Turkish politics to continue on nativist note as Erdoğan loses ground at home - report

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been losing ground among various demographics, the young Turkish conservative and right-wing nationalist constituencies in particular, as many start to seek alternatives to the 18-year-rule of the Justice and Development Party, according to a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Erdoğan remains the undisputed leader, “but waning enthusiasm presents a real threat to his continued dominance,” the report said. However, while the president may lose enough of the young vote, another “genuine conservative alternative” is unlikely to materialise unless he loses an election or otherwise withdraws from the scene.

As such, it seems likely that Turkey could see contested elections or a deconsolidation of right-wing politics, while nativism continues to be a strong determining factor in the country’s policies, it said. The CAP found it also likely that core tenets of Erdoğan’s brand of populist nationalism would outlast him even if he was defeated.

The Turkish president’s core interest is regime security, “and his ambition to assert Turkey as a powerful global actor under his rule,” it said, and to that end, has instrumentalised “both brutal domestic repression and home and military adventurism abroad … particularly when threatened politically.”

As such, Erdoğan’s political challenges are inseparable from Western interests, particularly those of the European Union and the United States.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has a diverse constituency, “an array of religious conservative, Islamist, nativist, center-right, and hardcore nationalist currents that together hold the balance of power in Turkey.”

A report titled Turkey’s New Nationalism, based on studies CAP commissioned from Turkey’s leading pollster Metropoll, “showed that most AKP voters are not political Islamists, though a meaningful minority are, and a large bloc are not even religiously conservative,” while nativism and jingoism were found to be stronger forces than religious conservativism, the report author Max Hoffman, Associate Director, National Security and International Policy at the CAP said. However, there is a large group in the Turkish right that is strictly against the more Islamist tendencies – including a sense of solidarity with Muslim nations (the Ummah) over Syrian refugees in the country, and Islamic education.

Where the diverse factions within the right agree is “an assertive, confrontational approach toward the West,” and Erdoğan has focused on this sentiment in his balancing act. These findings were later seen in practice when the AKP officially joined forces with the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) under the People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) for the 2018 elections.

Another study by Metropoll, conducted in late 2019 and early 2020, showed a young generation that despite growing up entirely under the AKP’s rule, were largely unenthusiastic about the party. As the unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent, the country’s youth mostly see Erdoğan and the AKP as an “embodiment of an establishment that is seen to be failing young Turks.”

The AKP has also lost a significant portion of its Kurdish vote – which stood at about half of the total Kurdish vote in the country, divided between AKP and the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – after the dissolution of a peace process between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurds. Erdoğan’s pivot towards the more extreme right-wing kept him winning in national elections, but the lost Kurdish vote and Kurds supporting the main opposition has contributed greatly to the AKP losing many important provinces in the local elections – including Istanbul and Ankara, which had been governed by AKP and its predecessor parties for more than two decades.

Erdoğan’s supporters are also less convicted in their support for the president, the CAP found, with 27 percent of Turks saying they support him “loyally.” Between October 2019 and April 2020, those who said they could envision another leader for the AKP besides Erdoğan increased to 37 percent from 21 percent.

In the October poll, the alternative was not clear, and the top successor to Erdoğan the study found was Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, with 17 percent of participants picking him. In April, Soylu’s support shot up to 38 percent. As a member of Turkey’s nationalist but not particularly religious right-wing, Soylu “has used his current public role as interior minister to court the ‘Turkey First’ nationalist right wing in recent years,” the CAP said.

In a May study, support for Soylu rose further to 50 percent among the general population and 58 percent among 18 to 24 year-olds. Support for Soylu may in part stem from his hard line stance against Syrian refugees, towards whom there is significant hostility among all factions of Turkish society.

Support for Erdoğan himself had fallen to 41 percent before the COVID-19 pandemic, but rose to 52 percent in April. However, as Turkey’s already-faltering economy was hit hard by the pandemic, the approval rate may fall again, CAP said.

“When President Erdoğan’s position is viewed in relative terms, the news is much less clear-cut,” it continued. Mayors of Istanbul and Ankara from the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, as well as Soylu, were all favoured by roughly half of the participants in a remarkable development, as “no other politician has come close to matching Erdoğan’s favorability in at least a decade.”

CAP’s focus group studies seemed to support the fact that the Turkish right-wing was “primarily held together by President Erdoğan.”

The waning support for the AKP was mainly rooted in reaction against cronyism, and the state of the economy, focus groups found.

Young AKP supporters in focus groups also expressed dissatisfaction with the proliferation of religious schools in Turkey, attendance to which they thought should be strictly voluntary.

AKP was most lauded by participants in the areas of the headscarf ban, which AKP lifted in 2010, and the popular resistance against the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.  Among female participants, AKP was praised for also expanding professional opportunities for women.

Memory of the 2001 economic crisis just before the AKP came into power, as well as the galvanisation derived from a shared sense of oppression, has faded among AKP supporters, “as President Erdoğan and the AKP represent the political establishment, and their supporters have come to dominate socioeconomic life as well as the media,” CAP said.

A generational divide is exacerbated by a differentiation of sources of information, with the young relying on social media, while the older generations get their information from traditional media, some 90 percent of which is controlled directly or indirectly by the government. Those who rely on the internet for their news viewed the government less favourably, but the CAP studies did not point to a causal relationship either way.

Dissatisfaction among the youth is partly attributable to the AKP’s long reign – those approaching voting age have never known any other government, and their older siblings can barely remember a time when conservative views were not represented at the top levels. AKP’s accomplishments “are taken for granted by many of those who came of age in the past decade.”

The previous decade’s right-wing tendency for consolidation has given way to “ambitious dissident conservatives … holding out hope of an avenue to influence outside the AKP,” CAP found.

Erdoğan has long advocated for his government leading Turkey’s centenary celebrations in 2023, and would be crushed to fall just short of that goal, CAP said, while the president may also fear prosecution if he loses an election, based on the 2013 corruption probe. Thus, he and his party “will do everything they can to shape the electoral environment,” including proposed changes to Turkey’s election laws and tightening control over social media.

“Beyond tilting the political playing field, Erdoğan, facing a tight re-election campaign, is certain to continue to stoke nationalism through repression of Kurds at home,” CAP said. Following the June 23 elections in 2015, when the AKP lost its absolute majority in parliament, the Kurdish conflict was reignited, a crackdown against the opposition thinned out the competition, and the AKP won back its majority in November 1.

Turkey’s military actions in Syria, Iraq and Libya in recent years “have broadly aligned with the electoral calendar,” CAP added. “It is likely that the Turkish leader would precipitate a crisis on one of these fronts in the run-up to a close election,” it continued, “playing to the nationalist right’s hostility toward foreign countries.”

Erdoğan is currently “widely regarded as a near-permanent fact of life as the autocratic leader of an important country,” but Western countries may have to review their approach to the president  - from the implementation of sanctions, to what they would do in case of an openly fraudulent election, CAP said.

If the opposition wins the 2023 elections, Turkey’s relations with the West could improve as such a government would “have less reason to actively stoke anti-Western feeling or provoke policy clashes with the United States,” it said. The two parties that have already broken away from the AKP, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party and former foreign and economy minister Ali Babacan’s Democracy and Progress Party, both appeal to the Turkish right and centre-right, and “offer a reminder that large segments of the Turkish public do not share this combative outlook,” it concluded.