Twin elections, failed coup raising support for presidential system

Twin elections, failed coup raising support for presidential system

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Twin elections, failed coup raising support for presidential system Recent studies suggest that knowledge about the proposed executive presidential system is very low, but there has been a significant increase in support for a transition to the system following two general elections in 2015 and the failed coup of July 15, 2016, according to a professor at Istanbul’s Koç University.

“It won’t be a big surprise if the referendum results in a ‘yes’ vote with not only AKP [Justice and Development Party] constituency support but also support from a nationalist Turkish constituency as well as the conservative Kurdish electorate,” said Ali Çarkoğlu.

With Turkey set for a referendum, what will affect voting patterns? 

Mostly it will be partisan, meaning people will follow party lines primarily because the issues involved are too complicated for laymen to make any sense of these proposals, as well as their implications for the way the Turkish political system will function in the future. They will have to invest a lot of time and will need to have a lot of background information. Any sophisticated evaluation will be way above their intellectual limits. Therefore, they will look at the signals they will receive from the leaders [of the political parties they support] and vote accordingly. 

What is the empirical data to back this claim? 

Our research shows that the level of knowledge about the presidential system is very low. The implications of these changes for Turkish politics at large are not at all known by people.

I am confident that if you were to ask the yea-sayers “what are you saying ‘yes’ to?” they wouldn’t be able to tell you almost anything. Even if they know the items, the implications of the items are obscure even to the experts. As long as they know who is on which side, the content of the argument, the logical reasoning, even facts become irrelevant in making a decision. Their partisan preference dictates their vote. 

You claim in your research that support for the presidential system even among AKP supporters was quite low just a year ago.

Our research dates back to the very last few weeks of 2015. We followed the support level throughout 2015. Support for presidentialism fell even among AKP partisans in the aftermath of the June 7 elections and then it picked up after the November elections. 

There were more people at that time objecting to the presidential system than those who wanted to approve of such a change.

Over the [next] 12 months, the issue consistently rose on the public agenda, and we had the coup attempt in July 2016 which actually is likely to have changed everything we know about the level of support. Yet the dynamics that create decisions concerning a constitutional shift toward presidentialism are likely to have remained intact.  

Why do you think support levels rose after the November 2015 elections?

That was primarily due to the uncertainty and the chaotic environment that [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK attacks created in the country in the interim period. As the peace negotiations failed and the PKK trench activities in the cities of East and Southeast Anatolia gained some ground, the lay electorate’s perception of what could be a solution to this chaotic environment seems to have turned to a presidential solution, primarily among right-wing nationalist voters. This is the main argument of our research paper that there is an explanation as to why the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leadership agreed to allow these changes to go to a referendum, and that is because their electorate base has been consistently shifting toward a presidential system in the interim election period.

So you seem to say MHP leaders actually followed their constituency’s line.

Our data appears to suggest that there is some ground in the shifting of the MHP electorate. Not the leadership first; it is the electorate that changed the view on the presidency. 

But is it because MHP supporters shifted toward the AKP that the party then started to favor the presidential system or is it because it started to favor the presidential system that it shifted toward the AKP?

I think it’s the second one; it looks like the MHP constituency was slowly convinced by the AKP leadership’s argument that it is the presidential system that could resolve this issue; “we need to have a strong-handed response to the Kurdish problem” and that actually left almost nothing in the hands of the MHP leadership to argue for an alternative perspective. With the heavy-handed nationalistic clampdown on the PKK, MHP supporters slowly shifted to the AKP and the MHP lost significantly in the November elections. So the leadership had to make a decision: either it would have to continue opposing the presidential system and accept the fact that most of its constituency would slowly drift toward the AKP, or accept the presidential system and argue that this is better for the nation as a whole and try to maintain its constituency under its own umbrella.

Our study shows that there is an overlap between those who shifted from the MHP to the AKP and those supporting the presidential system, so we can conclude that the fact that MHP supporters accepted the presidential proposal and slowly moved toward the AKP is the underlying reason behind the MHP leadership’s decision to support the referendum. We also have to remember that in the 2014 presidential election, a significant group within the MHP constituency appears to have voted not for their party’s candidate but for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, as a consequence, won the election handily in the first round. It looks like following the 2015 elections, the MHP leadership did not want to be left in disagreement for a second time with a significant portion of its own constituency.

So in contrast to what the opposition within the MHP argue, we should not expect a big discrepancy between the MHP and its constituency in the referendum.

I don’t expect a significant resistance from within the MHP constituency. I don’t see it happening as of now, and I don’t see it happening in the future. 

How about the constituency of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)? What will be their voting pattern?

The Kurdish constituency is split almost half and half between a left and conservative group. The left could be easily mobilized to resist any support for the constitutional changes.

But the conservative constituency, which has typically supported the AKP in previous elections prior to the rise of the HDP in the 2015 elections, is likely to shift back and support a presidential system under Erdoğan’s leadership. It won’t be a big surprise if these constitutional amendments are passed in the referendum with not only the AKP constituency’s support but also support from a nationalist Turkish constituency, as well as a conservative Kurdish constituency in the east and southeast. This is the likely scenario and this is on the basis of data up to a year ago.

The conservative Kurdish electorate traditional voted for Islamist parties in the past. It’s important to note that it is likely that the Kurdish constituency at large is not very happy with the way things developed since 2015 with the rise of terror and military engagement in the region. City clashes between the police, military and the PKK obviously did not only create resistance to AKP rule but also mobilized support from among the conservative Kurdish constituencies for the AKP project.

You argue that in the November 2015 elections, 3 percent of HDP votes shifted, probably toward the AKP and that among the remaining 10 percent, some may vote for the presidential system.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to be observed in the referendum. But many things will have to play out. Will we have a free and fair referendum? Will people turn out to vote in the referendum? Turnout will also be critical; will the electorate feel safe and secure to vote or will they be scared to cast their vote? Casting a non-supportive vote for the amendments is likely to be seen as more risky, and hence these constituencies may choose to stay home while the supporters are more likely to turn out. If the naysayers predominantly stay home, the turnout will fall and it will have an automatically positive impact on [a “yes” vote]. The yea-sayers are also more likely to be mobilized because there is an effective AKP organization. The naysayers are more likely to have a much less effective campaign.

Who is Ali Çarkoğlu?


Twin elections, failed coup raising support for presidential system


Ali Çarkoğlu has been a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Koç University since September 2013. He received a Ph.D. at the State University of New York-Binghamton in 1994, a master’s degree in economics at Rutgers University in 1989 and a master’s degree in economics at Boğaziçi University in 1988.

His areas of research interest include voting behavior, public opinion and party politics in Turkey. Çarkoğlu has participated in studies of public opinion on political Islam, philanthropy in Muslim countries, corruption and voting behavior in Turkey. 

In 2008, he became one of the founding members of the Turkish team at the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). One of his most recent works, co-authored with Ersin Kalaycıoğlu, is titled “The Rising Tide of Conservatism in Turkey.”