Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

How much longer till Turkey's elections?
President under pressure – Erdogan's popularity nosedive

Turkey's parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for June 2023. But they are already casting a shadow. While the opposition is calling for early elections, President Erdogan is insisting on holding the elections in the highly symbolic year of 2023. For right now, his ratings are poor. Ronald Meinardus reports from Istanbul

In 2023 – if things go according to Erdogan's plan – Turks will not only celebrate the centenary of their republic with great pomp, but at the same time provide him with a mandate for yet another term in office, amid an atmosphere of national euphoria.

Erdogan has been in power for 18 years without interruption, first as prime minister and later – endowed with additional powers – as president. Currently, things are not going well politically for the politician who has been spoilt by success. High inflation and tumbling lira exchange rates, plus a growing army of unemployed, have destroyed the nimbus of the successful state leader.

Now a political earthquake is shaking the country on the Bosphorus. At the centre of the political affair, which has the potential to escalate into a national crisis, is a fugitive mafia boss. From his exile in Dubai, he has been publishing explosive accusations against the ruling party via YouTube, with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu being the main target so far. Among other things, it is about drug smuggling, corruption and unsolved murders. Even though Sedat Peker, the name of the ex-gangster who has become something of a media star in Turkey overnight, has failed to provide evidence for his sometimes outrageous accusations, the case is fuelling the widespread theory about the decay of law and order – and the secret cooperation of those in power with the underworld. 

All this bad news, coupled with far-from-convincing management of the COVID crisis, is having a negative impact on government popular support. If Erdogan does not want to hold early elections, it is primarily because the opinion polls largely agree that he and his party would lose.

Most popular statesman in the Arab world

Amid all the doom and gloom, there is however some consolation: demoscopic comfort for the president, who has taken a battering in recent opinion polls, is coming from a part of the world particularly close to Erdogan's heart: the latest "Arab Barometer" survey shows the Turkish president to be the most popular "regional leader". In Morocco, Jordan, Algeria and Tunisia, the Turk is well ahead of Iranian revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. According to Arab Barometer, the only places Erdogan scores less favourably are Libya and Lebanon.

Market in Diyarbakir, Turkey (photo: Getty Images/AFP/I.Akengin)
High inflation and a falling exchange rate for the Turkish lira are driving up prices for basic foodstuffs: pictured is a market in the city of Diyarbakir. The poor economic situation and a growing army of unemployed have destroyed Erdogan's nimbus as a successful leader. Currently, things are not going well politically for the once popular politician

Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, who was in charge of the survey, attributes Erdogan's good ratings to his strong democratic legitimacy compared to his competitors: "Erdogan enjoys considerable legitimacy through elections. Erdogan has repeatedly won elections that were by and large fair. Neither Bin Salman nor Khamenei enjoy this legitimacy." The current Arab Barometer survey focuses primarily on foreign policy.

While Turkey's foreign policy under President Erdogan has come under fire in the West – and especially in Europe – for its aggressive nature and is a key reason for the breakdown in relations with the EU, Ankara's tough stance has been far better received in the Arab world, according to the survey: "Public opinion in the Arab world seems to admire Erdogan's growing penchant for tough policies and for challenging Israel and the United States," writes David Garner in the Financial Times.

Abdul-Wahab Kayyali explains why Erdogan's approval ratings in this area are higher than those of his regional rivals from Iran and Saudi Arabia by morbidly relativising their respective military policies: "Although all three leaders pursue foreign policies that can clearly be described as imperial, Turkey's ethnic cleansing in parts of northern Syria pales in comparison to Saudi Arabia's genocidal war in Yemen and Iran's intervention in Syria, which also bears traits of genocide."

Erdogan's foreign policy no longer convinces

In the commentary columns of the European press, Erdogan's "neo-Ottoman foreign policy" is often described as a function of domestic policy, along the lines of Erdogan fomenting abroad to distract attention from domestic problems. Or to put it another way: Erdogan wages war beyond the borders to mobilise and unite the nation behind himself and his party.

