Turkey's electoral impasse persists as hopes for change fade

Turkey’s political opposition remains in a deep political deadlock, enforced by political parties’ deep-seated identity politics. It can only be bad news for those disgruntled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's rule.

This gloomy deadlock, which many hoped would start melting when three political parties in the opposition – the secular-Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), nationalist Good Party and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – joined forces for the local elections last year in March.

Mostly through tactical voting by HDP voters, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its coalition partners the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) lost six major municipalities to the CHP.

The defeat of the Islamist-nationalist bloc led to celebrations, and observers expended much energy on exaggerated comments about the countdown for the demise of the AKP-MHP’s iron rule. “Everything will be very, very beautiful,” as the CHP’s new Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu’s slogan went. But it was not.

That is all water under the bridge, after a year. As usual, Erdoğan pulled himself together, further cemented the oppressive security apparatus under his command, and adopted the following line to counter the opposition: Raze the HDP and its local structures to the ground by arresting its mayors and replacing them with government appointees, and keep the CHP under the rein through intimidation, fear and administrative controls over the municipalities it had won.

The joy brought on by the local elections has completely evaporated. Instead, the nightmare in Turkey, accelerated by the economic quagmire and coronavirus crisis, is getting darker with each passing day.

Parts of the main opposition party seem to be stuck in the notion that the current crisis will force Erdoğan to leave power sooner or later. Supporters of this idea are keeping themselves busy these days by arguing that the president is preparing the ground for early elections.

The fact of the matter is that there is no convincing evidence for these claims, which are based mostly on the idea that the AKP is losing ground in parliament. One argument stated that the president “wants to keep the number of AKP deputies in parliament above 200, even if he loses some of the current ones, who number around 290.'' This is, needless to say, nonsense. Such claims are only to be taken as major miscalculations of Erdoğan's skills as a shrewd politician.

The latest opinion polls should have come as a cold shower for the main opposition CHP and the rest of the bloc as well. Actually, the figures emerging, which somewhat overlap in findings, should reassure Erdoğan that he can maintain the status quo until the next elections, due in 2023. No matter what the opposition's spin on early elections tries to say, Turkey’s political stage remains unchanged.

A quick look over the polls’ findings confirms this. The latest survey done last week by one of the pollsters, MAK Danışmanlık, lists voter support for various parties – with nearly 13 percent of undecided distributed – as follows:

  • AKP: 37.4
  • CHP: 25.3
  • Good Party: 10.9
  • MHP: 10.7
  • HDP: 9.4

The Future Party and DEVA, which were set up in the last six months by former AKP renegades, polled at 2.4 percent and 1.7 percent of the vote respectively, while the Islamist opposition Felicity Party polled at 1.1 percent.

AREA Araştırma, another pollster which, like MAK, uses the telephone interview methods, conducted the following survey covering electoral trends in April:

  • AKP 35.8
  • CHP 24.8
  • HDP 12.1
  • MHP 9.6
  • Good Party 11.8
  • Felicity Party 1.5

The Istanbul Economy Research market research and data analytics company’s February-March results were as follows:

  • AKP 35.8
  • CHP 21.1
  • MHP 12.2
  • HDP 11.1
  • Good Party 9.7

Add to this Erdoğan's approval ratings. According to the latest figures by pollster Konsensus, the president has 49.8 percent support. In two consecutive surveys by Metropoll, he received 55.8 percent support in March and 52.1 percent in April.

There are two basic conclusions based on this data.

Firstly, Turkey's shallow “early elections imminent” spinners are missing a key point: For Erdoğan, the presidential part of the two-legged elections is the one that matters, and not the parliamentary vote. The approval ratings show that he has not lost considerable ground in popularity and support. In short, he is in the game, with a focus on maximising his presidential period until 2023, only then to attempt to extend it for another five years.

Besides that, yes, these polls show a weakening AKP voter support. But the AKP-MHP bloc remains cumulatively more or less intact. Also, the CHP has not shown any significant progress, unable to break past the 20-25 percent of the vote that it gained in every recent election.

The HDP remains key, should the opposition bloc continue to challenge the Nationalist-Islamist ruling bloc. But the question is whether or not the opposition bloc - the so-called “Nation Alliance” is even in the equation any more.

Most recently, the Good Party, a nationalist twin of the MHP that was one of the mainstays of that alliance, has started spending most of its energy demonising the HDP, calling it the “arm of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party,” referring to the outlawed armed group fighting for Kurdish self-rule in Turkey for decades. The HDP has hit back by accusing the Good Party of links to the deep state.

The Good Party’s move against the HDP must be interpreted as throwing an olive branch to Erdoğan in hope of a chance to join the ruling bloc where, ideologically, the so-called opposition party belongs. In short, hopes of a united opposition bloc are irreversibly over.

This leaves us with the CHP. The main opposition party is in shambles, still sleepwalking, and keeping its distance from the HDP, due to its fear of being demonised. All this explains the deadlock in Turkish politics, fed by the opposition’s electoral impasse, news which Erdoğan welcomes for his future.

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