How Popular is Erdoğan?

picture alliance / AA | Mustafa Kamaci

There are two aspects of popularity that needs to be discussed when speaking within the context of politicians. One is that this is a relative term. For a politician, it is not important to be very popular. What is important on the other hand is that you need to be the most popular among your rivals. Second is the ability of a politician to convert her popularity to votes in an election. Popularity does not always ensure the support of the electorate.

Erdoğan’s popularity is waning in Turkey. Yet his staunch opposers are in a rush to rule him out of office. Because it is beyond doubt that Erdoğan is still the most popular and loved politician in Turkey. His personal appeal to the electorate has gone unchallenged for the better half of the past two decades. Even today, when he is struggling the most, and not as skilfully as he used to, keep the show going, he ranks number one in polls.

But just how popular is he? Every month, we, as Istanbul Economics Research, conduct two Turkey wide surveys with 1500 randomly selected individuals to produce nationally significant polling results. At the first survey of each month, we ask the respondents to tell us how successful they find a list of politicians on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is least successful and 10 is the most. With 6.06 points out of 10, he ranked number one in September 2020. Oscillating between 5 and 6 points he continually ranks number one. A deeper look at the data reveals that %47 percent of the participants to the survey gave him points between 8-10. MetroPOLL research firm also finds his job approval rate 47% for September 2020. So this is where I would place his broad popularity. With 47% popularity, he is nowhere he used to be say 10 years ago but still leading his opponents handsomely.

However, this is not the whole picture. It is important to take look at how much of this popularity he manages to turn into votes for him. The numbers are quite different. In our May 2020 poll, we asked respondents whom they think is the best-suited politician to resolve the woes of the economy. This was an open-ended question whereby the respondents could answer with any name. Only 39.7% of respondents chose to say Erdoğan. While this is still a very high number, it is quite below his popularity rate. It is also striking because, in May 2020, our results indicated that the People’s Alliance, the ruling alliance composed of AK Party and MHP, would get around 47-48% of the popular vote. These results show that he is not that popular when it comes managing the economy, which is becoming the single most important issue that the politicians will have to convince the electorate over going forward to 2023 elections. In a poll conducted in August 2020, Aksoy Research Company asked respondents whom they would vote for in a presidential race. The respondents were offered two scenarios in which Erdoğan would be up first against Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş and second against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. He got 40% of the votes against Yavaş and 38.7% of the votes against İmamoğlu. So his popularity is not as strong in core issues and his ability to convert high popularity into votes against up and coming political actors are somewhat weaker then it used to be.

All of this would matter much less if Turkey had not changed its election system back in 2017. With the old parliamentary system, Erdoğan and his AK Party would comfortably win the elections with these numbers and keep running the country where he would remain at the head of the executive. However, that changed. Now he needs more than 50% of the popular vote to win the presidency. Our September 2020 poll reveals that the People’s Alliance is now at 43%. The other numbers that I shared above show his popularity is not enough to carry him over the threshold. In hindsight, it is fair to say that this change of system was the biggest political mistake Erdoğan made.

Obviously, these are sensitive issues and one needs to treat the numbers with caution. Turkey is in no shortage of research firms that undertake political polling. In the past, there have been many episodes caused by politically invested pollsters that resulted in an erosion of trust to the industry in general. Nonetheless, I believe there are a good number of firms that provide independent and reliable results. Going forward Turkey stands to benefit from more transparency and higher literacy in political polling. For the time being it is best to make sure the funding, sample size, timing and data collection method of published results are clearly known. Finally, it never hurts to compare different firms to get a better understanding of the landscape.