MetroPoll’s Sencar: ‘The AK Party Islamists have shown that they do not care about democracy’

This week’s guest for Monday Talk has said that as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been identified with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and since Erdoğan’s image has been eroded, the AK Party’s image has been eroded as well.

Today’s Zaman’s Yonca Poyraz Doğan speaks to Özer Sencar, Director of MetroPoll, one of the most respected pollsters of Turkey.

Shall we start with the analysis of the parties? Where do they stand almost one week prior to the election?

This is the first election that we are talking about how much the AK Party will lose instead of how much gains it will have since its rise to power 13 years ago. Even the high-level AK Party officials make statements parallel to this view. During their election campaign, AK Party officials have been busy to blame the opposition CHP and HDP, and they have been busy trying to refute what the CHP and HDP officials tell people. The AK Party rulers know that the party is losing votes. According to our polls, in September of 2014, the AK Party’s vote was 50 percent, but it was down to 41.7 percent in March this year — in six to seven months, the AK Party had an eight-point loss. Then in April and at the beginning of May, the AK Party’s votes increased to 42.5 and 42.8 percent, respectively. In our latest findings, it has come down to 41.5 percent. If the AK Party’s votes come down to 41 percent, that would not be a surprise. It would have been a surprise if the AK Party votes are above 43 percent and are down below 41 percent.

What does the drop to 41.5 tell us?

The AK Party has completed its sociological life. The AK Party has been identified with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and as Erdoğan’s image has eroded, the AK Party has eroded as well. If the AK Party cannot come out of the election powerfully, it is either likely to go through chaos or give birth to something new. Today’s AK Party’s sociological life has ended because its identity has become synonymous with Erdoğan.

Do you think Erdoğan’s propaganda speeches have been effective for gathering more votes for the AK Party?

Yes, to a degree; his speeches in reference to religion might have been effective for his electoral base, which defines itself as conservative and religious by 63 percent — this figure was 24 percent three years ago, so that means that Erdoğan has transformed its party base into a conservative and religious one.

Would you evaluate the current standing of the main opposition CHP?

The CHP and the HDP are the two parties that have gone through a big change, have been democratized and have become parties over the whole of Turkey. When we look closely at the CHP, in [Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu’s period, the CHP has been trying with full force to leave the old image of the CHP, which has been the party of a certain ethnic or/and religious group. In this election period, no high-level CHP officials have been talking about Atatürk, secularism and headscarves; they put the economic factors at the forefront, and they are talking about democracy and human rights. This is the biggest transformation that the CHP has been going through since Bülent Ecevit. The CHP has also taken the risk of separating from the neo-nationalists [ulusalcılar]. This is the most serious and the biggest change of the CHP.

Like the CHP, the HDP has gone through a transformation. Kurds have seen that the armed struggle has not delivered results. They have realized that the Kurdish issue can be solved if Turkey is democratic for all people. They managed to start this process, and in order to be successful, they have to pass the election threshold. Otherwise, nobody, including [Abdullah] Öcalan, would be able to stop the Turkish youth who are under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, even though the CHP has taken the economy into the center of its policies, its votes have not been increasing to more than 30-35 percent. Why do you think so?

Even the CHP supporters, the CHP itself and the public have not understood it. First of all, there are two groups of voters in the current political environment: the AK Party pool, some MHP supporters on Turkey’s coasts, and the apolitical group. And the first group of people moving away from the AK Party is conservatives who have been concerned that the country might be divided because of the government’s Kurdish policy; and when they leave the AK Party, they go to the MHP. If they cannot stay in the MHP, they either go back to the AK Party or the CHP or boycott the vote. The Kurdish voters, on the other hand, are interested in the HDP’s new direction and they cannot leave their Kurdish identity; they desire that the HDP passes the 10 percent election threshold not to be left out of the political arena. If the HDP does not pass the threshold then, it would be quite difficult to control the radical Kurdish youth who support the PKK.

This is what I heard on the streets and various neighborhoods of Diyarbakır when I was there recently. Many people told me that if the HDP is not in Parliament, they cannot hold the youth back. Do you think Öcalan can hold them back?

