The politics of polarization are losing ground in Turkey

As the demands of its electorate have changed, the AKP can no longer resort to ideological polarization. This could allow for shifts in the political landscape.

The former half of the past two decades of politics in Turkey was marred by polarization. The division between secularists and religious conservatives acted as the main political cleavage. While this division is age-old, it became a salient driver of voting behavior two decades ago when politicians began to use it recklessly to their advantage.

While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) benefited from it the most, this division is also attributable to the main opposition People's Republican Party (CHP) - at least between 2002 and 2011.

Broadly speaking, there were two reasons why it worked so well. The first reason has to do with the history of power in Turkish politics. The most fundamental issue in politics is the allocation of resources which inevitable generates winners and losers.

For a long time, Turkey's religiously conservative population were the losers. That was the case when the AKP came to power in 2002. Upon its victory, the AKP followed up on its promise to reverse their misfortune and succeeded in gaining a loyal base that would not even consider lending support to alternative parties. And certainly not to secularist-leftist ones.

During the first half of the past two decades, the AKP delivered on its promise. It managed to bring this electoral base to the centre of the "system." At the same time,Turkey also significantly raised its income per capita.

While economists pointed to the accumulation of much debt to fuel this growth, it irrevocably changed consumption patterns for the majority of people. What is more, public services improved a great deal, particularly in the area of health and through digitization, it became easier for people to reach government offices.

The AKP also delivered on its promises regarding personal liberties. The most iconic move had to do with a decision to allow veiled women to enter universities. As a result, a new electoral group emerged that is no longer an outsider to the system. Yet this group has now started regressing from their improved position.

Now that this group has gained and grown accustomed to its new consumption habits and public service deliveries, it will be difficult to uphold their loyalty by resorting solely to ideological divides. That explains the emergence of new political parties that champion liberal values whilst catering to the conservative base of the AKP.

The second reason why polarization was so fruitful was the nature of Turkey's political system. Without the ex-ante political alliances between parties that now enable small parties to pass the 10% threshold and secure seats at the parliament, the AKP managed to form single party governments with 40% of the popular vote. Not only does the AKP now needs a partner - the ultra-nationalist MHP - to secure a majority in the parliament, but President Erdoğan also needs more than 50% of the vote to get re-elected in 2023. Our latest polling, conducted during the first week of January on projects the share of the "People’s Alliance" - the AKP and MHP coalition - to be less than 50%.

At this stage, the AKP can longer resort to ideological polarization. The demanded has changed. And ironically, that came as a result of AKP policies. Meanwhile, the opposition has skillfully refrained from language that would intimidate the AKP base. The opposition's success during the municipal elections of March 2019 is much-owed to candidates that adopted a mild tone in their campaigns.

All this points to the demand for a new way of doing politics in Turkey. This could happen through two channels. The existing actors could reinvent themselves to offer something fresh and new to the electorate. This is a rare occurrence. Alternatively, new actors could enter the political arena and offer their narrative. It no coincidence new actors are emerging on all sides of the political spectrum.

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