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How Ramadan fasting impacts elections

people break their fast during the holy month of ramadan at sultanahmet square in istanbul
People break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, Turkey, March 11, 2024. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Erdogan’s party seeks advantage as Turkey’s local elections coincide with Ramadan

By Ozan Aksoy

Millions of voters in Turkey will head to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors in local elections. These elections are seen as crucial both for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which has been in power since 2002, and the opposition.

The last time Turkey held local elections, in March 2019, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost key cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. It will be looking to win them back. At the same time, retaining key cities would help revive Turkey’s opposition after it failed to defeat Erdogan in the 2023 national and presidential elections.

How will the elections pan out on Sunday? Many things have happened since the last local elections, not least the Covid pandemic and the devastating earthquakes that rocked the country in 2023. But one thing is clearly different this time. While the elections in 2019 happened before the holy month of Ramadan, the 2024 elections will happen at the height of Ramadan.

Research from 2022 that I co-authored with my colleague, Diego Gambetta, suggests that Ramadan can drive up the intensity of religious beliefs, bolster the success of religious organisations and even influence the results of elections.

Erdogan’s AKP has a strong base of support among people from the conservative tradition of Turkey. This could give the party an extra edge. However, the role Ramadan might play in the elections is intricate.

Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic year. It is a month where religious activities as well as charity and community services increase. Muslims abstain from drinking, eating, smoking and sexual intimacy from sunrise to sunset for a whole month.

Ramadan fasting is a physically and mentally demanding religious practice. Nevertheless, a very large majority of Muslims report to be adhering to the full month of fasting.

A particular feature of Ramadan is that its start date is based on the lunar calendar. The lunar year is shorter than the solar year. Therefore, the whole month of Ramadan shifts back in the solar year by about 11 days each year. Because fasting happens between sunrise and sunset, this means that how long people must fast in a Ramadan day varies over the years.

How much day length changes over the years also varies by latitude. Take, for instance, London. When Ramadan falls in December (which happened during the late 1990s), a Muslim Londoner fasts for slightly less than eight hours. However, when Ramadan falls in June (which happened in 2015), the fasting duration is nearly 17 hours, a difference of nine hours.

In Antakya, the southernmost city in Turkey, the same difference between a winter and summer Ramadan day length is only about five hours (just below ten hours in winter and just above 14 hours in summer).

The changing start date of Ramadan gives researchers a source of variation in the costliness of religious practice. This variation, in turn, helps researchers tackle the following longstanding social scientific puzzle.

As the cost of an activity increases (in this case, the physical and mental demands of fasting), people should, in theory, not be willing to spend as many resources on it, assuming all else remains equal. Economists call this the law of demand. In the religious domain, however, something different seems to happen.

Research shows that the more effort someone exerts in religious practice, the more religious they get, and subsequently the more successful religious organisations that require those practices become.

The mechanisms that give rise to this effect seem to involve adaptive preferences. This is where gradually increasing effort in a certain task raises a person’s commitment to the task. Indeed, the change in fasting duration over the years happens only gradually rather than abruptly.

If religiosity increases and religious organisations become more successful during and after Ramadans with long fasting days, we can, in principle, detect the effects of Ramadan on the electoral cycle. The longer people are fasting during Ramadan, the more votes Islamic political parties should get.

We tested this prediction in our research using data from Turkey, focusing on the parliamentary elections from 1973 to 2018. We found that a half-hour rise in the duration of Ramadan fasting increases the vote share of Islamist political parties by 11 per cent. The sooner the election is after Ramadan, the stronger the effect of fasting duration on Islamic votes.

It seems that gradually exerting higher religious effort further intensifies religious beliefs and participation, which in turn drives up votes for political parties with religious connotations.

All else equal, which admittedly is never the case, the fact that Turkey’s local elections are taking place during Ramadan should help Islamist political parties gain ground, including Erdogan’s AKP.

However, Ramadan day length in the northern hemisphere peaked in 2019 and has been decreasing since. This could mean that Islamic parties will face a steeper uphill struggle to keep their votes in the longer term. This is particularly true at northern latitudes (both within Turkey and beyond) where the decline in Ramadan day length is stronger.

It is difficult to tell which of these two opposing effects of Ramadan will dominate on March 31. But polls show that the race between AKP and the opposition is very close in many places.

In such close elections small factors could tip the balance. Time will soon tell who Ramadan will be most generous towards.

Ozan Aksoy is associate professor in social science, UCL

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