The earthquake may not influence voter behavior in Turkey’s election
EVREN BALTA- Following the earthquakes that caused unprecedented destruction in Turkey’s southeast, many analysts had suggested that the disaster and the government’s inefficient relief efforts would cause Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) to lose a significant portion of the vote in the upcoming elections. Presenting the latest research results, Evren Balta argues that this may not be the case as change in electoral behavior depends on multiple factors besides the recent disaster. Balta writes:
“In 1965, Hurricane Betsy hits Florida, USA shortly before the local elections were set to occur. The hurricane causes millions of dollars in damage and the opposition party in the city voices its indignation over the city’s hurricane preparedness. Though the hurricane causes considerable anger among the public, it does not lead to a significant change in their voting behavior and the incumbent mayor wins the election.
How was it that the city government evaded punishment by the electorate even after a catastrophe that caused widespread damage? According to researchers studying this question, anger is not an emotion that can easily be replaced. The degree to which victims seek to hold government leaders responsible for the destruction depends on their perception of those leaders prior to the disaster. These perceptions determine to whom the anger will be directed. Other studies on voting behavior after disasters produce conflicting results. However, the studies all show that the electorate’s evaluation of the government’s performance depends on expectations, perceptions, relationships with the party/leader in question, and many other factors that are shaped prior to the earthquake.
What is the situation in Turkey?
According to a survey of 1,930 participants conducted by TEAM research company between February 18 to 20, the results, which have not yet been shared with the public but which we have been allowed to convey with special permission, show that there is no a great deviation in the vote share measured before or after the earthquake. The vote share of the People's Alliance, which had hit its lowest point in spring 2022, has begun to rise since then due to many factors. According to the findings of some public opinion polls, the People’s Alliance polled slightly ahead of the Nation Alliance last month.
TEAM’s new research shows that the Nation Alliance, the People's Alliance, and the HDP, the three big blocs in the election, maintained their pre-earthquake vote shares. The vote share of the People's Alliance is 44 percent this month. Most surprising is that when asked “which one of Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu would you vote for?” responses showed Erdogan’s vote rate surpass Kilicdaroglu and increase by almost 3 points compared to January 2023.
Little change in voting behavior
To the contrary, many expected that this catastrophic event, after which everyone in the earthquake region pointed to the absence of the state’s disaster relief and which was rife with scandal, desperation, inefficiency, and lack of coordination, would have a political consequence. The political party and its leader that built its political discourse on being a strong state and crowned its political project with houses, roads, and bridges could have been buried under collapsed buildings.
Considering the studies mentioned above, which claim that the perception and values of the electorate pre-disaster are the most important factors in evaluating the government's disaster performance, this result is not surprising, though it is frightening — because if a disaster of such proportions fails to create change, what can? What could be the reason for the electorate’s preferences to remain as they are, when nothing else so far has remained normal?
Factors affecting voter preferences
I think one answer to this question has to do with timing. When a major traumatic event happens to you, there may be a time delay between your experiences and the reflection of these experiences onto your political attitudes and voting preferences. The emotion may come first, and the change in behavior and attitude that occurs after the processing of the emotion may come later.
More importantly, such disasters can create a desire for conservatism in many people. When your house is on fire, the last thing you want in your life is bigger changes. You may even think that the person responsible for the burning of your house is the most competent person to put out that fire, and that his responsibility in that fire gives him a responsibility to put out that fire.
In the current context, it may be the case that a comprehensive and multi-actor transformation project inspires fear when the country is still under rubble, and people may be looking for someone to remove the debris rather than to bring change.
Polarization is still decisive
A factor just as important as the sense of timing and conservatism is that Turkey experienced this natural disaster alongside the emotional political polarization that has long dominated its political climate. It seems that this polarization largely determines society’s expectations.
As a matter of fact, the same research also measured the emotional relationship voters form with politics. Those data show that the emotional polarization among the voters did not decrease due to the earthquake.
While Nation Alliance voters express anger (77.6%) and anxiety (74.4%), voters supporting the ruling bloc do not experience these feelings at the same rate. The rate of those who say they are angry is 31.3 percent, and the rate of those who say they are anxious is 39.4 percent. The rate of People's Alliance voters who say they are hopeful is 52.7 percent. Yes, you read that right! They express “hope!”
Moreover, the vast gap between these emotional states have shaped the voters' reactions to the disaster, who they hold responsible, what their expectations are from the government, and ultimately, their voting preferences.
TEAM also asked the voters who they held responsible for this disaster. The responses to this question shed light on why voter behavior has not changed. Respondents indicated that contractors (38.7 percent) are the most to be blame. The rate of those who hold the current government responsible is 35.8 percent. In a society where the culture of political responsibility is low and the public does not have mechanisms to hold the government accountable, this result is not surprising. And again, it mirrors the polarization along party lines.
The government’s rhetoric of, “We did our best, but greedy contractors used the system to their advantage and created this disaster, we will hold them accountable” seems to have influenced its own voter base. The attempt to meet the demand for justice by punishing solely contractors is an effort that has substantial support in a context in which responsibility is established on an individual not political basis and in which society is complicit in the extent of the destruction by cutting corners in construction.
How can we overcome this collapse?
The current administration is trying to escape the rubble that has crushed us through a new construction process that places the blame on fate and on individuals with malicious intent. On the one hand, it guarantees that it will rebuild what has been destroyed; on the other hand, it fuels the existing tendency for polarization with all its might.
As Oguz Isik stated in his article discussing the effects of looting culture on the formation of new cities, in a society where everyone believes they have the right to violate rules, seeks rights only for themselves and for their own small communities, does not recognize any rules when it comes to their own interests, and can easily infringe on the rights of others, voting preferences are returning to the “normal” curve at the speed of light. This society, which over the years has so generously embraced a massive culture of plunder by denying its existence, erasing it from memory, blaming it on fate, and, whenever possible, delights in the fruit of that plundering culture, shows a similar tolerance for forgiveness.
The reestablishment of hope
It is difficult to say that only the economic crisis or only the earthquake disaster will significantly change voting preferences. We can only emerge from this culture of exploitation through a strong politicization that prioritizes the common good and long-term social interest. Even though we seem to have returned to our political normal right after the earthquake, the demand for limiting the interest-oriented myopic politics and the ways of doing politics accordingly is more possible today than ever before. Our hope is in the re-establishment of the common sense and public concern in a much stronger and more inclusive way than the form we have lost.”
This article was originally published in Turkish here on March 1, 2023.