the game on Erdogan’s terms, nevertheless. Ince and Aksener’s campaign promises sampled those of previous Erdogan campaigns, they failed to effectively communicate their policy positions and plans to masses beyond their base, and more importantly, could not manage a campaign without attacking Erdogan. Even Demirtas, the unlawfully imprisoned leader of HDP (People’s Democratic Party) and presidential candidate, spent a good portion of his 10 minutes on the state television explaining to voters why they should not vote for Erdogan. Despite all the criticism, domestically and abroad, Erdogan’s base unconditionally support all of his decisions from military operations to the purging of journalists, academics, and military personal for ”terrorist activities.” They see Erdogan as a strong man who puts fear in the hearts of Western leaders and does not hesitate to send the military after Kurdish terrorist, marching into neighboring countries, and turn a blind eye to soaring foreign exchange rates, decreasing GDP, and increasing youth unemployment rate. Aksener and Ince established their platforms on their alternative policy suggestions on these issues, yet failed to present a different enough alternative to convince the voters, especially when they represent a hard transition on ongoing issues. For many voters, the election came down to better the proverbial devil they knew then the devils they didn’t.
These elections showed a fundamental intellectual flaw in the Turkish center and left parties that if they believed hard enough, if they traveled to more cities and drew larger crowds than Erdogan, and if they complained about how hard it is to run against a leader who utilizes all state resources to ensure his victory, they will be victorious at the end. In the meantime, Erdogan and his AKP won their sixth consecutive national elections in 16 years against a plethora of opposition leaders and continues to build the Turkey he wants to see.