The cost of aggressive and impolite politics by ÖZER SENCAR & ÜNAL BİLİR*

February 22, 2010, Monday/ 16:01:00
A short glimpse at political life and the practice of democratic competition in Turkey reveals that the culture of fighting and opposition which entered Turkey’s political life with the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terraki) is still alive and active.Even if the brawls during parliamentary sessions, debates pursued with “very sharp tones” and the militant-like supporters of political parties attract the attention of the media, there is no doubt that the public is disturbed with the way politics is being conducted.

We know that political parties that favor debates devoid of courtesy and fights that lead to punches and vulgarity pay no heed to the public pressure or reproach. In fact they even try to encourage the public to get accustomed to these types of behaviors. It’s also a fact that some deputies who taunt others from the parliamentary podium using street jargon have gained a certain level of popularity with their rudeness. But there is a point that politicians who aren’t keen on avoiding fights or making impolite statements in front of the cameras overlook: Even if these brawls and debates don’t have a negative impact on their most solid voters, they cause reluctance and a serious lack of trust in undecided and swing voters. In particular, tactical political polemics carried out with the purpose of weakening the other side rather than to create a solution not only fail to produce the desired effect over voters but also lead to a decline in confidence in the party and politician that is seen as the aggressor.

This situation was clearly shown in the most recent opinion poll conducted by the MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center in relation to Turkey’s political agenda. The poll was conducted with the participation of 2,995 in Istanbul between Feb. 4 and Feb. 9, to identify voters’ current political tendencies. Voters were also asked about their views regarding political fights such as the one between the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and their opinions about the leaders of the party for which they voted. While the voters from İstanbul, which is a microcosm of Turkey, expressed a desire for a solution-oriented democratic competition in politics, they also showed that trust in political actors declines when they get into the limelight because of a fight or rude polemic. According to the poll, 20.4 percent of voters hold the AK Party responsible, 29 percent hold the MHP responsible and 26.7 percent hold both parties responsible for the brawl in Parliament. While 48.7 percent did not approve of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attitude towards the fight, 64.2 percent did not approve of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s attitude towards the incident.

None of the sides involved in the debate felt the need for introspection following the fight, and they continued to back their stance and blame the other side. Considering that this study was conducted after the incident and after all public statements were made concerning the incident, it is evident that the stance the leaders adopted both during and after the fight did not find support from the people. The general perception towards Bahçeli and Erdoğan’s stance is so negative that 41.3 percent of MHP voters and 22.4 percent of AK Party voters found their own leaders’ reaction inappropriate.

The findings of the research suggest that these types of debates and fights may not be seen as just a problem about conduct but may even lead voters to express their reaction in the polls. Asked which party they would vote for if an election were to be held today, 24.8 percent of İstanbul voters were either undecided, reluctant to express their political view or a protest voter. While the percentage of those who said they would vote for the same party they voted for in the last elections was 60 percent, 13.7 percent they would vote for one of the different current parties and 8.4 percent said they would vote for a newly established party. Around 18 percent were undecided. These findings suggest that a significant 40 percent of constituents may vote for a different party. They also show that if the fights between the ruling party and opposition continue in Parliament, a third side may have the last laugh.

After all, ignoring the public’s condemnation and continuing to fight in front of the cameras, engage in debates devoid of courtesy and utter disdainful words from the nation’s most honorable podium will cost politicians their power.

*Professor Özer Sencar is with the MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center. Assistant Professor Ünal Bilir is an instructor at Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University’s EU and foreign trade program