By: Miranda Wickham
Public opinion polls can be an important indicator of the public’s support of certain political parties and candidates as well as proposed political changes. In light of the upcoming elections in Turkey, I will explore opinion polls taken before the April 2017 referendum, polls taken in December 2017/January 2018, and more recent polls taken in March and April, 2018. Altogether the polls suggest that in the past year, Turkish public opinion has varied over time with a significant portion of voters being undecided. As for the upcoming election, the polls are inconclusive, but suggest that the electorate is split as it was in referendum. Thus, the result of the election is not necessarily a given and the opposition may have a chance to be successful in the upcoming election.
On April 16, 2017, the Turkish people voted in a referendum that would increase the power of Turkey’s president by transforming Turkey’s government from a parliamentary to a presidential system. In Turkey’s parliamentary system, established by the 1982 constitution but amended several times since, the prime minster is the head of government, while the president plays more of a ceremonial role. Furthermore, the president must not be associated with a political party.
However, the April 2017 referendum was meant to change this system, mainly by making the president head of government and also letting the president be a member of a political party, while abolishing the position of prime minster. Other notable changes include establishing the office of vice president, increasing the number of presidential appointees, the re-structuring of the constitutional court, and the abolition of the military courts. On April 16, 2017, the “yes” vote for the constitutional changes won narrowly with 51.4% of the vote. The changes will be fully implemented when the next presidential and general elections are held. Although elections were originally set for November 3, 2019, the Turkish government recently announced that snap elections will be held on June 24, 2018.
Interestingly, polls taken four months before the referendum, in December 2016, did not indicate that such a referendum would pass. Overall 34.7% of those surveyed claimed that if a referendum on constitutional amendments were to be held that day, that they would support constitutional changes that would establish a presidential system in Turkey. The party that supported such a change the most was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), with 62.9% of the AKP respondents supporting a presidential system. After the AKP, 21.8% of Nationalist Action Party (MHP) respondents claimed that they would support such a change. In contrast, support from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was very low with 5.6% of the CHP respondents and 4.9% of the HDP respondents claiming that they would support a presidential system in Turkey. Furthermore, approximately 20% of voters were undecided. The detailed results of the pre-referendum poll taken December 7-16, 2016 are listed below.
If a referendum on constitutional amendments was held today, what would your answer be?
You would favor a presidential system in Turkey:
Despite the results of this poll, four months later the referendum passed with 51.4% of the Turkish population voting yes. On the surface, it seems that from December 2016 to April 2017, there was a 16.7% increase in support for a presidential system in Turkey, which would mean that winning 51.4% of the vote should be considered a triumph for Erdoğan. However, according to a Hurriyet columnist, “Erdoğan has achieved a victory, but not a triumph.”
A number of factors contributed to the increased “yes” vote. Two months before the referendum, the leader of the MHP announced that it would participate in a joint campaign with the AKP in order to get the referendum passed. Furthermore, some analysts assert that the referendum was held under a state of emergency, with the “no” campaign being prevented from mobilizing its supporters, and the “yes” campaign receiving more funding and media coverage. In fact, when taking these factors into account, many analysts claim that the “yes” campaign should have won by a higher margin than 2.8%. Especially because in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, the AKP won 49.41% of the vote, while the MHP won 11.93%. With a combined 61.34%, it could be expected that the referendum would win around 60% of the vote, because of AKP and MHP’s joint campaign. At the same time, it is important to note that about two months before the referendum the MHP dealt with internal tension over whether or not to support the AKP led referendum, which eventually caused the party to split. Thus, the smaller margin could be due to division within the MHP. Whatever the reason, the narrow margin between the “yes” and “no” vote shows that Turkey’s population is very divided.
