Will the AKP lose votes?

Will the AKP lose votes?

Turkey is in the midst of a very interesting, peculiar political tension these days, the consequences of which are hotly debated. On the one hand, there is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and its supporters. On the other hand, there is not a political party, but a social group: The Gülen Movement, or the followers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, which has a large presence not only in civil society but also the bureaucracy. 

It is also no secret that the Gülen Movement supported the AKP rigorously until a few years ago, both with votes and activism. But once the common enemy of both sides, the military-backed old establishment, had been defeated, differences between both sides appeared and soon turned into a political conflict. (As my version of Murphy’s Law states: If there emerges even a little a disagreement among Turks, it will certainly turn into a big fight soon.)

The details of this AKP-Gülen Movement tension is hotly discussed in the Turkish media every day, as conspiracy theories raise the bar to unimaginable heights. (Some AKP supporters argue that the Gülen Movement serves Israel and “Zionism,” whereas people on the other side whisper about “Iranian agents” within the AKP.) A more factual matter, however, is whether this split will have a considerable effect in the upcoming elections — first the local elections of next March, then the presidential elections of next June.

One big question here is how many votes the Gülen Movement has. There are simply no clear statistics here, as the membership to the movement can be very loose and no number is ever disclosed. But assuming that every pro-Gülen household probably buys daily Zaman, which sells more than a million copies every day, estimates can be made. A perhaps even more definitive number is the sum of the subscribers to Sızıntı, a monthly religious magazine that is the theological flagship of the movement, which is more than 600,000.)

Based on such figures, observers estimate that pro-Gülen votes constitute some 2 to 5 percent of the electorate. There has been a view that the more loosely affiliated folks within this bulk could still vote for the AKP when they go to the ballots, but the growing tension makes this less and less likely. The resignation of Hakan Şükür, a former football star who joined the AKP in 2011 as a deputy, is a sign. Şükür, a proud follower of Mr. Gülen, has been a symbol of the cooperation between the movement and the party, but he resigned from the latter on Monday with a long and very critical press release.

In other words, it looks safe to assume that the AKP-Gülen Movement split may cost the AKP some 2-5 percent of the votes in the upcoming election season. For a party whose votes fluctuate around 50 percent, this might not sound disastrous. However, both of the two upcoming elections are sensitive enough. In the local elections, municipal candidates will compete, and even a small segment of votes can be a game changer in major cities such as Istanbul or Ankara. In the presidential elections, Erdoğan will compete as an individual, and he will need 50 percent of the votes to be elected, in two subsequent rounds. A small segment, again, can be a game changer.

In other words, politics is becoming more heated, but also more interesting. Personally speaking, I must say that I am less interested in who will win, but whether Turkish democracy will win. And I am optimistic on the latter, at least in the long run.