‘Polarization serves the ruling party, not the opposition,’ prominent pollster says
The results do not mean that the electorate is indifferent to corruption claims. But the economy is a much higher priority than corruption allegations or freedom issues, says prominent pollster Adil Gür. HÜRRİYET photos, Murat ŞAKA
Polarization in Turkey was one of the determinants of voter behavior during last week’s local elections, but the economic situation was the most important influence in the electorate’s choice, according to a prominent pollster.
With the economy beginning to give some negative signs, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursued a strategy of polarization, since this works in favor of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), said Adil Gür, who heads a polling company whose predictions before the elections overlapped with the outcome.
Were the latest municipal elections any different than those held in the past?
Although Turkey went into the elections in a polarized environment and despite the fact that there was an atmosphere of general elections rather than local elections, the March 30 elections were no different than past elections. There is more than one reason to explain voter behavior for these elections, and the local characteristics of the elections were also prevalent this time around, too. Of course, there was the effect of Dec. 17 [graft probe], and the Gezi events. But polarization serves politicians; Turkey goes to the ballot box without talking about the principle issues; Turks go to the ballot box based on identity politics. But still, when we asked AKP voters why they voted for the ruling party, only 14 percent said they voted to defend the prime minister because they said he was facing a plot. But the first reason for 86 percent was economic.
So you maintain that the primary reason that explains voter behavior in Turkey is the economic situation and that this was also the case for these local elections.
As is the case for all elections, there are those who have voted for ideological reasons, saying, “I don’t care about the achievements, I want my party to win.” My view is that the total of these votes, including all parties, is 35 to 40 percent. The overwhelming majority in Turkey vote looking at their economic situation and their pockets. This was the case for the local elections as well. Eighty percent of the AKP electorate said, “I am happy with the government, happy with the work done by the municipality.” As they were able to answer more than one question, 30 percent said they voted for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But 30 percent said, “Is there any other party to vote for?” adding that they voted due to a lack of an alternative.
Another dynamic is certainly the candidates and the work of municipalities. Why did the Republican People’s Party (CHP) lose in Mersin and Adana but win in Hatay? Manisa and Balıkesir are two Aegean cities with the same socio-demographic and cultural backgrounds, and they have similar economies. Both municipalities were in the hands of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In one, the MHP won, in the other, the AKP won. If polarization was the main factor, we would have similar results in cities that resemble each other. Of course ideological polarization had its effects; you see this in Tunceli or the Aegean, in Aydın. But although we can see a bigger effect of polarization in Aydın, we should not forget the success of the female candidate that won for the second time. In summary, while there are many different reasons to explain voter behavior, ideological polarization, contentedness or discontent with the government and local dynamics were the three dominant factors. I keep saying that the AKP is not winning because it is pious and conservative and the CHP is not losing because it is Atatürkist, secular and social democratic.
You might ask why the prime minister turned this into a referendum. There are some negative developments in the economy; things have not gone as well as it appears to be going. The opposition, instead of talking about the economy, jumped on the argument of a vote of confidence; we weren’t able to talk about why the interest rates went down and the Turkish Lira lost its value. The AKP endorsed a strategy of polarization because this works in favor of the AKP. But what the opposition did not do, while the ruling party’s campaign looked like a campaign for a referendum, [was explain what was done for those cities] in each square and city.
If polarization was so important in Turkey, then why did the prime minister lose votes in 2009 right after the one-minute incident [the war of words with Israeli President Shimon Peres] when his popularity peaked in Turkey as well as abroad. Its votes went down to 38 because the economy was not doing well.
If the voters say that the economy is going well, they can also think it might go even better if they vote for the opposition as well, but they don’t do it.
The voters say, “There is no deterioration in my economic situation, but it does not suggest the situation will improve if I change the party I vote for.” Opposition parties have not given the confidence that they can do better. Opposition parties come up with projects. In the 2011 general elections, the CHP’s scheme for family insurance was a very good project; if well-managed, it could have lead them to the government. But the CHP could not inspire confidence that they could implement this project when they came to power. So the citizen says, for instance: “I get 200 liras from different social welfare plans, et cetera; the other promises to give 600. But there is no guarantee, so why should I risk losing the 200?”
Let’s not forget that Turkey has become a consumer society. People have a 1,000-lira monthly salary but 2,000 liras of debt. The fear of economic instability leads to consolidation around a powerful government. People say, “What happens if there is a coalition and the economy deteriorates; what will I do?” The opposition is not able to convey the message that [the economy] has its own dynamics, there are autonomous institutions like the Central Bank and the economy is not necessarily totally under the control of the government.
