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Max Hoffman: Challenges are Slowly Deconsolidating the Turkish Right

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that most AKP supporters were not meaningfully Islamist in their political views, and that nativism and jingoism could be seen as far more powerful forces than religious conservatism in many ways.
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Max Hoffman is the Associate Director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. His primary areas of focus are Turkey and Kurdish regions, US defense budgeting and policy, and the intersection of climate change, human migration, and security concerns. Prior to joining the Center for American Progress, Hoffman worked on disarmament and security issues for the United Nations, interned for the US House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, and worked in public affairs in Boston. Hoffman has been published in a range of academic and news outlets, including The New York TimesForeign Policy, and Politico, and has appeared on TV and radio programs to discuss his work.

FeniksPolitik (FP): What can you tell us about the future of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as its electoral coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or in other words the People’s Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı)?

Max Hoffman (MH): We are witnessing a very interesting moment in Turkish politics. Back in 2017 and 2018, the Center for American Progress performed an in-depth study based on nationwide polling and focus groups exploring new nationalism in Turkey. It was meant to examine public attitudes and self-perceptions of those in Turkey, especially those on the right. Conventional wisdom often suggests that the AKP is a monolithic bloc, but in fact it’s very diverse and includes a wide array of nationalist elements. This extends beyond the right-wing, nationalist MHP, which of course formally joined with the AKP to create the politically dominant People’s Alliance. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that most AKP supporters were not meaningfully Islamist in their political views, and that nativism and jingoism could be seen as more powerful forces than religious conservatism in many ways. 

When it comes to foreign policy, in my view, Erdogan has done many things primarily to show his base that he is taking aggressive action on the refugee issue. He knows it’s a huge political threat.

These forces are particularly fueled by the Syrian conflict, the resumption of conflict with the PKK, and the refugee issue. Erdogan has to appease this base which consists of “Turkey-first”, right-wing, nativist voices. When it comes to foreign policy, in my view, Erdogan has done many things primarily to show this base that he is taking aggressive action on the refugee issue. He knows it’s a huge political threat. It is actually remarkable that he has managed to hold such a broad constituency together for so long.

Currently, Erdogan faces some fundamental challenges that threaten to erode this right-wing bloc. The first challenge is his long-term incumbency and generational change. One and a half million Turks become of voting age every election cycle, and younger Turks are much less supportive of Erdogan. These people are often unhappy with the direction of the country and many blame Erdogan, since he has led the nation for nearly two decades. Second, the economy is obviously very bad and getting much worse. Third, the refugee issue is hugely important, and anger over its handling has been increasing over the last five to six years. Over the last few years, these challenges are slowly deconsolidating the Turkish right.

Another demographic challenge is that the Kurdish voting populations is growing. The Kurdish birth rate is double that of ethnic Turks. The AKP lost the Kurdish vote because of its hardline policies and it’s hard to imagine Kurdish electoral support coming back.

FP: Some experts argue the new figures such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, and AKP splinter party leaders Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoglu have changed the face of Turkish politics, whereas others find their influence insignificant. In your view, what change can these new opposition leaders offer, if any?

MH: This deconsolidation I mentioned earlier has profound implications for these new actors. First, Babacan and Davutoglu’s breakaway parties are small and are unlikely to get large. But they only need to siphon off a little bit of AKP support to be significant. Babacan appeals to a moderate, center-right, business-minded segment of AKP supporters, whereas Davutoglu appeals more to “compassionate Islamist” segments. These are small but vocal segments of the AKP’s base. Looking at the mayors, Ekrem Imamoglu managed to attract young voters, including mildly conservative young voters. He also skillfully managed his relationship with the Kurds and his approach to the Kurdish issue, which is very hard to do. 

Mansur Yavas may be the most interesting opposition figure because as a center, center-right official that could be seen as technocratic, he poses the deepest threat to Erdogan.

Mansur Yavas may be the most interesting opposition figure because as a center, center-right official that could be seen as technocratic, he poses the deepest threat to Erdogan. Everyone you talk to about Mansur Yavas says that he is doing very well. He is seen as focusing on issues affecting his city of Ankara and avoiding involving himself in the more heated realm of national politics. Considering these leaders, Erdogan is losing some of his ability to hold the right-wing bloc together as little pieces are chipped away. Such developments may potentially allow an opposition alliance to win eventual elections.

The 2019 local elections that saw the successes of Imamoglu and Yavas were very important for many reasons, but psychologically they showed that Erdogan would accept the results of an election. Of course, it must be noted that these elections were hugely unfair due to a heavy shaping of the electoral environment. It should also be noted that Erdogan was not on the ballot, therefore his political survival was not at stake. In this way, we still don’t know for sure if he will accept the result of an election that would remove him from office.

Since 2019, the Center for American Progress and Metropoll have been conducting a study on potential successors to Erdogan. Back in October 2019, we asked AKP voters if they could envision anyone but Erdogan leading the AKP and only 21 percent said they could. As a follow up question to those who could envision another leader, Suleyman Soylu topped the list but only at 17 percent, followed by Babacan at 12 percent, Davutoglu and Albayrak at 8 percent, and Gul at 7 percent.

In April 2020, we asked the same question again and many more said they could envision another leader, with Soylu clearly emerging as the most preferred choice. That is a dangerous place for Soylu to be because Erdogan has not traditionally taken kindly to potential rivals on the right. While this may also be a COVID-19 related development, I think it is more permanent. People, even on the Turkish right, are starting to look for alternatives, which was not previously the case.