Fadi Hakura
Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

Recent polling suggests that the recent protests that engulfed much of Turkey have had an impact on the level of support for the country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the ruling AKP.

Protests began on 31 May after police used heavy-handed tactics against peaceful demonstrators in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The park is one of few remaining green spaces in Istanbul, but government plans to build a shopping centre and a replica 19th century Ottoman military barracks have proven controversial. Istanbul, like many others cities in Turkey, is undergoing an uncontrollable and ill-planned dash for concrete. 

In 2012, $4.6bn was earmarked for urban renewal projects in Istanbul alone. The number of shopping centres has mushroomed to 101 in Istanbul and 310 across Turkey absorbing a mere 7% of consumer spending. Given the overcapacity of retail space, Turkey is hardly in need of more.

Critics of Prime Minister Erdoğan, have argued that the government is intolerant of criticism, unwilling to compromise, and has reduced democracy to simply winning elections and majoritarian rule. There is also a feeling that the government’s longevity in office – in power since 2002 - has exacerbated these tendencies.

Erdoğan has stoked the intensity, scale and duration of the demonstrations with his rhetoric. He accused the protestors of being 'terrorists' and 'looters', disrespectful of devout Muslims, and participants in an international conspiracy to destabilize Turkey’s democracy and economy.  

However, evidence indicates that the protests were largely spontaneous and organized through social media networks. Furthermore, the protestors were likely to be well-behaved, ideologically diverse and representative of devout Muslims, liberals, atheists, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish nationalists. According to Istanbul-based Bilgi University’s survey of 3,000 protestors on 3-4 June, the vast majority did not vote for AKP (92.1%), 70% sympathize with no political party and only 15.3% say they feel 'close' to any one party. 

More than half of those polled were participating in a mass demonstration for the first time. Asked about the reasons for demonstrating, they cite the prime minister’s 'authoritarian' methods (92.4%), the police's use of 'excessive force' (91.3%), breaches of 'democratic rights' (91.1%), the media’s silence over the protests (84.2%), the cutting of trees (56.2%), and the appeals of the political movements they belong to (7.7%). Protestors described themselves as libertarian (81.2%), secular (64.5%) and apolitical (54.5%). 

Similar, though not identical, conclusions were reached by Konda, a Turkish public opinion polling company, which interviewed 4,411 protesters in Gezi Park on 6-7 June. It revealed that they were on average 28 years old and came from across Istanbul (including religiously conservative districts). 79% were not affiliated with any political organization and 44.4% were protesting for the first time. The main reasons cited for protesting were police violence (49%) and the removal of trees from Gezi Park (19%). 

Negative impacts on Erdoğan's popularity

Turkey’s MetroPOLL 3-12 June survey of 2,818 respondents across Turkey suggests that Erdoğan’s broad attractiveness to voters has started to fracture. It found that 54% believed the government was interfering with their lifestyles, 49.6% view Erdoğan’s handling of the unrest as 'confrontational and provocative', and nearly 50% accept that Turkey is moving toward an 'authoritarian and repressive style of governance'. 

If this survey is any guide, Erdoğan’s assertive socially conservative agenda, which has recently included efforts to restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol, limit women's access to contraception and increase religious content in the school curriculum, is not popular with the majority of Turks. His approval rating has declined by a statistically significant 7% to a still robust 53% over the last two months; arguably, it is higher than expected due to the absence of a credible political opposition.

It's the economy

Erdoğan and the AKP are acutely aware that the 2001 Turkish economic crisis helped bring them to power and that a steady moderately high average annual GDP growth rate of 5% in the last decade bolstered their appeal. 

Increasingly, however, indicators point to low economic growth becoming the norm in the absence of fundamental structural reforms. The demonstrations erupted precisely at a time of a faltering economic outlook: growth has decreased from 8.8% in 2011 to 2.2% in 2012 and is expected to reach 3-3.5% this year.  

According to Seyfettin Gürsel, a prominent Turkish economist, the recent unrest has adversely impacted the economy by undermining investor confidence and political stability. Turkey is heavily dependent on foreign capital flows to finance its economic needs and international investors may start to question the government’s economic management skills.

Erdoğan and his political allies still enjoy a significant reservoir of support but their once unassailable domestic and international standing is waning. The recent protests, plus a fragile Kurdish peace process and a seemingly unending quagmire in neighbouring Syria, could have an impact on their popularity at the local, presidential and general elections in 2014-2015.

They are likely to continue to pursue a core vote strategy by campaigning on morality issues, attempting to tighten regulations on social media, attack their main political opponents and ratchet up police powers against future demonstrations. But that strategy is unlikely to succeed as economic performance remains the main arbiter of popularity. Furthermore, the protests provide hints that the Turkish population, especially the younger generation, may have begun to bridge the Islam-secular polarization bedevilling Turkey for over 90 years. 

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