Turkey: Will Erdoğan hold on to his voter base at all costs? Can he retain it?

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Translated by Gizem Ünsalan

When it comes to the Democracy and Progress Party and the Future Party, the issue on most people’s minds is how much of AKP’s base will they be able to attract to their cause. Is it possible for these parties to ensure that Erdoğan’s base abandons him?

Hello, good day. The new parties, Future Party and Democracy and Progress Party, have been on our radar quite significantly in recent days. And as they begin to settle into our national agenda, a certain question comes up again: Will Erdoğan be able to retain his base? How will these parties win over Erdoğan’s base—and how much, which segments, which people? Not just the base, but let’s say the ceiling, too—meaning the staff. As you know, there are some speculations, people claiming that there will be some members of parliament who switch to these parties, etc. Now, the main problem here takes the form of questions, namely how much Erdoğan owns his base of support, his staff, and his organization, to what extent he manages to retain it, and how he does or can do it. At this point, there is a common mistake, and that is to equate Erdoğan’s AK Party base with solely the National Vision. This is a wrong approach because when the movement started—when it started after the Welfare Party and the Virtue Party—of course, it took over certain things from those parties’ base: It took over the votes, some of the organization, as well as the staff. But then, as it made progress and rose to power, it continuously expanded its base through its actions while in power. In particular, it attracted a majority of the group known as the center-right, who had, until then, lost hope in the Motherland Party and the True Path Party—and during those days, the early 2000s, these parties slowly disappeared. In fact, the movement even managed to attract people from the center-left, in a sense, and it gravitated toward becoming a mass party. 

Therefore, it would be wrong to view the AK Party as a continuation of the National Vision, but, of course, its main support staff was largely comprised of National Vision supporters. The organizations also had people from the Welfare and Virtue years to a large extent, but over time this changed. To the extent that Erdoğan specifically wanted to gain sole control of the party and, consequently, gain sole control of Turkey, he gradually neutralized, marginalized, and discharged some of his old colleagues from the National Vision era. Some left of their own accord, and as a result, the AK Party morphed into a completely different party. Here, the key concept behind the party’s ability to retain both its staff and its base is sharing—a sharing of assets, of the government’s opportunities. The real story here is that the AK Party held the center and brought some segments—particularly the religious segment—from the peripheries closer to the center, offering them certain opportunities and paving their way. To the extent that the economy did well, the relationship flourished, and we all saw the AK Party’s votes gradually increase. This power is what enabled the party to withstand harsh political debates and arguments, especially during the Ergenekon period. This power enabled it to stand strong against the Closure Case. There was support from below, but at the same time, there was also international support—from the European Union, from the U.S.A, even at times from Israel. With this support, both the AK Party and Erdoğan retained, expanded, and enriched their base—we can put it that way. Here, I mean “enriched” in both the material and immaterial sense. This was actually the key concept here. And as long as this richness lasted and could be replicated, the close ranks continued to unite around the AK Party and Erdoğan. Yet from the moment it began to erode, from the moment problems started to arise, we saw a splintering among this base.

The June 2015 election is a clear indication of this. Here, the AKP lost its status as the sole party in power. After that loss, Erdoğan changed many of his strategies, sharpening his political discourse and following a hawk-like path. Afterward, we saw him get closer to the MHP. And after that, of course, came the cut-throat war against the Güülenists. The political climate was mostly harsh during those periods, and the connection largely became a connection of survival. By “survival,” of course I mean the country’s survival, but it was fundamentally the survival of the regime, as well—because there were quite serious threats. A social threat during Gezi, and threats of conspiracy during the December 17-25 period and beyond, when we understood that the Gülenists somehow drew international support… Throughout all these periods, Erdoğan largely kept things going via loyalty, calling on people to make a choice: “You’re either with me or with them.” We see that those who chose in favor of the Gülenists are losing very badly. Some have gone to prison, while others left the country. Many people from the business sphere somehow had their property seized, trustees appointed, etc. But the ones who remained—the ones who took a risk and stayed—largely retained their opportunities. Yet after a certain date, when the situation became unsustainable by way of survival, there was a return to material things, and the economy came into prominence.