More recent post-referendum polls have varied greatly amid uncertainty about when elections will be held and who the presidential candidates will be. In a poll taken in November 2017, seven months after the referendum, 54% of those surveyed agreed that “The political reforms that Atatürk first brought to Turkey are under assault.” This poll is especially interesting, because it does not align with the referendum results. Since the referendum was meant to change the government system that was developed from Ataturk’s political reforms, it would make sense that about the same percentage of people who think Ataturk’s political reforms are under assault would also vote no to the referendum. Of course, Ataturk’s political reforms were more far-reaching than just establishing a certain type of government and Ataturk’s legacy evokes a sense of Turkish nationalism, which could impact Turks’ answers to the question.
Additionally, since MHP split before the referendum, a new party, mostly composed of former-MHP members, was established. The main difference between the new Good Party (IYI Parti) and MHP is that members of the Good Party did not support MHP’s alliance with the AKP and Erdoğan, because they thought that a presidential system which would allow Erdoğan to hold power for an extended period of time would be a threat to Turkish democracy. Around the time of the Good Party’s establishment in September 2017, polls suggested that if an election were to be held, the AKP would win close to 50% of the vote. However, this percentage is with a high number of undecided votes being distributed. With undecided votes distributed, when asked “If there was an election today, which party would you choose,” AKP received 50.9%, CHP 26%, HDP 7.2%, and MHP 10.3%. In contrast, with undecided votes not distributed, AKP received 34.7%, CHP 17.7%, HDP 7.2%, and MHP 7%. Because it was still being established, the Good Party was not included in this poll. A later poll taken in January 2018, which included the Good Party, shows that if a general election were to be held in the very near future, AKP would receive 47.2%, CHP 25.9%, MHP 10.8%, HDP 8.5%, and İYİ Parti 5.5%.
Since this January poll was taken, the political landscape in Turkey has changed and is in flux. On April 18, Erdoğan announced that early elections would be held on June 24th. Amid the AKP/MHP announcement that the AKP and MHP have formed an alliance and Erdoğan will be their joint presidential candidate, opposition parties (CHP, the Good Party, HDP, and smaller parties that generally receive under 3% of the vote) began discussing potential alliances in an effort to keep Erdoğan from winning a majority of the vote. In fact, on May 3rd, the CHP, the Good Party, the Felicity Party, and the Democratic Party announced that they would run as an alliance in the parliamentary elections. A poll taken in early April, shortly before early elections were announced, showed that if a presidential election were held immediately, Erdoğan would receive 44% of the vote, Meral Akşener, the head of Good Party 26%, and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlulu, the head of the CHP 20.2%. However, these results should be taken with a grain of salt, because it was recently announced that Kılıçdaroğlulu will not be the CHP presidential candidate. The results of an additional poll released in early April suggest that for the parliament vote AKP would receive 40.1%, CHP 25.31%, the Good party 14.22%, HDP 10.79%, and MHP would not pass the 10% threshold. As for the presidential vote, Erdoğan would receive 38.9%, the candidate of CHP would receive 18.9%, and Akşener would receive 15.3%. Although they were taken around the same time, these two polls have very different results, which could be due to a number of reasons, such as differences in the sample group.
Nonetheless, there is a consensus in recent polls that the assumption that AKP and Erdoğan will win the upcoming election is not necessarily a given. Rather, the polls show that the AKP and Erdoğan are in the lead, but also that there is significant opposition. As was shown earlier in the pre-referendum polls, the Turkish voters’ opinions and decisions as to which party to support can change considerably in a short period of time, depending on the formation of alliances and political party dynamics. Thus, since the opposition parties have not yet officially announced their alliances and/or presidential candidates, there is still room for the Turkish peoples’ vote to change in the two months leading up to the election. As of now, the parliamentary elections will include the CHP, Good Party, Felicity Party, and Democratic Party alliance, the AKP and MPH alliance, and the HDP will run on its own. For the presidential election each party, apart from the AKP-MHP alliance whose candidate will be Erdoğan, will have its own candidate. The official list of candidates will be announced on May 13 and then the official election campaign period will begin.