The fight over the “restless conservative” in Turkish politics

While they are no new demographic, the restless conservatives are getting stronger amongst the ruling People's Alliance electorate and the AKP base in particular. The Erdoğan and AKP that they had supported so buoyantly for the past decade are no longer the same.

Now that the coronavirus is, at least, partially out of the news cycle, Turkish politics seem to be heating up. Let me state at the onset that any election before 2023 seems unlikely. Still, the plot thickens as new actors emerge and the public’s sentiment over the economy is shifting. The years leading up to the 2023 will be tough and show the ugly side of politics.

It is time to examine the current political landscape and attempt to pinpoint the dynamics that will shape the future. For some time now, there seems to be a stalemate between the opposition and the ruling Cumhur Alliance (People’s Alliance). As around 7% of the electorate is undecided, both sides get around 47-48% of the popular vote according to polls we conducted earlier this month. In contrast to our earlier polls, the DEVA Party, which is led by former economy minister Ali Babacan, made an appearance with 1.5%. 

This came after the first wave of media appearances led by Mr Babacan, watched by millions of viewers. While the level of support remains very low, it is noteworthy that the DEVA Party seems to attract voters from both sides of the political landscape. More than half of the 1.5% of DEVA Party supporters stem from the electoral base of the ruling People’s Alliance. The rest comes from the opposition National Alliance (Millet İttifakı), constituted of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (IYI). If this trend carries on, Mr Babacan’s intent of setting his party in the middle could bear fruit. 

İYİ Party and the threshold

For two months in a row, Meral Akşener’s İYİ Party managed to clear the 10% threshold necessary to enter parliament. If Akşener can manage to keep İYİ Party comfortably above the 10% threshold, the party would enjoy a strong bargaining position in the forming of a new oppositional alliance. Rather than being the small partner of the CHP, freed from the fear of clearing the threshold, İYİ Party could position itself as the leader of a centre-right alliance by bringing the small parties together such as the Democrat Party and the Felicity Party. Besides, the new parties founded by Babacan and Davutoğlu could join Akşener if they are unable poll comfortably above the 10% threshold themselves. This would be a game changer. An enlarged centre-right would have a much bigger appeal for the restless conservative voters that constitute between 10-15% of the total electorate.

Who are the restless conservatives?

While they are no new demographic, the restless conservatives are getting stronger amongst the Cumhur Alliance electorate and the AKP base in particular. Erdoğan supporters have enjoyed several victories within the past two decades. Former outsiders to the system, Turkish conservatives rose economically and socially and are now an integral part of the establishment. 

Yet in the past 5 years, they have seen their gains backslide, most notably on the economic front. While support for the Cumhur Alliance stands at 48%, only 39% of the electorate say “Erdoğan” when asked which politician can fix the economy. What is more, this electorate is also disgruntled over declining governance and the delivery of services. From a materialistic perspective, they are restless. They’re also emotionally restless.

The Erdoğan and AK Party that they had supported so buoyantly for the past decade are no longer the same. As a result of this, and for the first time, some restless conservative voters now listen to other leaders. Five years back, their ears would have been sealed off to other politicians, as they were more or less content with the government. Nowadays, they are more susceptible to other political actors. It is no coincidence that two restless conservatives, Babacan and Davutoğlu have established their own parties. In the future, the restless conservatives will be the centre-right battleground and will determine the outcome of the elections.

CHP and the newfound potentials

The dynamic that I think will play out in the near future is the new relationship that the main opposition CHP is developing with the poor neighbourhoods of large cities through the support programs of its municipal administrations. In the March 2019 local elections, the main opposition took over AK Party municipalities in 6 of the 7 large cities across Turkey. During the campaign period of those elections, the AK Party campaigned heavily that support programs for impoverished neighborhoods, who overwhelmingly vote AK, be cut under CHP mayors. Not only did this not happen, but support for CHP-led municipalities rose during the pandemic. For the first time in the past 30 years, the voters that do not vote CHP have begun to benefit from CHP governance. This will have an impact on the numbers. So the CHP could soon garner votes from the restless conservatives.

While most attention has focused on the presidential elections, since it concerns Erdoğan, little attention is paid to what this would entail for the distribution of seats in the parliament. If new parties make it to the parliament either by themselves or through an alliance, to clear the threshold, the Cumhur Alliance will likely lose its majority in the house. Right now, Cumhur enjoys a parliamentary majority so presidential decrees are unchallenged. The parliament acts as a rubber stamp. 

Yet if Cumhur were to lose the majority, it would be very difficult for Erdoğan to govern in this highly dysfunctional political environment - even if he were to emerge victorious from the presidential elections. This is the main motivation behind talks over changing the election system to introduce new thresholds. The details of the discussion are yet unknown. But it may prove very difficult for the AKP to convince its MHP partner to enact changes in order to disadvantage smaller parties.  

Erdoğan’s Options

Stuck below 50% and challenged by the economy and the new actors, Erdoğan finds himself in a very rigid alliance that does not provide him with many policy options, for example to appeal to the Kurds, that will enable him to expand his support base. So he is getting harsher and trying to demonise his competitors to ensure that the restless conservatives are not tempted. We are likely to see more of this in the future.  

Politics will heat up, get tough and get even uglier in the near future.

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