Erdogan’s growing power splits Turkish conservatives

Post-coup purge and ailing economy led many AK Party supporters to vote against reforms

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the constitutional referen

dum to grant him extensive new executive powers was undermined by an unexpected feature of the vote: his failure to carry the vote in the country’s three largest cities.

Izmir, on the Aegean coast, has long opposed Erdogan and the AK Party government's brand of politics, but the narrow losses in Ankara and Istanbul likely came as a major surprise to the president. Istanbul's AK Party mayor Kadir Topbas has since announced he intends not to seek re-election in 2019.

In Istanbul, there was a 9 per cent swing away from the AK Party and its political ally, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which supported the Yes campaign. Ankara, Turkey's capital, saw a notable 14.2 per cent decrease compared with the most recent national vote, the November 2015 parliamentary election.


For Etyen Mahçupyan, a journalist and former adviser to ex-prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, opposing the constitutional changes was necessary to protect the conservative values that represent Turks whose votes have seen the AK Party become such a potent political force. Mahçupyan voted No in the referendum of April 16th.

"The campaign behind the AK Party reached only 51 per cent, despite the ever-widening populism and the use of the state of emergency to create propaganda inequality, strict control over the media and an ideological siege," he wrote this week in the newspaper Karar, a publication known for its pro-AK Party, but anti-Erdogan stance.

Davutoglu, a former leader of the AK Party, did not publicly call for Turks to vote in favour of the presidential system at a rally in his hometown of Konya last week. It was seen as a subtle yet clear indication of a growing chasm within conservatives in Turkey. AK Party co-founder and former president, Abdullah Gül, also refused to speak at rallies promoting the "Yes" campaign.

Such divisions have been reflected in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district, where Erdogan maintains a home and where he voted on referendum day. In this traditional, predominantly conservative district, the drop in support on Sunday for the parties pushing the presidential system topped 10 per cent.

On a recent walk through Üsküdar, a transport hub on the Bosphorus Strait, some local shopkeepers refused to share their voting decisions; others announced openly their support for the government. "We all here are evet [yes]," said a pharmacist, referring to his backing of the presidential system. He asked not to be identified.

Authoritarian slide

However, according to Michelangelo Guida, a professor of political science at the nearby Istanbul May 29th University, so named after the fall of Constantinople on that date in 1453, some among the district’s conservative democrats have become uncomfortable with Turkey’s authoritarian slide.

“This is a low- and middle-income area, and people are concerned with housing, transportation. Üskudar has seen major infrastructure improvements in recent years, but they want more moderate policies and politics,” he says.

“Üsküdar is home to a large number of Sufi or spiritual Islamic institutes that have suffered in the post-coup purge; they feel more threatened,” he says, referring to the mass firing and jailing of suspected government opponents that followed last July’s failed coup attempt.

Guida believes nearly every conservative family in Turkey has had a member either in jail or fired in the purge, which has seen tens of thousands of civil servants and state employees removed from their posts. The crackdown, he says, is one of the reasons for the drift away from the president though not the only one, “because people have different understandings of the coup itself”.

On top of the push towards one-man rule that is unsettling some traditional AK Party supporters, a faltering economy has seen the lira lose 20 per cent of its value since the botched coup. Revenue from foreign tourists plunged by 30 per cent in 2016, largely because of a spate of terrorist attacks.

The state's robust policies towards separatist Kurds and its involvement in the war in Syria, some argue, have fuelled terrorism that contributed to the economic slowdowns in Istanbul, Ankara – a city noted for its nationalist and conservative voting patterns – and other urban business centres.

When Turkey downed a Russian jet in November 2015, businesses in the tourist province of Antalya saw a fall of international visitors and in particular Russians, as a result of the diplomatic crisis that followed. Relations between Turkey and Russia have since improved, but tourists have only trickled back.

In Antalya, support for the parties in favour of the presidential system reached 59 per cent in the most recent parliamentary elections. In Sunday’s referendum, however, only 41 per cent backed the constitutional reforms.

“The government is not addressing the economic issues,” says professor Guida. Seventeen of Antalya’s 19 districts voted for the AK Party in November 2015, but only four backed the constitutional changes.

“Every local municipality was drawn into campaigning for the ‘yes’ vote, and this in turn cost locals – taxpayers – money.”