Can Turkish democracy count on defected conservatives, rather than Kurds?

Can Turkish democracy count on defected conservatives, rather than Kurds?

Polls conducted over the last few years on Turkish society’s sociological profile reveal that at least 60 percent of the population is made up of pious, conservative and nationalist people. This largely corresponds to the totality of votes that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) got in the last general election in November 2015, with the AKP winning around 50 percent and the MHP winning around 10 percent of the votes.

The “yes” camp in the April 16 referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system made up of the AKP and the MHP was expecting at least 55 percent of the votes. But despite an unfair campaign period that took place under a state of emergency, “yes” votes remained only around 51 percent.

Some estimate that around five million conservative votes defected from the “yes” camp. There is little surprise about the scale of the defection from the MHP leadership. It looks like around 30 percent of the MHP’s constituency voted for “yes” in the end, not out of loyalty to the MHP but out of sympathy for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. These are largely the pious conservatives living in Central and Eastern Anatolia. They for example voted for Erdoğan during the presidential election of 2014 instead of the joint candidate supported by the MHP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). 

However, it seems that conservative nationalist MHP voters in the big urban centers, as well as those living in Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions, largely voted “no.” Did they vote “no” because they were against the presidential system, or because they were angry at MHP chair Devlet Bahçeli’s stance against dissent within the party? Was it a reaction against economic problems, or a reflection of the fear that the presidential system could lead to a federal system with more autonomy for the Kurds? These are important questions that polling companies will seek answers to.

But the more striking outcome of the referendum came from the AKP’s voters. Although it was not particularly unexpected, the modest defection from the AKP is very interesting. It is very telling that a neighborhood like Fatih in Istanbul, a stronghold of the AKP, voted only 51 percent “yes.” 

One can perhaps split the defectors into two: On the one side you have people who are emotionally and ideologically tied to the AKP, on the other you have more floating votes who don’t ideologically or emotionally identify themselves with the AKP but find Erdoğan and the party more convincing than the other parties.  

Why did they defect? Before the referendum, AKP strategists had warned about the skepticism of urban and educated voters. Did they vote “no” because they are against an unchecked all-powerful executive presidency and have internalized democratic standards? Or did they want to show their resentment to Erdoğan and the AKP by telling them that the shift to a presidential system is not a solution to Turkey’s deeper economic and political problems. Does the fact that “no” votes mostly came from Turkey’s top economic zones testify to disillusionment with the deterioration of economy?

The reasons behind their electoral behavior are important in order to determine whether they could provide a security valve against a further slide toward authoritarian rule in Turkey. In the 2014 presidential election and the June 7, 2015 election, the anti-Erdoğan camp tied its hopes to Kurdish votes and urban secularist voters who entered into a tacit coalition with the Kurds.

Yet in this referendum it may be that it was Kurdish voters who secured for Erdoğan the presidential system he has been longing for, as there has was a swing away from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the southeast.

No doubt, more details about voters’ behavior in this referendum could provide us with interesting insight about sociological changes in Turkey.