Turkey’s ruling coalition maintains voter support despite economy troubles

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party and its far-right allies still enjoy support close to that they received in the June 2018 elections, despite a severe economic downturn in the country since then, said a December 2019 poll published by Turkey’s leading pollster MetroPoll last week.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has the support of 41 percent of voters, while its Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition ally is backed by 9 to 10 percent of voters once the undecided voters are distributed, MetroPoll’s survey showed.

The results contradict other pollsters’ surveys, which indicate a serious decline in the support for the People’s Alliance forged by the AKP and the MHP before 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. 

“We conduct a survey every month,” said Özer Sencar, the head of MetroPoll. “The claims that the People’s Alliance has been melting down might be the result of a calculation error, or might be wishful thinking.” 

He said AKP support had never fallen below 33.2 percent in the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) seems to be incapable of increasing its voter support, despite discontent over the economy, which 60 percent of the voters see as the most important issue in the country. 

Ahead of local elections in March last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan built his campaign around security policies, repeatedly mentioning the risk he said terrorism posed to the country. But despite the ruling alliance portraying the country as being in a struggle for survival, only some 8 to 12 percent of Turks see terrorism as the most important problem in the country, MetroPoll’s surveys show. 

After the economy, the second biggest problem for Turks is the independence of the judiciary and lack of justice, the pollster’s results indicate. 

Since local elections in March, Erdoğan has been pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. His latest move was to sign two agreements with the U.N.-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli in late November. The first memorandum of understanding between two governments, which expanded Turkey’s claimed territorial waters in eastern Mediterranean, was also supported by the CHP and the nationalist Good Party when it was ratified in the parliament in December.

In the second agreement, Turkey offered military support to Tripoli government to fend off the assault of General Khalifa Haftar’s self-style Libyan National Army (LNA). The two opposition parties vocally objected to sending Turkish troops to Libya.

MetroPoll’s survey said that half of voters were against sending military forces to Libya, while only 38 percent supported the move. Some 29 percent of AKP voters and 32 percent of the MHP voters object to the government’s decision to send troops to Libya. 

So, given that the Turkish public is overwhelmingly unsatisfied with the country’s economic policies, justice system and foreign policy, how can the ruling alliance still have such support?

The main reason behind that phenomenon is the opposition parties’ lack of credibility, Sencar said. “Is there anybody (in opposition) who can say ‘we can manage the economy better than Erdoğan, we can solve all the problems’ and is found trustworthy?” the pollster asked.

“The people think that the economy is in a terrible situation but they also believe that the opposition does not have the capability to end this downturn,” he said. This is even true for Ali Babacan, the former deputy prime minister in charge of economy, who resigned from the AKP last year and is expected to establish a rival liberal party soon. 

“He (Babacan) can say ‘I managed the economy in the past and there were no problems’, but at that time Erdoğan was the prime minister and the AKP was the ruling party,” Sencar said. “Therefore, due to that problem of credibility and persuasiveness, the voters do not leave the AKP though they find it unsuccessful,” he said. 

Instead of complaining, opposition parties should present voters plans about how they will solve the country’s problems, the pollster said.

Sencar said there were additional factors that could help the opposition. First of all, the new presidential system that came into force after the June 2018 elections has weakened Erdoğan’s position, obliging him to continue the alliance with the MHP, as he needs to secure at least 51 percent of the vote in the next presidential election scheduled for 2023.

But, though the AKP and MHP together have about 51 percent of the public behind them, MHP voters are less inclined to support Erdoğan in a presidential election, the pollster said. This tendency became evident when some MHP voters supported opposition candidates in local elections last year.

The current elections system “creates advantages for the opposition,” Sencar said. “If especially under such drastic economic conditions the opposition creates a breakthrough by establishing a wide alliance, if it presents credible political, economic solutions, then it can come to power.”

Erdoğan suffered a major blow last year after his party lost elections in Istanbul and Ankara, which had been ruled by the AKP and its predecessors for 25 years. MetroPoll also measures the popularity rankings of politicians in its polls and the December 2019 survey showed that Erdoğan is still the most popular politician in Turkey with 50.2 percent of support.

But Ekrem İmamoğlu, the newly elected opposition mayor of Istanbul, is catching up, with a 49-percent approval rating among voters. Ankara’s opposition mayor Mansur Yavaş is the third most popular politician in the country with 39 percent support. 

Sencar said Yavaş, a politician with a nationalist background, was particularly popular among nationalist voters and in central Anatolian provinces. 

“Of course, Ankara is very important, but İmamoğlu has become in a very short time a politician that has support not only in the country’s largest city, but across the whole country,” Sencar said. 

“Given the data, we can comfortably say İmamoğlu will be the most important and challenging rival for Erdoğan if he ran as a candidate in a snap or timely election,” Sencar said. 

Another important factor that rings alarm bells for Erdoğan is the declining AKP support among young people, the pollster said. 

“I should first mention this, the AKP cannot say anything new to young people,” he said. “In our surveys, an important portion of young people whose parents are AKP supporters do not vote for the AKP anymore.”

The December 2019 survey of MetroPoll showed that the AKP has the support of 30 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 34, the pollster said, adding that this support had also been decreasing. 

Political parties that understand the problems of those young people and try to attract them with credible and concrete plans and programmes that address important problems like unemployment and education can win their hearts, Sencar said. “And this can open the way to take power,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.