So in short, what did the AKP electorate say?
In spite of everything, I don’t want to go on an adventure. The AKP won and increased its votes in municipalities that it already controls and lost in municipalities which are in the hands of the opposition. The AKP is successful at local governance.
But what’s the role of conservatism; is that not such an important factor?
More than 50 percent of the electorate does not identify themselves with the right or left; the right/left divide does no longer have a meaning in Turkey. The strongholds of the old left in Turkey are in the hands of AKP, like Ümraniye and Zeytinburnu in Istanbul, where the right-wing parties could not even enter in the 1980s. The CHP wins in what used to be the strongholds of the center-right, like Beşiktaş and Kadıköy in Istanbul and Çankaya in Ankara. There are of course people who say I will never and ever vote for the AKP; but they are around 25 to 30 percent. A social democratic party could come to power if it can convince the electorate.
What you are saying is that CHP does not have to endorse conservative values to reach the masses. Is CHP the party of the elites?
There was an opening in the recent past thanks to [party leader] Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. It is not easy to transform a party as old as the republic. The CHP has structural problems. Some of the CHP candidates were able to attract the votes of the conservatives, too. But if we were to compare the party to a restaurant, you can’t change it by changing the owner; you have to change the tables, chairs, the menu and the cook. The CHP’s stance on lifting the ban on headscarf was positive, but you can’t expect this to turn into a vote for the CHP immediately. You need time for that. But we have to underline that everywhere else in the world, social democrats get the votes of the more disadvantaged sectors, from the poor, the workers, et cetera; the CHP votes for years have come from elites, and although the CHP calls itself a left-wing party, its constituency is composed of voters from the center right. The CHP needs to get in touch with the people. When they go to a [disadvantaged] neighborhood, they are treated as if they come from space.
How was the performance of the MHP?
It would be wrong to evaluate the MHP looking at the votes of the metropolitan municipalities. In districts, the MHP got 17.6 percent, which is an increase of 2.5 percent compared to the last [general] elections. The MHP is increasing its votes in parallel with the reconciliation process with the Kurds. When you see a rise in Kurdish nationalism, it is inevitable that there will be a rise in Turkish nationalism. The MHP’s problem is that while one in every two young people has voted for the MHP, they distance themselves from the MHP once they reach 30, get married and have children. When we think of the MHP, we only remember that is against Kurdish nationalism. But we have no idea what kind of policies it has about the working class, about farmers about women.
So the CHP’s difference from MHP is that it has projects but it cannot make them known.
No, the issue is not about making people hear those projects. People are informed about these projects, but the CHP cannot convince them. It is not realities but perceptions that determine voter behavior, and you are successful so long as you are good at perception management. The ruling party has been conducting a very successful perception management by using all means of communication. Some would argue that the media is too pro-government; that is correct, yet it is not the only reason why it is so successful in perception management. The CHP has 12 million people voting for it, but it cannot even gather 10,000 to 20,000 people to monitor the ballot boxes.
Was there a CHP-MHP alliance as far as voters were concerned?
The AKP lost some votes, and they went to the MHP while some MHP votes went to the CHP. One of the dynamics in the elections is that people tend to vote for the winners. Either people cast their ballot for the one that would win or against the one they did not want to win. There was such a reflex this time.
What can we deduce from the elections as far as the Kurdish process is concerned?
A: It would be wrong to assume by looking at these elections that people view the Kurdish reconciliation process positively. Our research shows that people want peace, but they don’t want to see the PKK’s leader, [Abdullah] Öcalan, as the state’s interlocutor.
What did the electorate say about corruption allegations?
The election results do not mean that the electorate is indifferent to corruption. In a country where 80 percent of the nation has debts, where people are concerned about paying their housing rent or credit cards, you cannot expect freedoms or corruption to be a priority. There are priorities more important than freedoms or corruption allegations. As the economy has not shown a big deterioration, the electorate chose not to question corruption allegations so much, saying, “Perhaps these allegations are right, but things are on track right now as far as I am concerned.” I do not believe that the electorate forgot on March 31 the debates on the corruption allegations or the allegations of the existence of a parallel structure. These issues will continue to haunt the government.
Who is Adil Gür?
Gür then set up A&G Research in 1995 with a group of researchers that have 30 years of experience in the sector. The company
gained prominence with its accurate predictions in the 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2007 elections.
In 2011, he worked with World Bank and 2012 with the European Union to become familiar with the citizen charter project. He is now implementing this project in certain municipalities.