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Talking Turkey: How does corruption affect voting behavior?

As Turkey’s corruption scandal continues to evolve and claim the jobs of more members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, it is worth pausing to consider the reaction of Turkish voters. After all, one reason Erdogan is likely to have accepted the resignations of members of his cabinet is because he is concerned about the effect of the scandal on voters in future elections. Is this a legitimate concern?

In recently published research in the journal Electoral StudiesNew York University politics PhD candidate Marko Klašnja and I used two survey experiments to examine the effect of corruption on voting behavior in a high corruption country (Moldova) and a low corruption country (Sweden). In both cases, respondents were asked how they would expect a citizen to vote in an election for a hypothetical mayor and were provided with two pieces of information. The first piece of information concerned whether economic conditions had improved or gotten worse in the mayor’s city; the second concerned allegations of either corrupt behavior in the city or actions on behalf of the mayor to fight corruption.

The results were illuminating. In Sweden, our “low corruption” country, voters punished the mayor for corruption regardless of the state of the economy. In Moldova, however, voters punished the mayor for corruption only when the economy was also bad. When economic conditions had improved, however, voters appeared less concerned about corruption.

We interpreted these findings as reflecting different realities. In a country like Sweden where corruption is less prevalent, any corrupt behavior is punished as unacceptable. In Moldova, where corruption is much more prevalent, voters may be more willing to tolerate corruption if the mayor can prove himself or herself “competent” along another dimension such as economic performance. Only when the mayor also proves to be a failure in terms of managing the economy do voters in our study also punish corruption.

What does this portend for Turkey? While of course our experiment involves only two countries and is focused on a hypothetical mayor and not a prime minister, we can still ask where Turkey lies on the corruption scale. Perhaps the most widely used measure of comparative levels of corruption across different countries is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

In the 2013 version of the index, Turkey (ranked the 55th most-clean country out of 177) is almost halfway between Sweden (tied for 3rd) and Moldova (tied for 102nd).  With Turkey’s economic growth having declined significantly in the past few years (although perhaps ticking up in 2013), this suggests that while Erdogan’s position may not be as precarious as it would be in a low corruption Nordic country, he still probably has good reason to be concerned.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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