With the economy, seeing people once again make use of the powerful party’s assets, having the party pave the way for them, watching them grow stronger and richer… As we know, since a certain date, the party in power has been unable to provide this. There are quite significant economic problems. Added to all this—the economic problems already experienced—is the defeat of the local elections on March 31. When you consider that many metropolitan municipalities went to the opposition in the local elections, which meant an end to the distribution of annuities or services, the situation became quite a difficult one. So, I don’t believe it is quite realistic to suggest that Erdoğan will largely retain his base regardless of what he does and what sort of threat or challenge he faces—because, after a certain point, Erdoğan has taken this relationship based on an ideological dependency and reduced it to one based on vested interests, or he’s fundamentally placed these sorts of interests in the center. And to the extent that he is unable to cater to those vested interests, he faces the risk of losing this base. Another problem is, to the extent that he takes a nationalist approach in his discourse—a topic I discussed in yesterday’s broadcast—he’s paved the way for a shift toward the MHP in his own base. That is the difficult situation he’s in.

So, why do people appear to surround Erdoğan and remain loyal to him? I don’t believe that’s definitely the case. Of course, there is a large segment of people who will remain loyal to Erdoğan under any circumstance, regardless of what happens. But that’s only part of the base. Another segment is hanging by a thread. The Future Party and the Democracy and Progress Party are an indication of this. These are segments who believe nothing can be accomplished with Erdoğan any longer. I believe past AK Party voters make up a significant part of the segment classified as “undecided” in public opinion polls. When it comes to the issue of the undecided, I believe the problem, or rather the plain point, is this: During the AK Party regime—a period that actually began with the municipalities of the Welfare Party—there was a centralization of segments who were pushed out to the periphery, and that is complete. Now, we’re faced with a question; I believe this is Erdoğan’s biggest secret weapon: “If I leave, so will you” is roughly what he’s saying. In other words, his approach is similar to “If I fall from power, they won’t let you survive here. You won’t be able to remain in this center or have access to these opportunities, these services. My end will be your end, as well; the end of my power will also be the end of your opportunities.” There are certainly people who very seriously buy into this. This is actually quite normal, as there is a mentality that “those who come with him will leave with him,” and we see quite a significant and dominant mentality of revanchism within the opposition. As a result, Erdoğan greatly benefits from these revanchist outbursts. So, a certain segment looks ready to stay with Erdoğan until the end, thinking, “If Erdoğan leaves, so will we; we’ll also lose.” Those who broke away did so with the belief that the guarantor of their own opportunities and gains was not Erdoğan but the Constitution, the democracy within society, and the rule of law. Some of them gravitated to the Future Party, while others did to the Democracy and Progress Party. We know others who have split, as well. We know there are small groups who have gone to other places, other parties, particularly among the Kurds in the Southeast. There are also segments who splinter off and grow completely apolitical and uninterested. Meanwhile, those who are undecided wonder about the answer to this question, namely: “What will happen to us if Erdoğan leaves?” It is precisely at this point where both the Future Party and the Democracy and Progress Party must be able to give a sort of assurance to each of these bases, but assurance on its own won’t be enough because they aren’t in a position to say, “If Erdoğan leaves, we’ll come.” They are only at the start of their journey, so this is where things get a little convoluted. If the break from the AK Party had truly been potent from the get-go—meaning if new parties had emerged to challenge those in power—then it would have been much more difficult for Erdoğan to control his base. So, as it stands now, any assurances made by either the Future Party or the Democracy and Progress Party may not hold much sway after a certain point. This is where the other opposition parties come into play. Primarily the CHP as the main opposition party, the İYİ party to an extent, and of course the HDP must somehow—separately, yet with a certain degree of alignment—explain to these segments that their rights and remedies will certainly be protected even if the AK Party and Erdoğan are no longer in power. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been doing this quite seriously for some time. Of the broadcasts we’ve done with him on Medyascope, the one we did before March 31 was particularly striking. The things he said there or later on various occasions tell us that he actually sees and understands this issue. Yet the CHP doesn’t consist solely of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Different voices within the CHP can also have outbursts that bolster Erdoğan’s secret weapon. On the other hand, we have Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş as examples—but predominantly Ekrem İmamoğlu because Mansur Yavaş wasn’t all that different in terms of tradition—but the success that Ekrem İmamoğlu displayed and earned was essentially based on him explaining and, to a certain extent, convincing these segments who vote for the AK Party that they would not have any problems benefiting from municipal services even if the party in power changed, meaning the municipalities changed hands in local elections, meaning the opposition party won. 

