Whatever you think about Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you must admit that it’s pretty extraordinary that he’s still so popular, despite his blatant economic mismanagement, intermittent international isolation, and ineptitude at managing natural disasters.
The party Erdoğan leads and co-founded, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), remains the most popular in Turkey. And ahead of this month’s general elections, he’s running nearly neck-and-neck with the opposition’s candidate, 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
In their carefully calculated planning to defeat Erdoğan, the opposition did the drastic, the untried, and the unprecedented. They introduced not one but two presidential running mates to reinforce their official candidate, Kılıçdaroğlu.
By having the young and popular Istanbul and Ankara mayors Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, standing to his literal and ideological left and right, Kılıçdaroğlu managed to appease his main coalition partner Meral Aksener of the far-right IYI Party, who feared that if Kilicdaroglu ran alone, he would lose.
An optimist might highlight, with reason, that with his two deputies, Kılıçdaroğlu now appeals to an impressively broad range of Turkish voters. Ekrem Imamoğlu hails from the Black Sea region, just like Erdoğan, he can excite a crowd, and appeals to younger left-leaning voters.
Mansur Yavaş, the Ankara born son of a carpenter, could charm urban Turks with centrist to right-wing leanings.
Kılıçdaroğlu, who comes across as a stoic elderly statesman, is of Alevi minority descent, a heritage which he shares with 15-25 per cent of the population and has openly spoken about his identity. He comes from the largely Kurdish Southeast which means that he could appeal to Kurdish voters too.
This is the closest thing Turkish politics has ever got to a rainbow coalition, especially considering that the Kurdish-oriented and progressive Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which, fearing its immanent closure by the authorities after years of sustained intimidation, is running together with the Green Left Party, recently declared its support for Kilicdaroglu.
But will having this leadership collage, with a leader and two deputies, work in a politically divided country marked by strongmen from Atatürk to Erdoğan? Or will it backfire, giving Erdoğan and his ruling AKP, who have enjoyed over 21 years at the helm, another five years?
To find out, we are going to have to embark on an extremely dangerous course of action fraught with perilous risk: consulting opinion polls. Let’s first look at the parliamentary race and then move onto the presidential election.
Recent polling data shows Erdoğan’s AKP winning between 32 percent and 38 percent of the vote, its lowest vote share since 2002. The AKP’s main coalition allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), looks to get around 7.5 or 7.7 percent. Together, this translates to less than 50 percent of the vote and not enough for a majority in parliament.
In other words, despite economic crises marked by inflation and currency devaluations and the government’s disastrous handing of the destructive earthquake earlier this year, the CHP seems unable to pick up disaffected AKP votes.
Even with the CHP adding to its bloc the small Islamist Saadet (Felicity) Party as well as the Gelecek (Future) and DEVA parties, established by disaffected former AKP ministers, that hasn’t translated into significant levels of additional votes.
The CHP’s main partner in the opposition’s Nation Alliance, is the far-right secular nationalist IYI Party, is predicted to win between 7 and 11.5 percent of the vote, hardly impressive seeing that it won 10.5 percent in the last election.
What this shows is that the opposition is failing to attract disgruntled AKP supporters, undecided voters, and some first-time voters, who together may constitute as many as 15 percent of the voting public.
This inability of the opposition to win former AKP voters becomes crucial when we turn our attention to the presidential race.
According to a mean average of the different opinion polls for the presidential race (one must tread with caution because averaging by mean puts an equal weighting on polls with vastly different sample sizes and methodologies), Kılıçdaroğlu is set to receive 46.2 percent of the vote while Erdoğan trails behind at 42.6 percent.
At first glance, one might think that Team Kılıçdaroğlu is doing well. However, there’s a couple of reasons why he can’t pass the 50 percent threshold to win the election in the first round.
The first is Muharrem İnce, a former CHP deputy and presidential candidate, who recently established a new party and is running for president and, according to the highly regarded pollster MetroPoll, is predicted to siphon a critical 5 percent of the vote from Kilicdaroglu.
The second is because most polls do not consider undecided voters, protest voters, or those who do not wish to disclose their preference. According to polls by Al-Monitor and MetroPoll, which do include such data, there are very high numbers of such voters (9.9 and 9.1 percent respectively). These polls place the race extremely close with only 0.3 to 1.5 percent difference between the two main candidates.
In a highly polarized country, it is one thing for disgruntled Erdoğan and AKP voters to refuse to vote, but quite another for them to actually vote for the opposition. And part of the floating voter’s calculation would be whether one should vote for change and potential risk or prefer stability and vote for Erdoğan.
It is with this in mind that one should remember that back in June 2015 the AKP won just under 41 percent of the popular vote, which meant it couldn’t form a majority in parliament. As a consequence, the Turkish economy convulsed and, when elections were rerun in November 2015, Turks voted for stability and what they were familiar with. The AKP won 49.5 percent of the popular vote and got its parliamentary majority back.
The same could happen again. Closer to the election, those who are currently undecided may play ‘safe’ and vote for the AKP and Erdoğan.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan and his party are pulling out all the stops to reconnect with their former faithful.
For those in the southeast and effected by the earthquake, Erdoğan and the AKP have pledged to speedily rebuild homes. Erdoğan will no doubt remind the public that it was he who made it possible, just months before the election, for millions to retire early with decent pensions, a policy which is as close as one can get to buying votes.
And this message is being amplified in an unfair playing field where the airwaves are dominated by the government, and state institutions are used for campaign purposes. Across the aisle, the opposition must campaign in an intimidating climate.
Despite running ahead in most opinion polls, the opposition still has its work cut out. In order to win it must stay unified, avoid preaching to the choir, and do all it can to convert disgruntled Erdoğan voters into embracing, even warily, the opposition.
This article was originally published by Haaretz.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.