How has the operation in Syria affected domestic Turkish politics?

According to a latest poll, President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) appears to have lost 1.2 points of support whereas Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) increased its support by 3.1 points after Turkey's "Operation Peace Spring" in northern Syria.

The politics in Turkey appear to be hectic, when in fact it is rather dull.

The country is at a point where nothing seems to make much of a difference for the support levels of political parties, be it opposition or the government. The fact that voters' fundamental reason for supporting political alliances is their like or dislike of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan supports this outcome.

Putting aside the national security and foreign policy implications of Turkey's "Operation Peace Spring" in northern Syria, a military incursion of this magnitude would have been expected to have consequences for domestic politics too. However, according to the latest poll that was undertaken by Istanbul Economics Research on Nov. 1, there has not been significant change in support for either of the alliances or any particular party.

We conducted two polls, one before and one after the operation, which started on Oct. 9. The results revealed that both alliances only marginally increased their support. Some 44.4 percent of the participants indicated that if elections were held on the following Sunday, they would vote for a party within the ruling “People’s Alliance” (Cumhur İttifakı), up from 42.5 percent before the operation. On the other hand, 32.4 percent of the participants indicated that they would vote for the opposition “Nation Alliance” (Millet İttifakı), up from 30.3 percent.

Changes for parties

There are, however, changes of support for parties within the alliances. President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) appears to have lost 1.2 points of support whereas Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) increased its support by 3.1 points. MHP mostly gained support from former AK Party voters and the undecided. This is within expectations. As nationalistic sentiments rise and people become more decisive, the support for MHP increased. 

On the other hand, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) managed to increase its votes by 2 points, mainly getting the support of former pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) supporters and the undecided. The most significant change is realized in the support to the HDP, which lost support by 2.1 points.

Literature points to two different channels through which the public supports military operations. They either rally around the flag or around the leader. Most often it is a combination of the two channels that mobilizes support. Our findings suggest that the support for "Operation Peace Spring" mainly came through the former channel. The general public endorses the operation but support for parties has not changed. 

A poll that we did right after the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia, signed on Oct. 22, indicated that 79 percent of the population found the operation successful. We found similar results during the Afrin operation, in January 2018, whereby 75 percent of the population showed support for the operation at the time.

There is another outcome of this story. If nothing moves the voter, how can any political actor get the 50+1 per cent vote needed to win. The answer is simple: Whoever gets back to the people's real agenda, which is governance and economy. 

As the ruling party, AK Party does not seem to be poised to make pivotal moves on either front. This is in fact what gives hope to the new parties. 

The CHP is attempting to appeal to a wider base both through ideological nuances in its discourse and also through service delivery at the municipal level.  However, it seems that different views within the party are pulling at opposite directions and there is little evidence that this is coordinated from the headquarters. 

Opposition İYİ Party is very active at parliament and likely the best performing in terms of keeping up with a more realistic policy agenda then its competitors. However, it is crowded out by the big players and its communication strategy fails to get noticed by larger crowds. Finally, HDP and MHP stand still where they are and the conjecture lets them keep their support levels.

The bottom line is Turkish politics appear to be void of policy at the moment. The next actor(s) that manage to reclaim policy in a credible fashion will reap the benefits.