Yousef Al-Dayni

Identity and the Question of the Economy: A Reading of the Turkish Elections

The Turkish electorate has made its decision, and President Erdogan received 52.14% of the vote. He will begin his third term, which will leave him in office until 2028 and will be his last, as the country’s constitution does not allow for a fourth term.

In discussing these elections, we cannot avoid the paradoxes of the result. Indeed, they do not reflect the broad discontent with the Turkish economy that preceded it, when the value of the Turkish Lira declined to reach levels that one would expect to push President Erdogan out of office.

Even after successive crises, this is not what happened. Instead, the outcome clearly demonstrated the ruling parties’ flexibility in making use of utopian ideology and slogans to put questions of the economy and development to one side. The impact of these matters was not seen in the ballot box, though yesterday’s election results had negative implications on these questions, which left the dollar equivalent to 20.5 Turkish Liras.

Most of the battles in the elections of today are not fought on the ground. Online campaigning has become immensely consequential, rendering complaints about unofficial control of the media untenable. In fact, the opposition made use of help from influential foreign friends, who presented this democratic competition as a question of right and wrong. This brings us back to a fully-fledged crisis facing “boxocracy,” in which the public chooses among electoral programs based on how they promise to build the national economy and the institutions of the country rather than identitarian clashes and disputes over immigration.

This means that we must analyze each political experience in its particular context. In political literature, this is known as the paradox of electoral behavior. It sees questions of political identity, regional affiliation, and religious and ideological doctrine determine how the electorate votes, allowing parties to maintain the support of their electoral base through nothing more than this base’s fears for itself and its future.

Here, we find a second paradox: the Justice and Development Party emerged as a savior of the economy at a time when the Turkish economy was floundering, a devastating earthquake had recently wreaked havoc on the country, and the coalition government of Ecevit could not fix things. This was the state of play in 2002 when the star of the Justice and Development Party began rising.

Thus, it did not make its rise as a political powerhouse by emphasizing questions of identity or ideological slogans but by providing answers to questions tied to the economy. It sought stability through a truce with rival parties and even opponents, among them the PKK. In fact, when Türkiye’s economic performance peaked in 2010, even Western powers were in awe.

This economic rise did not continue, as this same party reneged on its commitment to develop the economy. Instead, it took economic measures that put questions of identity at the fore and fed into partisan slogans and populist politics. The result was a significant rise in interest rates. Then, the earthquake deepened the economic gap, and many expressed grievances about how the humanitarian crisis it created was managed. Their resentments are evident if one looks at the results geographically.

Today, Westerners, especially research centers, think tanks, and analytical agencies, are trying to wrap their heads around the outcome. Indeed, Erdogan’s victory, albeit by a small margin, was achieved despite immense economic challenges and his poor crisis management. It led “Foreign Policy” to question the famous quote of James Carville, the Clinton campaign’s renowned strategist: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This assertion later became the title of many articles, books, and studies that affirmed the primacy of the economy over all else, from theories and slogans to everything in between. It is a simplistic interpretation that demonstrates a highly reductionist understanding of the Marxist analysis of the substructure (or base) from which all superstructures, including the political, are built.

Today, approaches to understanding voter behavior based on slogans and identity are gaining steam. They are particularly relevant during times of great economic strain. Marcel Gauchet, a prominent French historian and political philosopher, presents a thesis crucial to understanding this phenomenon in his essential book “Religion in Democracy,” which discusses the questions of identity and religious slogans in politics. He traces this link back to Ancient Greece, and he argues that it remained relevant even during the European Enlightenment, though religion and identity were replaced by ideology, thereby preventing the institutionalization of politics founded on the principle of public interest that disregards slogans.

By the way, this pursuit was a prominent feature of the approach taken by our early jurists, especially the Maqasids. However, the same could not be said of contemporary democratic processes, as separating civil, political, religious and cultural fields is all but impossible outside the French experience, or what Rousseau called “absolute sovereignty” and Gauchet dubbed “democratic neutrality.”

As Gauchet has stressed, we are currently in the age of identities. He claims that we now have ties between individuals and social spaces brought together only through alliances of marginal identities, and they do not necessarily manifest political and electoral pluralism or a democracy of identities.

The results of the Turkish election reflect the explosion of marginal and subsidiary identities. Moreover, this explosion is seen in every country where the political regime fails to invest in three things: citizens, infrastructure, and institutions. Instead, such regimes build patron-client relationships to create a hybrid system that swings between capitalism and historical identity.

The Saudi experience presents the region with the template it needs today. Saudi Arabia is incorporating its vision into its legislation and state institutions, investing in its citizens and turning identity and culture into cultural capital that shapes its economic structure and enhances its economic performance. It is doing all of this while ensuring maximum accountability and transparency, state public investment, and curbing corruption. We see this in the effort to turn sub-identities into competitive advantages that poured into “citizenship,” the mother of identities.