Professor Özer Sencar, head of the Ankara-based MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, has said social polarization, which has manifested itself in such dichotomies as right and left or secular and anti-secular, is changing its axis.
Noting that the opposition parties’ harsh discourse about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has given rise to the formation of an opposing pole, Sencar said: “There is a different process going on as regards social polarization. In the past, there was polarization between the right and the left.
In the recent past, polarization has been between secularism and anti-secularism. But today a new strand of polarization is flourishing between those who support the AK Party and those who don’t or those who trust Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and those who don’t.”
“In this context, 20 percent of those who describe themselves as nationalist/idealist [ülkücü] and 19 percent of secularists as well as more than 40 percent of liberals say they voted for the AK Party and will vote for it again in the upcoming elections. People who do not regard secularism as a sort of religion but still define themselves as secular have found themselves siding with Erdoğan as the secular vs. anti-secular polarization wanes,” he added.
Democratic initiative will make its impression on new era
Can you measure how debates over the initiative influence political preferences?
Of course we can. The democratic initiative will make its impression on the new era. The results of the first general election will change according to how the initiative progresses. Depending on how the parties communicate with voters in the initiative debates, they may be able to regain some of their lost voters. Still, the biggest gain or loss will be seen when the initiative is completed successfully or otherwise.
You say there will be significant upheaval on the political scene.
This is true for the people who are not hardcore voters. The completion of the initiative will bring about two major results. First, if it can be successfully concluded, Erdoğan may become a rising star as a national hero. He may become the second-greatest statesman after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, the settlement of the Kurdish issue, which has continued all through the history of the republic and whose last 25 years were characterized by terrorism, will be appreciated to a great extent by all except hardcore CHP and MHP voters. In the event of failure, the AK Party and Erdoğan may see an overwhelming defeat.
Will the political tension increase further in this case?
This is the reason why leaders of political parties cannot come together today. The opposition will do its best to prevent Erdoğan from becoming a national hero by obstructing the democratic initiative.
On the other hand, the government is aware that it has to settle it. It is also aware of the opposition’s intention to block it. This tension of survival or destruction will continue until the approaching election.
After the general election, will there be a presidential election in 2012?
Those who are defeated in the general election will also be defeated in the presidential election. The opposition will not accept seeing a person from the Islamist tradition at Çankaya for another term. It is very unlikely for the 2011 election to produce a scene that is similar to today’s. If so, both sides will have refreshed hopes about the presidency. Here, the MHP and CHP’s intelligence will be decisive in determining the outcome. If they can nominate a person whom the AK Party’s voters can support, then Erdoğan’s dreams of becoming the next president will end up in smoke. But, given their current attitudes, they will not do this.
Is popular support for the initiative decreasing?
The initiative is very important for the Turkish nation as it aims to terminate terrorism. However, a delay in concrete steps is lowering support for the initiative. Showing sympathy for the agony of the people is what the AK Party and the initiative are doing. The CHP and the MHP are compensating for this disadvantage in this respect by stressing the country’s territorial integrity. The perception of interests varies from one person to another. It is easier to prove people who are enraged or disappointed. While its timing was good, even the AK Party’s voter base entertain suspicions about the initiative because of errors committed during its implementation. Some voters -- corresponding to several percentage points -- have even shifted to the MHP.
Were the images from the Habur border gate instrumental in reducing support for the initiative?
This is what I mean by errors committed during its implementation. Opponents of the initiative have conducted an extensive disinformation campaign and were very successful. The Habur images were influential in reversing the impact of Erdoğan’s “one minute” moment. Erdoğan’s personal approval rating reached its peak with his Davos walkout, exceeding even 50 percent. But it hit its lowest point in our survey conducted after the Habur incident. Seeing the fluctuations, Erdoğan changed his attitude and quickly recovered from it.
Sencar argued that the new trend became more salient in the March 29, 2009 elections, during which the harsh discourse of the opposition and a change in perceptions of interests became effective. Secular, liberal and nationalist groups have, in general, continued to lend support to Erdoğan because of their concern for the future in the new polarization trend, he argued, adding: “Those who do not want to see chaos and who want economic stability to continue for the future of their children support a government that is powerful for the sake of political stability. Seeing a coalition government as detrimental to their interests, nationalist/idealist, secular and liberal groups continue to support the democratic initiative process for the most part. Two things were very influential in this new polarization. The first involves the AK Party’s campaigning style and Erdoğan’s discourse. The second is the failure of the AK Party’s rivals to respond to popular demands for change. The AK Party has managed to create a new group of people who are open to change in contrast with the pro-status quo discourse of the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] and the Republican People’s Party [CHP].”
Sencar explains that his organization conducts semiannual surveys to identify social trends and argues that MetroPOLL stands at an equal distance from all political parties. He maintains that their data gathering methods are sound. Sencar recently spoke with Today’s Zaman.
Is it necessary to conduct a survey once every six months in order to keep track of the pulse of society?
If you are not daunted by the cost, you should do so at shorter intervals. Still, it provides us with significant clues in tracking this pulse. Our basic principle is to take pains to not allow information about the society to be polluted. Based on our surveys conducted at regular intervals, I form my conjectures as to the future shape of social preferences.
What is the current change in political preferences?
First of all, individual interests and concerns for the future are becoming more dominant than party loyalty. Twenty years ago, there was the typical voter who would never abandon his/her party. Seventy percent of this type of voter has changed. This change applies not only to voters aged 40 and above but to new voters as well. Of course, new voters are less loyal to a specific party than the former group.
What basic concerns are observable in this social change?
Economic factors are their primary motives. Change in perception of interests, urbanization and concerns for the future have played an important role in this change of attitude. This is also influential on the overall political scene. This is because 70 percent of voters are floating voters. Voters severing their loyalty to a specific party is important in terms of both democratic progress and parties renovating themselves.
