Turkish people still suffer psychologically and economically due to the terrible earthquakes that occurred on February 6, 2023 in the south-eastern villages of the country. Centered in Kahramanmaraş, two sequenced earthquakes almost destroyed 10 Turkish cities and led to the death of 45,000 Turkish citizens. The death toll could be even higher in the coming days with the discovery of missing dead bodies.
As a political consequence of the disaster, the state’s lack of coordination during the crisis led to growing criticism and anger towards the ruling AK Parti government (2002-) and its undisputed leader Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (2014-). In this piece, I am going to analyze increasing political polarization in Türkiye and whether it is an advantageous situation for the government and opposition.
Political Agenda after the Earthquakes
Devastating outcomes of the earthquakes caused the opposition’s growing reaction to the government because of its lack of preparation before the disaster as well as its lack of coordination after the disaster and during the ongoing crisis. The government (President Erdoğan himself) on the other hand responded to these claims by simply saying that “the earthquake is a matter of destiny” and “it’s not a noble-minded behavior to make politics when the nation mourns”. One of the founding members of the AK Parti, former Parliament speaker Bülent Arınç proposed the postponement of the election, but so far no decision is taken about the delay of the elections. Although there is no regulation within the constitution on that matter, many political observers close to the government claim that in case Türkiye’s Supreme Election Committee (YSK) asks for a delay due to problems in the voters lists in these 10 cities affected from the earthquakes, the President might try to postpone the elections, a decision which would certainly increase the polarization in the country even further.
The opposition on the other hand wants Presidential and parliamentary elections to take place either in May or June this year. However, the opposition also has its own problems related to the choice of the Presidential candidate. While the main opposition party CHP’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wants to become a candidate himself with the support of 5 other parties within the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı) electoral coalition that includes Meral Akşener’s Good Party/İYİ Parti, Gültekin Uysal’s DP/Democrat Party, Ahmet Davutoğlu’s Future Party/Gelecek Partisi, Ali Babacan’s DEVA Party, and Temel Karamollaoğlu’s SP/Felicity Party, the leader of the second biggest party within this bloc -Meral Akşener- obviously shows her hesitation and negative attitude towards him. Akşener speaks of “a candidate who could win the election” by implying Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith and lower chance to become President in a Sunni-dominated country. Akşener also clearly endorsed Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu as the opposition’s Presidential candidate when he was tried to be temporarily banned from politics in an unjust manner via a court decision a few weeks ago. It seems like there will be a tough negotiation process between Kılıçdaroğlu and Akşener in the coming days and the opposition’s Presidential candidate will be either Kılıçdaroğlu or İmamoğlu.
On the other hand, Turkish people began to organize protests in crowded places. For instance, during this week’s football matches in the Süper Lig (Türkiye’s Premier football division), many club’s fans protested the government by calling President Erdoğan and his government to resignation. The protests started with Fenerbahçe fans and continued with Beşiktaş fans. It seems like these protests could continue in the coming days especially in crowded places like stadiums and universities etc. The government tries to convince people that the disaster was not their fault and keeps the People Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) electoral bloc with two nationalist parties Devlet Bahçeli’s MHP (Nationalist Action Party) and Mustafa Destici’s BBP (Grand Unity Party). President Erdoğan also promised to construct new buildings for victims in a year with the help of TOKİ (Housing Development Administration of the Republic of Türkiye), whose buildings were not demolished during the terrible disaster. President Erdoğan’s job is really difficult this time since Türkiye was already in an economic crisis and earthquakes further deteriorated the situation.
Political Polarization: Is it helpful to government more than the opposition?
