“My issue is cooking oil,” Dya Alawa, a 37-year-old Turkish woman said on the day of Turkey’s historic July election, which saw the Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerge with a resounding victory. “That’s why I’m voting AKP,” she told the Washington Post. For her, the election was simple: the economy has improved under AKP stewardship since 2002, her husband has less fear of layoffs at his textile factory and she can buy cooking oil at reasonable prices.
Indeed, Alawa is not alone. While the Turkish elections grabbed headlines and raised questions about the country’s “secular soul”–as the AKP, a party with its roots in political Islam, won the presidency and retained the premiership at the same time–many ordinary Turks paid more attention to bread-and-butter issues of jobs, prices and the economy. Herein lies the irony of the AKP victory: it was not a victory of Islamists over Ataturk, nor was it a repudiation of Turkey’s secular inheritance, as suggested by alarmed members of the secular establishment. The AKP victory was one of sound economic policy, amid an environment largely untainted by corruption, that made people like Dya Alawa feel secure about their future.
It’s a lesson that the next US administration ought to learn well as it searches for a grand strategy for the Middle East and for the developing world. Far too often (and especially in the past six years), Washington has failed to listen closely enough to the voices of people like Alawa, instead preferring the urbane intellectuals who turn up in fellowships in Washington or visiting professorships at Harvard (and are granted meetings with the President and the Secretary of State). When we listen to the Alawas of the developing world, we hear a familiar refrain: we want jobs, decent wages, hope for the future and governments untainted by corruption.
These sentiments–which turn up in global polls of developing countries, and especially the Middle East–fuel the rise of populists from Latin America to Africa as well as “social justice” utopian Islamist movements from Morocco to Egypt to Indonesia that challenge the plutocratic elites often supported by Washington. The key words and themes used by the Islamist parties–justice, development, jobs, corruption of the ruling elite, the dangers of globalization–ring familiar to anyone who listens to the speeches of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela or Evo Morales of Bolivia.
In the Middle East/North Africa region–which has one of the youngest populations in the world and is awash in frustration at the status quo–this populist-versus-plutocrat dichotomy can be a winning card. The trouble is that most populists are good at sloganeering against the ruling elites but bad at governing. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has governed as a probusiness moderate, not as a chest-thumping populist. Still, it was popular anger at the ruling elite amid the ruins of Turkey’s 2001 financial crisis that spurred Erdogan to power.
Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also played the populist card in the 2005 elections. At that time, the reformist wind had died down, as President Mohammad Khatami had been outmuscled by the conservative establishment. Iranians–gripped by an economic unease fueled by inflation, stagnant wages and anemic job growth–were either frustrated with the reformers and thus sat out the elections or were more concerned with the price of meat and onions than with abstract notions of civil society and dialogue among civilizations. Ahmadinejad exploited that latter sentiment well. He delivered a populist message and railed against corruption (and said nary a word about Israel or the Holocaust). It proved to be a winning card in Iran’s admittedly limited elections. Unlike Erdogan, however, Ahmadinejad has not managed the economy well (in fact, he has proven disastrous) and will likely face in 2009 a skeptical voting public frustrated by soaring inflation and unemployment (only a US-led attack on Iran might save him now).