There are two aspects of popularity that need to be discussed when speaking within the context of politicians. One is that this is a relative term. For a politician, it is not important to be very popular. What is important is that the politician is the most popular among their rivals. The second aspect is the ability of a politician to convert their popularity into votes on election day. Popularity does not always lead to support at the ballot box.
Erdoğan’s popularity is waning in Turkey, and his opponents would like to see him out of office sooner rather than later. However, it is beyond doubt that Erdoğan is still the most popular and most loved politician in Turkey. His personal standing with voters has gone unchallenged for the better half of the past two decades. Even today, when he is struggling the most, and not as skilful as he used to be in keeping the show going, he ranks number one in polls.
But just how popular is he? Every month, we, as Istanbul Economics Research, conduct two Turkey-wide surveys with 1,500 randomly selected individuals to produce nationally significant polling results. In the first survey of each month, we ask the respondents to tell us how successful they find a list of politicians on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least successful and 10 being the most. With 6.06 points out of 10, Erdoğan ranked number one in September 2020. Oscillating between 5 and 6 points, he continually ranks as number one. A deeper look at the data reveals that 47% of the participants in the survey gave him between 8 and 10 points. The MetroPOLL research firm also finds his job approval rate to be 47% for September 2020. So this is where I would place his broad popularity: he is no where he used to be, say, 10 years ago, but he still maintains a comfortable lead over his rivals.
However, this is not the whole picture. It is important to take a look at how much of this popularity he manages to turn into votes. Here, the picture is quite different. In our May 2020 poll, we asked respondents to name the politician best suited to resolve the woes of the economy. This was an open-ended question whereby the respondents could answer with any name, and only 39.7% of respondents chose Erdoğan. While this is still a very high number, it is quite a bit below his popularity rating. It is also striking because in May 2020, our results indicated that the People’s Alliance, the ruling alliance composed of the AK Party and MHP, would get around 47-48% of the popular vote.
These results show that he is not that popular when it comes to managing the economy, which is becoming the single most important issue about which politicians will have to convince the electorate moving forward to the 2023 elections. In a poll conducted in August 2020, Aksoy Research Company asked respondents who they would vote for in a presidential race. The respondents were offered two scenarios, one in which Erdoğan was up against Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş, and one in which he faced off against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. He got 40% of the votes against Yavaş and 38.7% of the votes against İmamoğlu. So his popularity is not as strong when it comes to core issues and his ability to convert high popularity into votes against up-and-coming political actors is somewhat weaker than it used to be.
All of this would matter much less if Turkey had not changed its election system back in 2017. In the old parliamentary system, Erdoğan and his AK Party would comfortably win elections with these numbers and keep running the country, with Erdoğan remaining the head of the executive. However, that changed. Now he needs more than 50% of the popular vote to win the presidency. Our September 2020 poll reveals that the People’s Alliance is now at 43%. The other numbers that I shared above show his popularity is not sufficient to carry him over the threshold. In hindsight, it is fair to say that this change of system was Erdoğan’s biggest political mistake.
Obviously, these are sensitive issues and one should treat these numbers with caution. Turkey has no shortage of research firms that undertake political polling. In the past, there were many episodes caused by politically-invested pollsters that resulted in an erosion of trust in the industry in general. Nonetheless, I believe there are a good number of firms that provide independent and reliable results. Going forward, Turkey stands to benefit from more transparency and higher literacy in political polling. For the time being, it is best to make sure the funding, sample size, timing and data collection method of published results are clearly known. Finally, it never hurts to compare different firms to get a better understanding of the landscape.
This article was published in German in the “Türkei Bulletin” of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).