Turkish Conservatives’ Loyalty to Erdoğan and Views on Potential Successors

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses an audience in New York in September 2018.

Turkey’s relations with the United States and the European Union are at a nadir amid deep concern about President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic drift, aggressively unilateral foreign policy, and coziness with Russia. This situation has led to a debate among political analysts and government officials about whether the United States and Europe should adopt a harder line toward Turkey in light of its actions undermining democracy, human rights, and the foreign policy goals of its traditional Western allies.

There are many facets to the debate over how accommodating to be toward Turkey, but one of the arguments made by those in favor of continuing the accommodative approach include the contention that Turkey is “more than Erdoğan” and that half the Turkish population does not support his often autocratic rule nor his confrontational approach toward the United States and Europe. Implicit in this argument is that, despite his centralization of power in his office, President Erdoğan is losing ground domestically and that a sober, long-term strategy would consider waiting out Erdoğan’s term in the hope that a more compromising Turkish government may eventually succeed him in the next Turkish general election, which is currently scheduled for 2023.

This line of thought naturally raises the questions of how deep Erdoğan’s support is and who might succeed him should he lose the next election. Previous polling and focus group research by the Center for American Progress further focuses these questions on the right-wing alliance which currently dominates Turkish politics. This broad constituency is not monolithic, but President Erdoğan has so far successfully held together the diverse religious conservative, Islamist, nativist, and hardcore nationalist components that hold the balance of power in Turkey. It is unlikely that the main opposition could break the overall dominance of the right without a breakdown in this right-wing political cohesion. Therefore, the fissures on the right and the views of these conservative voters are crucial to understanding the mid-term trajectory of Turkish politics and, consequently, the parameters of U.S. and European policy toward Turkey.

As part of an effort to better understand the political opinions and worldviews of Turkish conservatives, CAP recently polled several questions around these issues. CAP is also conducting focus groups as part of a longer-term effort to better understand the broader qualitative underpinnings of young conservative Turks’ political opinions but thought it useful to release these preliminary findings. These results are, of course, far from authoritative on the questions of President Erdoğan’s political future or potential successors; rather, the results may contribute a snapshot of current opinion on these questions. The poll was carried out by the Turkish polling firm Metropoll between October 20 and October 26, 2019, and is based on face-to-face questioning of 1,669 people in 28 provinces using stratified sampling and weighting; it has a margin error of 2.4 percent at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Support for Erdoğan

The poll asked about the depth of support for President Erdoğan among Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporters, defined as those who reported casting a ballot for the AKP in the last general election in June 2018. The results showed strong but not absolute support among the AKP. Seventy-four percent of AKP voters, representing 27 percent of the overall Turkish population, said they were “loyal” to President Erdoğan when asked to describe their current level of support. Fourteen percent of AKP voters, or 5 percent of the overall population, said they were “supportive but not loyal.” Six percent of AKP voters, or 2 percent of the overall population, reported “partial support,” with 7 percent, or 2.5 percent of the overall population, preferring not to respond.

Naturally, these data are open to interpretation. At one level, President Erdoğan continues to enjoy broad, loyal support among AKP voters. By way of rough comparison, in the United States, Republican voters’ approval for President Donald Trump broke down as follows in a recent YouGov survey: 57 percent strongly approve; 27 percent somewhat approve; 8 percent somewhat disapprove; and 5 percent strongly disapprove. By this very rough comparative measure, President Erdoğan’s level of support from his own party is average. At the same time, as a share of the overall population, President Erdoğan has a reasonably small group of dedicated partisan supporters, with roughly one-third of the country loyal in their support of him. As is generally seen in President Erdoğan’s approval ratings, younger and more educated Turks are less loyal to him than their older and less educated counterparts.

Who might replace Erdoğan?

