Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey

The Republic of Türkiye (Turkey) is characterized by stark discrepancies in regional economic productivity. In 2021, nominal per capita GDP figures ranged from 153,479 Turkish Lira (17,089 US$) in Kocaeli Province, located east of Istanbul, to 26,837 Turkish Lira (2,988 US$) in Ağrı Province, located along Turkey’s eastern border. Although maps of Turkish per capita GDP by province are readily available, I made my own to highlight these regional disparities, accomplished mainly by using a two-color scheme.

The correlation between economic productivity and ethnicity in Turkey is close, at least on the low end of the spectrum. As can be seen by comparing the two posted above with that posted below, Turkey’s least economically productive provinces are all located in the primarily Kurdish southeast. The most economically productive provinces are concentrated on the other side of the country, in the northwest. This latter region includes both coastal provinces and provinces located in the northwestern quarter of the central Anatolian Plateau.

Historically, Turkey’s western coastal strip was much more productive than most of the rest of the country. Over the past several decades, however, a number of cities on the Anatolian Plateau have seen significant industrialization and rapid economic growth. Several have been deemed “Anatolian Tigers,” defined by Wikipedia as cities that “have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s, as well as a defined breed of entrepreneurs rising in prominence and who can often be traced back to the cities in question and who generally rose from the status of small and medium enterprises.” Some of these “Tiger cities,” however, are located closer to the coast than the plateau. (The locations of the “Anatolian Tigers,” as defined by Wikipedia, are shown on one of the maps below.)

A comparison of the map of Turkish economic productivity with that of the 2023 presidential election (see the previous post) reveals some interesting connections. To illustrate these patterns more clearly, I have outlined in red the provinces that supported challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, superimposing them on the per capita GDP map.

As can be seen, a majority of the Turkey’s richer and poorer provinces supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas most of its mid-level provinces supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Closer analysis, however, reveals that other factors are more important than per capita GDP for understanding the election results. For example, Kocaeli, Turkey’s most economically productive province, supported Erdoğan, as did most of its prosperous northwestern neighboring provinces. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the poor southeast, moreover, is less a reflection of economic standing than of Kurdish ethnicity, as most Kurds reject Erdoğan’s pronounced and ethnically inflected Turkish nationalism.

An interesting exception to the general patterns of anti-Erdoğan sentiments in the southeast is Şanlıurfa, which is one of Turkey’s poorest provinces; it also has, according to Wikipedia, a Kurdish majority. Yet Şanlıurfa decisively supported Erdoğan, as it had in the past several elections. But Şanlıurfa is more ethnically mixed than the Wikipedia article on it indicates; a 1996 study found that it had a Kurdish plurality but not a majority. Şanlıurfa is home to a substantial Arab community, as well as a very large refugee population. As the paired set of maps post below shows, the Arabic-speaking part of Şanlıurfa voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan. (The pattern is markedly different, however, in Turkey’s most heavily Arabic-speaking province, Hatay, as will be examined in a later post.)

Kılıçdaroğlu’s other main region of support was the far west and southwest, covering the European portion of Turkey and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Historically, this was the wealthiest part of Turkey, and it has long been the most liberal and Western-oriented part of the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that it supported the more liberal and Western-oriented candidate.

As the upper map posted above shows, Erdoğan’s main bastions of support are located in the core Anatolian Plateau, with the important exception of those areas dominated by the Alevi religious minority, and the Black Sea coast. Much of this region has seen substantial economic growth and infrastructural investment under Erdoğan’s leadership, has long been noted for its more conservative interpretations of Turkish nationalism. Many of the districts along the eastern half of the Black Sea coast had been heavily populated by ethnic Greeks before the early 1920s; when the local Greeks were expelled, Turks moved in, many of whom had themselves been expelled from Greece at the same time. It is not surprising that the descendants of such people are noted for their pronounced Turkish nationalism.

Two important provinces in the western portion of the Anatolian plateau supported Kılıçdaroğlu the 2023 election. One is Ankara, where the national capital (of the same name) is located, and the other is Eskişehir, which is noted for its large and strong universities. It is not surprising that these more cosmopolitan provinces voted against Erdoğan. Yet both provinces, and that of Istanbul as well, supported Erdoğan in the 2018 election, when his opposition was divided (see the maps below). From 2018 to 2023, Erdoğa lost ground in major urban areas, along the southern Mediterranean coast, and in the far northeast (another area with large ethnic minorities). Yet his overall vote stayed roughly the same, indicating a solidification of support over the core Anatolian region. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith may have played a significant role here.