How many of the AK Party’s voters are floating voters?
A large part of them. The AK Party is able to attract only 15 percent of the votes of the typical National View (Milli Görüş) line. This 15 percent corresponds to 40 percent of its total votes. The remaining 60 percent comprises, in decreasing order, the people who previously voted for the MHP and for center-right parties, there are also liberals and CHP voters who favor stability. These voters do not have strict ideological adherences. They hope to maintain their economic position. They think it is wrong to be strictly nationalist, secularist or statist for the future of their children. They consider political stability vital for economic development. They don’t like coalitions. And they vote for the AK Party since there is no alternative party that is capable of assuming office as a single party.
The most salient example of this was the July 22 election. The AK Party’s ordinary level of support was around 35 to 40 percent. Attempts at blocking the presidential election and the military memorandum of April 27  translated into a 7-9 percent increase in AK Party votes. Realizing this, the CHP refrained from making strong references to secularism in the local elections. There were no debates about reactionaryism, and the AK Party’s votes returned to their ordinary levels.
Did these floating voters get integrated into the AK Party?
They still have emotional ties with their previous parties, but they cast their votes rationally in elections. In particular, the nationalists who vote for the AK Party still describe themselves as idealists when among friends and relatives, but they have no expectations from the MHP in terms of the country’s economic performance.
The AK Party has still not managed to cast this variety into a uniform mold. They still stand apart from each other. When or how can they be cast into a new mold? And when will they return to their previous parties?
Whether they can be amalgamated into a new mold depends on the AK Party’s performance and possible good fortune of their former parties. The unlikelihood of the CHP and MHP changing their leaders is the biggest obstacle to such a return. If the CHP or the MHP can assume office as a single party, not as partners in a coalition government, the return of their previous support may be possible. In the current setting, antipathies toward CHP leader Deniz Baykal and MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli are the AK Party’s major advantages.
Are you saying Baykal and Bahçeli adversely affect their parties?
This is evidenced by the fact that support for these leaders lags far behind support for their parties. A great majority of people voting for the CHP believe the political regime is getting more and more Islamic. A majority of CHP supporters, corresponding to more than 70 percent, believe Baykal is failing to counter this trend. They even hate him for not combating it actively. We are talking about a group of voters who will not stop supporting the CHP despite Baykal’s leadership as long as there is no other powerful party in the left wing. Likewise, MHP supporters do not like Bahçeli. If they had an opportunity to do so, they would change him because at least half of the party’s voters find Bahçeli incompetent as a leader. However, since their ties to the party are so strong, they continue to support the MHP despite Bahçeli’s leadership.
Opposition does not care about society’s preferences
Do voters perceive the opposition as being closed to change?
Yes; in particular, the conviction that change is not possible with Baykal and Bahçeli is becoming widespread. In this respect, those who favor change are at a loss. While Erdoğan can gather support and interest with his discourse and charisma, they have no chance to change Baykal or Bahçeli, whom they do not like. Moreover, Erdoğan renews his discourse by taking into consideration the voters’ perceptions. Neither Baykal nor Bahçeli does so.
Why do these leaders not follow voters’ preferences?
They can best answer this question themselves, but it seems that they do not know how to measure fluctuations in voter perceptions. They do not think about what society thinks, and they do not think it is important. It is Erdoğan’s luck that he is capable of gathering information about the people’s preferences and trends. He can change or renew his attitudes based on convictions and expectations in the street.
Extreme self-confidence, too, may push popular expectations into the background. This is partially explained by the fact that a tradition of paying attention to popular trends could not be developed until now and that in the past, some manipulated polls and damaged the image of these polls. We know that the CHP has not sponsored any poll in a long time. This also applies to the MHP.
Isn’t it possible for voters who cannot change their leaders to change their parties?
Those who could have already done so. But there are desperate voters who continue to support their parties despite all adversities. Despair will also lead to a search for a solution. In fact, this has already happened to some extent. Voters have started to make up their own solutions. In the March 29 elections, they voted for candidates who were more likely to win against the AK Party. They partially implemented this solution and saw that it worked. The opposition does not accept this. This is because politicians failed to see what voters saw. Neither Baykal nor Bahçeli -- nor the AK Party’s senior executives -- could see this.
What are the attitudes of Kurdish voters?
There is a big ongoing change in Kurdish society. There is an increasing emphasis on Kurdish identity. A full 100 percent of society says, “Acknowledge our Kurdish identity.”
Why did the Kurdish voters overwhelmingly support the now-defunct Democratic Society Party (DTP) despite this change?
Eighty percent of Kurdish voters comprise people who are loyal to local values. Twenty percent have organic ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the now-defunct DTP. In this context, we can still talk of an increase in its votes. There are two basic reasons why they chose to voter for the AK Party.
First, the government invested big in the region. Second, they perceive the AK Party as being like themselves. They think both Kurds and religious people have problems with the establishment. The fact that both these groups have been victimized by party closures adds credence to this perception. Those who say “While it is a Turkish party, it is more considerate about problems” vote for the AK Party, and those who say “They wouldn’t show interest in our problems if they were not forced to do so” support the DTP.
Does terrorism play any role in these voters’ political preferences?
When the terrorist organization first emerged, there was antipathy toward it, but in time, this transformed into sympathy. Even those who were against the PKK were not antagonistic toward the DTP. The perception that “this issue would not be solved if it weren’t for the PKK” has seen popular acceptance in recent years.
Is this the major result of 25 years of terrorism?
Yes, certainly. A generation has grown up during this era of terrorism. Twenty-five or 30 years is a long period of time, and during it, the PKK managed to win over both intellectuals and wealthy people. Doing so, it managed to secure strong support.