Even Öcalan cannot hold them back, although he managed to do it in the aftermath of the Oct. 6-7 events [support for Kobani events turned out deadly when Kurds and government forces clashed in 2014]. According our poll results, the AK Party lost three points because of the conservative religious Kurdish voters who changed their voting preference.

Would this be enough to give a boost to the HDP to pass the threshold?

No, it is not enough. And the rest of the AK Party’s Kurdish voters are quite loyal to the party. There is not a mass of voters to get separated from the AK Party and vote for the HDP instead. Since the presidential election, the HDP has gained only 5 percent more voters in the Southeast. For a safe pass of the election threshold for the HDP, this should have been about 10-15 percent. Therefore, the HDP needs non-Kurdish voters for passing the election threshold.

Who are those voters? How would you define or describe them?

These are people who tend to strategically vote — AK Party opponents, people on the left — about 1-1.5 percent of Turkish people.

Back to the analysis of the CHP; if the CHP cannot lure the AK Party voters, it will not be able to increase its votes more than 27-28 percent. And the HDP’s chance of seeing 12-13 percent is low; it is still within the election threshold limits. In addition, it is important to note that we measure the votes that are cast, and have no way of knowing what happens after the voting is completed.

Do you refer to the election security and ballot safety issues?

Yes, 44 percent of the people believe that the elections will be marred by manipulation. For the Kurdish people, this percentage goes up to 70.

What about the AK Party voters?

About 15 percent of the AK Party voters believe that. The HDP needs to get at least 12 percent in the polls in order to securely pass the election threshold.

And what is your analysis of the MHP’s current standing?

In our polls, the MHP votes went up to 17.8 percent but it is about 16.5 percent today. The MHP would have been successful if it can keep the voters coming to the MHP from the AK Party. Those voters who leave the AK Party have only three other parties to vote for: the MHP, CHP or HDP. Most of those previous AK Party voters would not go to the HDP. And they would not prefer to go to the CHP because of the CHP’s old image and the baggage related to it.

Again, the CHP and the HDP are the most exciting parties of this election because they have been involved in a big transformation with their assertion to be the parties of the whole Turkey. The HDP has been aware that it needs to have at least 15 percent of the vote in order to be a party of all Turkish citizens, not just Kurds.

Another concern of the Kurdish voters of the Southeast is that they wonder if the solution process will continue if the HDP is left out of Parliament. What are your views in this regard?

I’ve never believed that there has been a solution process. Both sides have shown that they do not trust each other. The HDP can contribute greatly to the peace process if it pushes for more democratization in Turkey where everyone will benefit from democratic development. If the HDP is not in Parliament, neither Turks nor Kurds can live peacefully in Turkey. There might be events even bigger than Oct. 6-7. That’s why the government has adopted strict internal security measures.

You also had polls from May 8-11 that predicted 42 percent of votes for the AK Party, 27 percent for the CHP, 17 percent for the MHP and 9.2 percent for the HDP. Is it true that your most recent poll shows that the AK Party’s votes are down to 41 percent?

Yes, the AK Party had increased its votes during that period because it took advantage of some gaffes Selahattin Demirtaş made in his campaign speeches, especially those regarding religion, like his remarks about the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or when he called Taksim Square the Kaaba of democracy in Turkey, etc. These are issues open to exploitation.

Have some religious voters been disturbed by Erdoğan waving the Quran during speeches at campaign rallies?

Some of them have been disturbed, though not to the extent that they leave the party, and some of them have been impressed.

What role does the economy play in this election?

In 2011, Turkey’s growth was 10 percent and the AK Party’s votes went up to 50 percent. In 2009, both Turkey’s growth and the AK Party’s votes were in decline: The AK party had 38 percent of the vote. In 2014, growth was 4.5 percent and the AK Party took 44 percent. Economic growth and the ruling party’s ability to gather votes are evidently correlated.

By June this year, economic growth will be around 2 percent. Therefore, we can expect the AK Party to hold about 41-42 percent of votes in the election. There are, of course, other factors that contribute to this percentage. Still, 44 percent of the vote is too high for the AK Party to hope for.

As I said before, former AK Party voters have left the party, not because of their concerns regarding the economy, but the because of their concerns regarding the country’s territorial integrity.

