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The popularity of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu (R) and National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar are rising and getting closer to President Tayyip Erdoğan’s ahead of his Justice and development Party (AKP) Congress in the coming months. (Photo: Int Min.)

According to MetroPoll research company’s May 2020 study titled “Turkey’s Pulse,” the Turkish political scene has eventful days ahead. The company measures the popularity of politicians as well as the votes of the parties every month. According to the latest survey showing March 2020 results, President Tayyip Erdoğan had grown in popularity when COVID-19 first got detected in Turkey; to 57 percent with a jump of 14 percent, to be exact. But two months on, things have shifted. Erdoğan’s popularity has declined to 50%. But that’s no surprise; we’ll come to that point.
What’s interesting is that two more politicians have entered the top charts in popularity. Two ministers from Erdoğan’s cabinet, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, and National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar are on the rise. Furthermore, IYI Party leader Meral Akşener is declining in popularity. On the Republican People’s Party (CHP) front, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş is on the rise, as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu faces a decline.

The chart and its analysis

The popularity of President Erdogan had soared to 57.2 percent with an increase of 14 points two months ago. It shrunk by 7 points to 50.7 at the end of May. It wasn’t surprising. Political scientists have been saying that during crises like war, famine, and epidemics, people want to trust the leader, whether they like them or not. But once the tide passes and the previous problems rise back to the surface, the situation can revert to square one. The popularity of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, for example, had increased in this same period, despite Italy being among the hardest hit countries by COVID-19. So, it’s only natural for Erdogan’s popularity to decrease as the normalization begins and problems like unemployment and a high cost of life come to the fore.

The popularity list of Turkish politicians as of May 2020: Yellow: Like, Orange: Dislike, Gray: No idea or no answer

Soylu and Akar’s popularity

However, Soylu, who entered the popularity list of MetroPoll in 4th place in April, rose to 3rd place in May. Meanwhile, Akar, who appeared in polls as late as in May, entered the league at the 5th place. Inevitably, this raises a question: what is happening in the AK Party ranks?
Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu had resigned on April 12 after the curfew imposed on the first weekend on April 10 caused quite a bit of chaos. But he withdrew his resignation after President Erdoğan had publicly announced that he needed Soylu in his office in a rare example. As a result, Soylu ranked fourth in the April poll with 45.9 percent. This popularity rate was close to the sum of both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its election partner Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). But in April, there was still a 7.2 points difference between Soylu and Erdogan, who by then seemed to have dropped to 53.1 percent.
But the end-May measurements show that Soylu’s popularity rose to 49.5 percent, pushing İmamoğlu to the fourth place. Soylu Was now in third place, right after Mansur Yavaş. The difference he has with Erdogan seems to have decreased to a mere 1.2 percent.
Another surprise Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar ranking fifth with a score of 41 percent in a survey he appeared in for the first time. In March there were no names in that popularity list from Erdoğan’s cabinet except himself. In May there are two more names. Time will show whether this is good or bad news for Erdoğan ahead of the AKP congress in a few months.

What does it mean?

Soylu and Akar, respectively, are responsible for the country’s internal security and external security. Soylu has managed to reduce the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activities within the borders. Akar is orchestrating the fight against the PKK in Syria and Iraq, and also playing the major role in Turkey’s policies in the East Mediterranean and Libya.
Another trait they share is that neither of them is a “natural-born Erdoğanist” or a “natural-born AKP” member. Their roots lie elsewhere. Before joining AKP in 2012, Soylu was head of Turkey’s Democratic Party (DP). He was also among the politicians who criticized Erdogan the hardest. Akar, on the other hand, had shared a common fate with Erdogan during the military coup attempt in 2016. Before the June 2018 elections, when he was Chief of General Staff, he had gone to see Abdullah Gül with Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, to report back to Erdogan that Gül would not run against him. And after the elections, Akar slipped out of his uniform and became a Minister in the Erdoğan cabinet. It’s quite remarkable. Two politicians who didn’t originate from the AKP ranked popular among both AKP and MHP (since they scored more popularity points than their party, AKP). On the one hand, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, two “natural-born AKP”, have parted their ways from Erdoğan and established the Future Party (GP) and Deva Party (DEVA), respectively.
On the other hand, Soylu and Akar stand out with their nationalist stances rather than religious-conservatism are gaining popularity. This situation can find both echo and reflection in the AKP Congress as well.

What’s happening to Akşener’s popularity?

There is no remarkable change in the popularity level of MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli: it was 38.5 at the end of April and is 38.6 at the end of May.
But the same cannot be said for IYI Party leader Meral Akşener. Her popularity was at 40.8 percent in April but dropped to 37.3 percent in May with a decrease of 3.5 percent in only one month. Akşener seems to have fallen into Erdoğan’s tactic, or rather trap of driving moderate Kurdish voters away from the IYI Party and CHP. The tone in Akşener’s discourse shifted from condemning the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) terrorist acts to one that discriminates the Kurdish-problem-focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the Parliament, and could also repulse the moderate Kurdish voter. Her popularity seems to have been negatively affected by it.

The Yavaş-İmamoğlu comparison

There is an intriguing situation in CHP. İstanbul Metropolitan Mayor İmamoglu is still ranking fourth in popularity. But he’s losing altitude. His popularity was around 53 percent at the end of March and 50 percent at the end of April. It dropped by another 3 points by the end of May, reaching a mere 47.1 percent. Examining closer, it’s possible to see that İmamoğlu was being too polemical with Erdogan recently. We could even assume that, if İmamoğlu hadn’t introduced innovative systems like the “suspended invoice” (where citizens paid the invoices of those in need during the outbreak) the loss of popularity could be even more.
Ankara Metropolitan Mayor Yavaş is as much a target of Erdogan’s criticisms. But he lets his work speaks for itself, rather than getting involved in debates. He avoids putting on a belligerent front during difficult times. His popularity did drop by less than one percent, going from 50.7 at the end of April to 49.6 percent now. But he still ranks second.

Kılıçdaroğlu and a surprise from CHP

There is no remarkable change in Kılıçdaroğlu’s popularity. While it was 25.2 percent at the end of March, and 26.1 at the end of May. The popularity of Izmir Metropolitan Mayor Tunç Soyer increased by 2.5 percent in two months and reached 29.8 percent.
The real surprise on the CHP front, however, is Adana Metropolitan Mayor Zeydan Karalar. Karalar isn’t as widely known in the country yet attained a popularity rate of 20 percent among those who know him. he ranks just below Davutoğlu and Babacan, just above Selahattin Demirtaş of the HDP. The most valid explanation for this is that Erdogan had targeted him in the fight against Covid-19. This is interesting, we will focus on this later on. But even this popularity poll shows that something is stirring in Turkish politics.