This is not the place to go into the details of the connections between Turkish domestic policy and foreign policy. In this context, however, it is interesting to note that current opinion polls indicate that Erdogan's foreign policy is currently failing to convince large segments of the Turkish population. In response to the question "How would you rate the government's foreign policy performance?" in May 2021, more than half of those surveyed gave a negative assessment: 25.2 percent said foreign policy was "very unsuccessful," while 29.5 percent voted for the "unsuccessful" rating.

On closer inspection, the high negative ratings among supporters of the MHP, the far-right coalition partner in Erdogan's government, are striking to say the least: four out of ten of the party's supporters currently consider Ankara's foreign policy to be "unsuccessful" or "very unsuccessful." Such criticism thus extends far into the party's own camp. "Foreign policy is no longer a policy field in which the AKP can expand its voter base," Can Selcuki, head of the polling institute Turkiye Raporu, comments on the demoscopic findings.

The MHP plays a key role in the current period of Turkish domestic politics. In 2018, Erdogan was already dependent on the votes of the far-right party. Recently, the president's dependence on MHP leader Devlet Bahceli has increased even further. After all, the AKP is – according to the opinion polls – far from winning an absolute majority on its own in the next elections. This applies to the vote for parliamentary seats, but of much greater political importance are the presidential elections. Here, too, Erdogan is dependent on the "loan votes" of other parties. As a result, the focus is once again on the smaller parties. They are ascribed the role of kingmakers.

HDP support also played an important role in CHP politician Ekrem Imamoglu's victory in the Istanbul mayoral election (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/E.Imamoglu Communication Office)
CHP politician Ekrem Imamoglu at a rally during the 2019 mayoral election in Istanbul: in these municipal elections, the opposition triumphed in the metropolises of Istanbul and Ankara, winning against government candidates in what was described as a sensational election outcome. In doing so, it destroyed the AKP's aura of invincibility, which still resonates politically to this day, writes Ronald Meinardus

Were elections to be held next Sunday

Were elections to be held next Sunday, current polls put the AKP at 26.3 percent, the CHP at 18.2 percent, the IYI party at 12.5, the HDP at 9.6 and the MHP at 6.0 percent.

In order to increase their clout, the parties have formed "alliances"; the "People's Alliance" (Cumhur Ittifaki) includes the AKP and the MHP, while the "National Alliance" (Millet Ittifaki) includes the CHP and the IYI party. In the polls, the blocs are neck-and-neck. The moderate result for the opposition bloc is mainly due to the weakness of the social democratic CHP, which currently stands at 18 percent, five percentage points below its 2018 election result. What the alliances will look like on election day is one of the most hotly debated topics in Turkish domestic politics.

It is generally expected that two new parties that have split from the AKP (DEVA Partisi and Gelecek Partisi) will take the field against Erdogan under the umbrella of the opposition front.

In the end, the individual results of the parties count for less in Turkish politics than the results in strategically forged electoral alliances. This became very clear with the results of the 2019 local elections, when opposition candidates won victories over government candidates in what was described as a sensational election outcome. The opposition's triumphs, not least in the metropolises of Istanbul and Ankara, destroyed the AKP's aura of invincibility and continue to have a political impact to this day.   

That the opposition came out on top was largely due to the stance of the pro-Kurdish HDP. In the polls, this party is currently stable at around ten percent. The HDP's stance will also play a decisive role in the coming elections. The covert power of the pro-Kurdish formation is a thorn in the side of the AKP, especially the MHP. The government wants to neutralise the party by any means necessary. An application to ban the second-largest opposition party is currently underway.  

In Turkey, too, top political personnel play a decisive role in the elections. The "Sunday polls" are therefore also about the popularity of the top candidates (and currently the one female candidate). In this respect, too, things are not looking rosy for the incumbent at the moment.