Would you share your analysis regarding ideological tendencies of AK Party voters? Who were in the 50 percent?

Of the 50 percent of voters who supported the AK Party in the June 12, 2011 general election, ten percent had a nationalist or ultra-nationalist ideological background. They are still concerned that a country, Kurdistan, will emerge from Turkey. Some 5 percent of this 10 percent have left the AK Party and now support the MHP.

Some conservative, religious Kurdish voters are leaving the AK Party to vote for the HDP because they cannot accept the political exclusion of the Kurds. According to the 2011 election results, the AK Party had about 7-8 percent of the Kurdish vote; now it has about 4 percent.

How about the Gülen movement? How many of those sympathetic to the movement also support the AK Party?

The percentage of the population under the influence of the Gülen movement is only 1.5 percent. However, we had a pool of poll participants who have indicated that they are close to the Gülen movement, and we found that 20-25 percent of them voted for the AK Party. In December 2014 and February 2015, we found that poll participants who said they would vote for Ekrem Dumanlı [the editor-in-chief of the Zaman daily], if he were to establish a political party, were AK Party voters by 34.5 and 22.5 percent, respectively. We also asked poll participants who admire Fethullah Gülen about their perspective on political parties, in 2014 and 2015, and found that they voted for the AK Party by 40 and 21.1 percent, respectively.

Of those voters, 19.2 percent supported the CHP in 2014 and 13 percent in 2015, 18.9 percent supported the MHP in 2014 and 28.6 percent in 2015, 5.6 percent supported the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in 2014 and 9.3 percent in 2015. So while those sympathetic to the Gülen movement are represented in other parties, they are less supportive of the AK Party than expected.

‘Erdoğan already the president, the sole ruler’

What are your projections for the parliament seats that the AK Party can or cannot grab?

If MHP votes do not drop below 16 percent, if CHP votes remain around 27 percent and if the HDP passes the election threshold by 10-10.5 percent, the AK Party would not be able to have sole control with only 260-270 seats in Parliament. If HDP votes are about 12 percent, if MHP votes are about 16 percent and if CHP votes remain around 27 percent, the AK Party would hold about 240-250 seats.

According to another scenario, if MHP votes drop below 16 percent, if CHP votes drop below 26 percent and if the HDP passes the threshold by 10.5 percent, the AK Party could have sole power. Therefore, the AK Party’s strength does not totally depend on the HDP surpassing the election threshold; MHP and CHP votes are determinants as well, but for Erdoğan, it is not important whether he comes to power with 285 or 325 deputies in Parliament.

What do you mean, would you elaborate?

Some voters believe that Erdoğan would be a constitutional president. This is not true. It is not important, for Erdoğan, whether or not he is a president in line with the law. He is already the president, the sole ruler, even though the current constitution says that he cannot be and that he should be neutral.

But if he does not get 367 seats in Parliament, would he really feel secure?

This would not change what Erdoğan can and will do. His presidency will still be legitimate. And he will not push for a new constitution at all; he got everything he needed with the Sept. 12, 2010 constitutional referendum [results show that the majority supported the constitutional amendments, with 58 percent in favor and 42 percent against]. Supporters of Turkey’s EU membership hoped that the constitutional reform would facilitate the accession process but this was only wishful thinking because high-level AK Party officials never wanted Turkey to be a member of the EU; they just used the process to draw support for the party.

As the AK Party has gained enough strength against established military and civilian bureaucracy, “democratic” goals have been abandoned. If there had been a real democratization process, it would have continued.

Do voters think that the AK Party would have removed the election threshold system long ago if the officials really wanted democracy in Turkey?

The AK Party Islamists have shown that they do not care about democracy — laws to restrict the Internet, the internal security law, the 10 percent election threshold and others all demonstrate this.

The election threshold system was brought to Turkey by the Sept. 12 military regime, because the military did not want the Kurds and the Islamists to come to power. Indeed, if the HDP passes the election threshold, and this is very likely, it will be a real blow to the AK Party because some will vote for the HDP, allowing it to pass the threshold, only to weaken the AK Party. If the election threshold was 5 percent, the Kurdish AK Party supporters would never have left their party for the HDP.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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