While the political polarization in the country increases, it might be a good decision to scientifically discuss the effects of political polarization in Türkiye. As a close witness of Turkish political life since 2002, I remember that in all elections in recent years when the opposition tried to demonize Erdoğan and AK Parti due to their Islamist identity or poor performance in governing, Turkish people and especially the right-wing voters showed a resistance and defended Erdoğan as a reaction to secular establishment. For instance, before the 2007 parliamentary election, although there were huge demonstrations organized by the opposition, called as the Republican Rallies (Cumhuriyet Mitingleri), these protest movements served as a catalyst to reunite the right-wing bloc and kept Erdoğan and AK Parti at the government. That is why, as far as I’m concerned, the opposition should be careful in playing the card of polarization, which has always resulted in the victory of Erdoğan and the bigger right-wing/Islamist-nationalist bloc in Türkiye so far. That is because the AK Parti has more than 11 million members, more than 8 times higher than the number of members of CHP -the second most popular party both in votes and in membership size- a fact proving that uniting the electorate of this party would not be a good idea for winning the election. Another reason is that, due to his eventual win in his fight against the secular establishment, Erdoğan is the sacred right-wing leader who was able to remove the ban on headscarf (türban) in public offices, to solve the problem of Prayer and Preacher (İmam Hatip) Schools’ graduates to enter into universities without limitation, and the one who survived a bloody military coup attempt in 2016. In that sense, Erdoğan’s cult leadership for the Islamist/nationalist bloc is still very strong.
On that matter, there are several good publications/studies made earlier by various Political Scientists. For instance, “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey 2020 Survey” conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and İstanbul Bilgi University Migration Research Center proved that Turkish citizens mostly live in echo-chambers in which existing views are reconfirmed and other voices are shut out. In that sense, looking at the results, Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı concluded that the polarization could work in favor of the government if the government implements “policies that would strengthen social security, provide high-quality public education for all citizens, and visibly decrease social inequality”. So, one can claim that, if the government shows a good reaction to disaster in a way to help victims and to decrease social inequalities, they could still have a chance to win the election. However, since there is very short time (only 2.5 or 3.5 months) left before the election, a postponement decision seems necessary for the government to convince its electorate about its success.
Hakan Yavuzyılmaz on the other hand discusses the features of competitive authoritarian regimes and concludes that this type of regimes could have two main problems: 1-) elite-level defection/rivalry and 2-) and mass-level/oppositional counter-mobilization. The AK Parti elite still seems very solid and there is no signs of large-scale elite-level defection. However, the second problem might appear for the government as the opposition could organize mass-level oppositional mobilization in stadiums, universities, and/or mass demonstrations. In the past, as I provided the example of Republican Rallies earlier, this mobilization was not very helpful to the opposition. However, during this process Turkish economy was still in very good shape. Now, it seems like Turkish economy is in ruins and the rising inflation and terrible effects of the earthquakes might not produce same results. Moreover, the unjust political decisions made by the government also could result in the success of the opposition even though there is growing polarization within the country. Journalist Güney Yıldız for instance claims that Erdoğan’s polarization tactic was not successful in the 2019 Istanbul local election as the decision for the cancellation of the first election was not justified.
In addition, Halil Karaveli earlier pointed out the dominant conservative nature of Turkish society by referring to a 2021 survey organized by Kadir Has University. This study showed that the two-thirds of the Turkish population identified themselves as conservative, nationalist, and Islamist, whereas only 13 per cent as social democrat and socialist. In that sense, the opposition might be very careful not to mobilize only groups associated with the left and should be open to right-wing/conservative groups in these demonstrations.
Finally, it seems like although there is no black and white difference on that matter, earlier data shows that strong political polarization generally works in favor of the right-wing bloc since it is larger. However, in case there is a serious injustice made (for example, the cancellation of 2019 Istanbul local election) and/or growing economic problems, the polarization might help the secular opposition as well. That is why, the key issue will be the performance of the government from now on.
Lastly, since there is only 3 months left for the election, which might not be long enough to convince voters about the good performance of the government, the government’s only chance seems to me is to postpone the election. That is why, I’m afraid President Erdoğan might use a YSK decision to postpone the election for a few months. However, this decision should be justified and well-explained to people in order to prevent the arise of victimized opposition perception.
Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ
 2007, 2011, 2015 (June), and 2015 (November) parliamentary elections as well as 2014 and 2018 Presidential elections.