The last month of 2019 has arrived and as always, the topic of expectations from the new year has come up. Among the discussion points: the possible emergence of new political parties and the likelihood of an early election and whether the economic targets announced by the government are realistic. With regards to foreign policy, interventions in the East Mediterranean and Libya as well as Syria will feature on the agenda. In my previous pieces, I wrote that the recurring patterns in Turkish politics were general fatalism and the idea that citizens are scarcely interested in anything but the economy. It would be wise to examine the reasons behind the seemingly immutable nature of Turkish politics.
To determine whether political tendencies are likely to change in the next year or in the near future, it is best to look into the data gathered by reliable poll companies. According to data for November from KONDA, the distribution of the votes between the government and the opposition is close to what it was in 2018. Research carried out by Metropoll suggests similar results. Yet research conducted by both polling consultancies also indicate that share of undecided voters is steadily growing. Bekir Ağırdır, the General Manager of KONDA says that the pro-government, opposition and undecided voters now constitute three sets which are almost equal in numbers. They are made up of those who will vote for the government no matter what, those who will never give up on voting for the opposition and those who do not know what they would do. Contrary to the decided voters, the undecided will act according to conjunctural causes or particular issues that first led to their being undecided. As was seen in the repeated Istanbul elections, this part of the electorate can swing the overall result of the election.
Researchers attempting to predict end results have no other option than processing the statistical dispersion of the undecided. Yet, one should first look at core votes. As one examines the situation not only for this year, but over the past five years, the picture that appears is that of a country that is not split into equal halves as it is often said to be. The impression of majoritarian policies, and the abnormalities in our presidential system induce an optical illusion. The number of dogmatic and polarized voters account for much less than is assumed.
The immutability of voter behavior is usually explained through the polarization and the rigidity created by identity politics, the ability of the government to push forward foreign policy and security issues and manipulate nationalistic delusions. Yet the limitations of the polarization and identity politics argmument have become clear with the erosion of one fourth of votes for the governing parties during the past five years. Research conducted by Metropoll for the past three months shows how the recently gained votes due the Syrian military operation quickly plummeted. A similar decline was also observed during the Afrin military operation. Even the effect the July 15 coup attempt had on voting behaviour did not last or was not able to be extended more than six months. Once this data is reviewed, is it striking that that levers such as nationalism, war, animosity and “crusader attacks” are not as strong anchors as they are often assumed to be.
The decline in support for the government is reflected in figures of satisfaction and confidence surveys. On the other hand, the variables that directly affect voter behavior such as economic slowdown, unemployment and inflation are not inducing the expected vote shifts. As pundits struggle to explain this phenomenon, “cultural factors” such as submission and reliance are brought up. The ability of the government to change the agenda is also emphasized. But in various studies, it appears that the agenda easily malleable. On the contrary, economic dissatisfaction is an increasingly determinant factor. The belief that the economy will not improve in the near future and that it is not managed well is also affecting the voter who supports the government. We have reached a stage where people doubt the government can actually resolve the slump it in is. We can call this the fourth phase of the crisis, where the social depression is felt, as Professor Korkut Boratav pointed out at the HDP’s Economy Congress.
The global economic conjuncture that has sprung up against the Turkish government now has granted new opportunities in terms of “sustainability.” On this topic, Ümit Akçay has already written about the changing conjuncture providing advantages to the government. With the crisis becoming evident, the government has made a critical political choice and emphasized sustainability rather than its capacity to solve problems. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not implemented any of the policies that have been continuously heralded and the economy minister has mocked those expecting structural packages. Emphasizing sustainability entails a political breakaway from the pledge of solving problems and from the grassroots who see the issues as structural. The dynamic that curbs the effects of the crisis to transform into a political breakaway, can, at the same time, slow down the “cosmetic” balancing of the government in maintaining its political support.
The politics of blocks and polarization does not split the electorate in half as it is alleged to. The nationalism that the government most frequently resorts to does not provide any more than a temporary doping and its effect is ever weakening. The lack of a dramatic crash as a result of the economic crisis does not mean it will not happen. While the government emphasizes unchangeability, resilience and sustainability, it is further moving away from its bid to solve problems and prospects for the future. Those dynamic segments – urban and young population – have prioritized demands and their expectations shift rapidly. The 50+1 system and the pattern of alliances do not provide any tactical advantages. On the contrary, the risk is heightened. The difficulties of the opposition, which has been engaged in a long-term quest to find ways to change the political landscape, have now been replaced by the government’s crisis. In sum, it seems likely future elections will mark a change.