After nearly 17 years running the country, President Erdoğan has largely sidelined other senior AKP leaders, including several who were integral to the party’s early electoral success. This consolidation of party control and public prominence is visible in the polling data. Respondents—not limited to AKP voters this time—were asked if “[they] think someone other than Erdoğan could be AKP leader.” Just 22 percent of respondents said they could envision another AKP leader besides Erdoğan, while 67 percent chose, “no, it’s Erdoğan who holds the party together.” Among AKP voters, just 21 percent could envision another leader, while 73 percent said it could only be Erdoğan; the responses were almost identical among Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) voters, the AKP’s right-wing partners in the governing alliance. A slightly higher percentage of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) voters assessed that another figure could lead the AKP, while the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) voters were the most skeptical, with just 8 percent believing another person could lead the AKP. There were no meaningful demographic divides on this question by age, gender, or level of education.

Following up with the 22 percent of respondents who said another AKP leader was possible, the poll queried who could potentially rule the party. Seven prominent conservative leaders from among the current and former AKP ranks were offered as options. Among the small subset of the overall population that believes another figure could rule the AKP, opinion was quite divided among the possible options, reinforcing the skepticism with which the public seems to view this prospect. The top prospect was current Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu with 17 percent, followed by former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan with 12 percent, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu with 8 percent, Minister of Treasury and Finance (and President Erdoğan’s son-in-law) Berat Albayrak with 8 percent, and former President Abdullah Gül with 7 percent. Other current AKP officials such as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and former Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım barely registered in the results.

The marginal support for all these potential conservative successors is notable. Soylu is an interesting case; having only joined the AKP in 2012, Soylu represents a more nationalist center-right current of conservative thought that President Erdoğan has elevated in recent years, sidelining some of the former religious conservative leaders that come from the Millî Görüş movement that was the heart of the early AKP. Indeed, several of the other names in the list above reflect this formerly dominant current (Davutoğlu and Gül) as well as perhaps more liberal technocratic elements that have become disenchanted with the AKP’s confrontational, nationalist stance in recent years (such as Babacan). These strains of political thought are further contextualized by earlier CAP polling on Turkish conceptions of national identity, which cast light on these subconstituencies’ differing views on government authority, the role of religion in public life, foreign policy, education, and democracy.

The poll followed up with a question to all voters, perhaps framed in a way that conservative supporters would consider more benign, about “who could continue Erdoğan’s legacy and be the future of the AKP.” Again, Soylu emerged as the top candidate with 19 percent, followed by Albayrak with 13 percent, Gül with 8 percent, Babacan with 7 percent, and Davutoğlu with 6 percent. Understandably, the politicians currently affiliated with nascent splinter parties—Babacan, Davutoğlu, and Gül—scored lower, since the question was framed explicitly as continuing Erdoğan’s legacy. The results also showed glimpses of the political divides outlined in the preceding paragraph. Soylu enjoyed particularly strong support among MHP and İYİ Party voters, reflecting his nationalist credentials. Babacan, meanwhile, a founding member of the AKP, was favored by the more religious conservative voters of Saadet Party.

Conclusion

Turkey remains roughly evenly divided between those who support President Erdoğan and those who oppose him. But public support for the president is far from absolute, even among members of his own party. As shown in the 2019 nationwide local elections, discontent about the state of the economy, the presence of nearly 4 million Syrian refugees, and the government’s autocratic tendencies is widespread. But there remains a lack of coherence on the Turkish right, with no clear conservative successor. The key question regarding succession remains whether anyone besides President Erdoğan can hope to hold together the diverse religious conservative, Islamist, nativist, and hardcore nationalist components that continue to hold the balance of power in Turkey. Thus far, the answer still appears to be no. That does not mean that power could not change hands but rather that it would require a heretofore unseen level of cooperation between the main opposition parties and dissidents on the right, in which various conservative dissident parties and leaders each take chunks of the governing party’s vote share, leaving the main opposition to obtain a plurality. In Turkey’s hyperpolarized body politic, such a scenario remains a distant prospect.

Max Hoffman is the associate director of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.