Erdoğan turns to Islamist Felicity Party as support wanes for his AKP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has been suffering a considerable decline in public support, according to opinion polls, causing the party that has ruled Turkey for 18 years to panic ahead of the next parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023.

Backing for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is at an all time low, with the party polling at around 30-32 percent, according to pollster Avrasya.

Struggling with an ailing economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, the AKP is aware that it must take action to attract more voters. So, it has turned its attention to the Islamist opposition Felicity Party.

Like the AKP, Felicity, formed in 2001, traces its roots back to the Islamist Welfare Party, banned by the Constitutional Court in 1998, from which many of the founders of the AKP originate.

Last week, Erdoğan hosted Oğuzhan Asiltürk, a top official of Felicity, at an iftar dinner at the presidential palace, signalling his government’s eagerness to work with the Islamist group. In January, Erdoğan visited the head of the party’s top advisory board at his home.

Polls indicate that most of the AKP’s former voters are now in the undecided camp and have not jumped the fence to join the opposition’s National Alliance, comprised of the secular, self-labelled social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the nationalist Good Party (İYİP).

The AKP is hopeful that it will be able to employ tactics that attract former loyalists back to the party. It is here where Felicity, which, like the AKP, gets its backing from the right-wing conservative voter, can play a key role.

So, what is the charm of an Islamist party that won a little over 100,000 votes in the Istanbul mayoral election in March 2019?

For starters, like the AKP, Felicity, which has cooperated with the opposition alliance, is one of the very few political groups in Turkey that garner support from the pious segments of society.

Led by Temel Karamollaoğlu, a former mayor of Sivas in central Turkey, the party has single-handedly dismantled the ruling AKP’s effective hegemony over the Islamist-conservative wing of Turkey’s ideologically divided politics by cooperating with the main opposition CHP ahead of the 2019 local elections.

In fact, the AKP has been eyeing Felicity and the interest it attracts from voters ever since losing the city of Istanbul in the 2019 local elections.

Despite being part of the opposition alliance, Felicity opted to nominate its own mayoral candidates at the elections so as not to alienate CHP supporters from their own party. And the party’s candidate for Istanbul, Necdet Gökçınar, received 1.2 percent of the vote in a disputed first round of the polls, or more than 103,000 votes. Even though backing for Gökçınar slumped in the re-run, it became evident to Erdoğan and his friends that the party had political sway over the result of the hotly contested polls.

In fact, AKP circles even said that the party’s own candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, would have won Istanbul if he had the backing of Felicity.

For years, Felicity had failed to garner any significant interest from the AKP or the opposition. But the ushering of a politically disputed presidential system of government in the 2018 elections left the AKP needing every single vote it could get.

The new executive presidential system, which requires a candidate to obtain the majority of the vote to be elected president, has turned smaller parties into key players.

Another factor which renders Felicity important is the legitimacy it provides Erdogan’s political alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). So, the AKP is looking to sever the party politically from the opposition, according to sources. To achieve this, it is trying to create distrust between Felicity and the other parties in the alliance. A politically alienated Felicity would be weaker, no longer of use to the opposition and thus not pose a threat to the AKP.

Of course, Felicity is quite aware of the game of chess being played. Instead of outright rejecting the AKP’s advances, it is consolidating its own voter base by telling disgruntled AKP voters to return to their “home”.

Felicity is looking to increase its voter base ahead of any snap election or ahead of the scheduled polling in 2023 to bolster its representation in parliament and wield influence over the presidential elections.