The strategy leading up to March 31 and the second election in Istanbul was actually very much one that spoiled the game set up by Erdoğan. If these are done consistently, I believe it won’t be so easy for Erdoğan to retain his base, and it will open doors for new parties, especially those splintering from the AK Party. So, the ones who have to prove something, to promise something, aren’t the Democracy and Progress Party or the Future Party; they are actually the other elements that make up the opposition. To this end, it’s clear that Meral Akşener will have an easier task, but the HDP must join the CHP in taking a stance on this issue. Yet the HDP’s problem is that it hasn’t been easy for some time for the HDP to express itself, to promote itself to the masses, to share its message. The main reason for this, of course, is that the media is closed off to them—that much is for certain. But the HDP also has a significant staff problem when it comes to popularity or reaching wide audiences. The interest in our most recent broadcast with Sırrı Süreyya Önder demonstrated that. A lot of people are constantly talking; the HDP’s spokespersons, co-presidents, etc. speak on various occasions, but people don’t listen all that much because it has largely lost its appeal. To an extent, this is the reason behind Erdoğan’s stubbornness, his insistence on sending the HDP’s leading staff to prison, starting with Selahattin Demirtaş. If these people were outside—especially Demirtaş—we would see the HDP being much more effective and powerful in politics, somehow taken seriously, deemed important, and followed by segments other than its own base. As things are right now, I believe the HDP doesn’t generate a lot of excitement even among its own base, yet this base still clings to the party. Of course, it’s clear that this topic is worth a broadcast of its own. In the end, the key issue here is that there has been a significant departure from the cause which existed in the beginning. In any event, the AK Party is a party that’s been flung closer to a “domestic and national” sort of nationalistic ideology than an Islamist cause. The way to ascertain loyalty here is by providing people with opportunities and services, by keeping them constantly rich… By increasing their wealth and helping them maintain it… Yet due to the current economic crisis, we’re faced with a term of deprivation and impoverishment instead of increased wealth—that’s how it looks. In addition to all this, there is, of course, another issue: There are grabs for power within the AK Party, which aren’t fully on display outside the party but whose indications we see on different occasions. It appears that Erdoğan holds all the power, but when we look at the resignation of Süleyman Soylu most recently and the events that transpired afterward, it’s clear that things aren’t business as usual. And I think, see, and hear that the base is somehow following, paying attention to, and reasoning through all this in its own way. The issue of Berat Albayrak in particular seems to be a very significant one for the AK Party base. I remember reiterating this a few times prior to the March 31 elections, and others have said it, as well. The AK Party needed to change some things or pretend to change them in order to receive significant support from its own voters in the local elections. For instance, the first thing that comes to mind is that responsibility for the economy should have been transferred to someone who was indisputably more qualified—but that did not happen. It appears this expectation went away, but I’ve also observed a significant increase in discomfort felt due to things not going well in the economy.

Another issue—actually, the key issue—and what I believe to be one of the fundamental questions of the AK Party base… Particularly those who have been a part of the National Vision Movement since its inception, those who doggedly cling to Erdoğan, are asking themselves—and I know, it’s not surprising at all: “So, why did we switch to this new presidential system?”

Because the parliamentary system and governmental system that used to exist was one that they knew in Turkey, one in which they could somehow interfere with. It was a system they could internalize more easily. But Erdoğan kept telling them this system somehow left his hands tied; he made this imposition, and in response, people said, “If he says so, let’s give him the authority and untie his hands.” And you know the rest: During the AK Party regime, the time when things started to go bad for Turkey, particularly in terms of the economy, was after switching to the presidential system. So, he is seriously struggling—and we’ve witnessed it since then. They are concerned about receiving “50 percent plus 1 percent of votes,” and they aren’t hiding it. This all leads to intensified thoughts of “I wish we hadn’t switched to this presidential system” within the base. And this means a questioning of Erdoğan, albeit indirectly, in a roundabout way. That is all I have to say. Have a good day.

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