Who will Gülen followers vote for?

Who will Gülen followers vote for?

The current political battle in Turkey has come to staggering levels. The supporters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Fethullah Gülen Movement attack each other relentlessly in the media, the social media and behind the dark corners of the state. The level of resentment and anger is unbelievable. It is even more striking when one considers that both sides largely consists of pious Muslims whose values and lifestyles are actually quite similar.

According to the Gülen Movement, the government is dominated by a cadre of “thieves” that has been plundering public state resources by a massive system of corruption. According the government (which, notably, does not deny some modest levels of corruption) the Gülen Movement is a fifth column used by foreign powers who want to overthrow Erdoğan and halt “Turkey’s progress.”

The escalation of rhetoric in this conflict is quite impressive. Just two months ago, both sides were critical of each other, but were still using a carefully respectful language. Now, Prime Minister Erdoğan openly condemns the movement as “traitors” and “assassins” (referring to a heretical cult in Medieval Islam), and denigrates Gülen as a “false prophet.” In return, Gülen himself, with the exception of a controversial “condemnation” prayer, has shown notable restraint, but his followers who are active in social media also use a harsh language against Erdoğan and his party.

This escalation, which might get worse, has refuted earlier guesses that no matter how much tension there is between AKP and the Gülen Community, many in the latter will still vote for the AKP as they have nowhere else to go. It might rather be true these days to say that the votes of the community will go anywhere other than the AKP.

A report published yesterday in daily Taraf confirms this view. Reportedly, the AKP has recently conducted a survey to figure out where the votes of the community will go in the upcoming local elections on March 31. The AKP is out of the question, the survey shows, while three parties have emerged as possible destinations for pro-Gülen votes: The main opposition CHP, the Islamo-nationalist BBP (Grand Union Party), and the Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party.

The last two parties here are little known outside of Turkey, for they have very few votes and very little significance. In the 2011 general election, the BBP got 0.7 percent of the votes, whereas Saadet got 1.2 percent. Both are more parochial than the AKP, so they normally would not be the first choice of the more global Gülen Movement. However, at this point, any party that has Islamic credentials and is not the AKP will suffice.

The CHP is an even more interesting case, for as a hardcore secularist party, the CHP has traditionally been the bête noir of Turkey’s conservative Muslims, including the Gülen Movement. However, the CHP has lately moved away from that harsh secularism, and in this upcoming election has shown some candidates that are at least respectful to religion, if not religious themselves. The CHP’s Istanbul candidate Mustafa Sarıgül, for example, is an exceptional CHP figure who is known for frequenting mosques.

Just don’t forget that this will be a local election, and the personalities of the candidates and the decisions of certain communities will give different results in different municipalities. Hence the voting power of the Gülen community will matter - and will also be tested.