President Erdogan makes an election campaign appearance in Istanbul, Turkey (photo: Reuters/U. Bektas)
The ruling party's popularity is shrinking in the latest polls: accordingly, 17 percent of voters who voted for the AKP in 2018 "definitely" do not want to cast their ballots for the ruling party in the upcoming election. According to Turkiye Raporu, this share was only eight percent in February 2021, which shows the dynamic drop-off in support for the AKP

As in France, Turkey's presidential elections are governed by a system under which the winner must achieve an absolute majority of the votes. If the first round fails to produce an absolute majority, the top two vote-winners compete in a runoff. At present, observers are focusing less on the question of whether Erdogan will be able to win in the first attempt, as he did in 2018. This scenario is currently ruled out by the opinion polls. In polls, a growing number of voters say they will "never" vote for Erdogan. Most recently, around 50 percent of those surveyed said this – and the trend is rising.

Fitting into the picture of the ruling party's shrinking popularity is the fact that 17 percent of voters who voted for the AKP in 2018 "definitely" do not want to cast their ballots for the ruling party in the upcoming election. According to Turkiye Raporu, this share was only eight percent in February 2021, which shows the dynamic drop-off in support for the AKP.

If the pollsters are right – and the current trends consolidate – a runoff between Erdogan and an opposition candidate would be the likely scenario in the presidential election. Bad news for the incumbent: In a direct comparison – as of May 2021 – both Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas (with 53 percent) and his Istanbul counterpart Ekrem Imamoglu (with 51 percent) are ahead in voter favour.

It is advisable to take the current mood, which plays an important role in Turkey's political debates, for what it is: political opinion polls are always only a snapshot. The failures of pollsters to accurately predict electoral behaviour are numerous, even legendary. In this respect, the many polls that see Erdogan as the loser should be treated with caution. The Turkish president has demonstrated his talent for turning situations around on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that political observers consider the loss of confidence in this phase of Turkish politics to be much more pronounced, and in some cases even irreversible.  

Alienation from the West

While opinion polls show a high degree of volatility with respect to electoral intentions and the popularity ratings of top political officials, and a reversal of the trend cannot be ruled out if conditions become more favourable as the COVID pandemic is overcome, opinion polls are more stable with respect to foreign policy and international relations. Numerous surveys are available on this topic. Turkey's relations with the European Union (EU) are a focal point of opinion polls.

Different surveys come to a similar conclusion on one key question: Around two-thirds of Turks support their country's membership in the EU. But only 40 percent consider this prospect realistic. The figures illustrate the frustration of many people in Turkey over the frozen accession issue.

 

Probably the most important source for the systematic analysis of public opinion on issues of international politics is the annual study by Istanbul's Kadir Has University. Under the title "Turkey Trends", Mustafa Aydin presents in well over a hundred pages and with many tables current moods on more or less all aspects of Turkish foreign relations. The advancing alienation of the people in Turkey from the West can be described as the common thread running through the work of tables.

The table entitled "Threat to Turkey" is particularly revealing. The United States of America has topped this list unchallenged in recent years. According to the table, more than 60 percent of Turks regard the leading Western power as a threat. They are followed – at a small distance – by Israel, Armenia, France, Great Britain and Germany. According to the study, one in two people in Turkey – just over 50 percent – consider Germany a threat.

A mirror image of the countries seen as threatening is the list of allies. Unchallenged at the top here is neighbouring Azerbaijan. The first Western country in the hit list of friends is Germany, in 11th place. But from the German perspective, there is little reason for euphoria: only 15 percent of those surveyed consider the country in the heart of Europe to be an ally.

A recent survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund shows how deeply rooted the distrust of the West is in Turkish society. According to the survey, 79 percent of respondents believe it is the goal of European partners to divide and split Turkey. Nearly two out of three Turks also believe that the reforms demanded by the EU in connection with the accession negotiations are tantamount to capitulation. 

Politically, Turkey is a highly polarised country with two camps at cross-purposes on fundamental issues. It is striking that public opinion on important foreign relations issues does not fit this pattern of dichotomy, meaning that there is far greater unanimity on foreign policy issues than on domestic issues.

This observation supports the thesis that even in the event of a change of government in Ankara or Erdogan's departure from politics, the basic features of Turkish foreign policy would not change. Or, to put it another way, alienation from Europe and the West is not a temporary phenomenon; it has long since taken deep root in large sections of Turkish society.

Ronald Meinardus

© Qantara.de 2021

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