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Will Turkey’s conservative young women abandon Erdogan and AKP?

The conservative women vote played an important role in bringing Erdogan’s AKP to power two decades ago. But according to polls, that segment of Turkish society is looking for alternatives as AKP became too conservative for their taste. 
Women chant slogans in front of the Istanbul courthouse in Istanbul on April 5, 2023, as We Will Stop Femicides Platform, leading women rights group in Turkey appear on court for the second hearing of the trial that seeks to ban the platform.

IZMIR, Turkey — Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which faces one of the toughest electoral challenges of its 20-year rule in the May 14 election, is losing its electoral advantage among conservative women, which had been one of its pillars, political analysts say. 

Rasim Sisman, the chairman of the Social Democracy Foundation, told Al-Monitor that a survey of 1,067 women found that only 68.7% who voted for the ruling party in the 2018 elections are likely to vote for the party again. The report was prepared in collaboration with the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Panaliz Polling and Research Company

According to the poll, 7.8% of that number will go to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which is actively wooing conservative women, and 2% to the nationalist Good Party, which is one of the two political parties with a woman chair or a co-chair. CHP and the Good Party have come together with four smaller right-wing parties for an electoral alliance that rallies around Kemal Kilicdaroglu as their presidential candidate, while incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has sought to broaden his electoral base with its traditional ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and two small Islamist parties. The SODEV poll says 14% remain undecided on how they will vote in the parliamentary elections, which will take place at the same time as the first round of the presidential polls on May 14.

Sisman and Ali Suslu, the director of ALF polling and research company, believe that the female votes up for grabs will mainly go to larger parties such as the CHP and the Good Party. A survey carried out by ALF in January shows that the AKP — traditionally the top party among women voters — has become second  (26.5%) to CHP (29.2%), even before AKP’s contested alliance with two Islamist parties with misogynist agendas last month.

In the survey, the Good Party receives 18.8% of the women’s vote, while AKP-offshoot DEVA gets 3.8%, slightly above the patriarchal Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli. The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (which has the highest number of female lawmakers in parliament as well as a woman party co-chair) gets 7.4% of the vote. Suslu told Al-Monitor that a second survey on women was on the way, predicting further breakaways from the AKP and its electoral ally MHP following the alliance with conservative Huda Par and New Welfare.  

While conservative women are far from a monolithic voting bloc, 20 years ago many regarded the AKP as the only party that reflected their values. However, various pollsters and commentators have pointed out a shift since 2018, and more acutely after 2020, over economic hardships, gender pay gap and the AKP’s attitude on women’s rights, particularly on domestic violence and early marriage.

The question of where young conservative women will take their vote has been embodied in pop culture with the question, “How will Nursema vote?” A character in politically charged TV series “Cranberry Sorbet,” Nursema is presented as the embodiment of a young, bourgeois Muslim woman with her immaculate headscarves, a thorough knowledge of Islam, a no-nonsense manner, and a sarcastic tongue. Her dream of an international career as a calligraphy artist is shattered when her well-to-do conservative family forces her into marriage with the son of a “pious family,” who first attempts to rape her on her wedding night, then throws her out the window. The series was penalized by Turkey’s media watchdog RTUK for “encouraging violence against women” after several conservative papers and columnists complained about the series' depiction of Sunni believers and its glorification of “liberals,” who, in the series, rally to help Nursema. 

Nihal Bengisu Karaca, an estranged member of the pro-AKP camp, also bitterly contested the RTUK punishment and the political environment that made such a ban possible. “The series’ scenario challenges the myth that a conservative family is a happy one. It shows plainly that conservative women are not only victimized by the secular side in a polarized society but suffer injustice at home,” Karaca wrote in her column in Haberturk.

After Ipek Maya Saygin, an academic and commentator for Daktilo1984, held a talk show with the title “How will Nursema Vote?” Turkish sociologists and laymen raced to hedge their bets on Twittersphere, suggesting soft transitions, such as AKP-offshoots Deva and Gelecek, or the right-wing Good Party; or a hard one, toward Kilicdaroglu. “One clear thing is that Nursema will not vote for AKP anymore,” tweeted Burak Kadercan, associate professor of strategy and policy at the US Naval War College and an ardent fan of the series. Saygin, for her part, told Al-Monitor that she believed Nursema, irked by impunity in the face of abuse during the AKP’s 20-year rule, would reject the ruling party at the ballot box and vote for Aksener, a strong female figure.

Politicians also jumped on the wagon. “If Erdogan wins, Nursema’s declaration that she was abused will not be enough and her madman of a husband will get out scot-free,” tweeted Gursel Tekin, a senior member of the CHP. “If Kılıcdaroglu wins, she will sue her husband, divorce, and start a new life. So here is your choice.” 

Sehide Zehra Keles, a gender and poverty expert, said, “Young pious women are rapidly breaking away from the AKP. However, breaking away from the AKP does not always lead to turning to opposition parties.” Keles, who works closely with the Muslim feminist women’s association Havle, wrote in her column for the left-wing Politik Yol, “Political parties will all nominate candidates wearing a headscarf, but this is far from being convincing or even adequate. While political parties were vying for [headscarved] Nursema’s vote, Nursema faced violence, formed alliances with women of other [political] camps and she no longer feels bound by narrow descriptions. What she needs is an area of freedom and coexistence.”

Seyda Taluk, the author of “How to Win Elections,” agreed that the AKP can no longer take conservative women’s votes for granted. “Through its energetic work with the grassroots, AKP developed strong ties with conservative homemakers across the country, offering them a network, opportunities to socialize, and hope that their daughters can have a better life,” Taluk told Al-Monitor. “But the generation changed. Young women wearing headscarves no longer fear the headscarf ban will return if the government changes. Stories of corruption, nepotism, and inequality dishearten devout homemakers. All women feel the pinch of the high cost of living.” 

The young Muslim women, who express their views on new platforms such as Recel, do not subscribe to AKP’s views on family and motherhood. They also complain that the patriarchal structure of the party used them as “soldiers” without allowing them into the decision-making of either the party or its cronies in business and media.  

The last straw came with the AKP’s alliance with the New Welfare Party, which was a vocal advocate of Erdogan’s overnight withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a pan-European accord that urges its signatories to monitor, prevent and penalize domestic violence against women. A leaked document showed that the party also urged the AKP to change Article 6284, which specifies protections for women from violence. Ozlem Zengin, a vocal AKP lawmaker, bitterly complained before the cameras that she was “left alone” in her defense of the article, implying that her male colleagues failed to support her.  

“Both the AKP and some of the opposition parties of failing to grasp the true impact of Ankara’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention,” Taluk said. “So many male politicians pooh-poohed the issue as an intellectual debate that did not touch the grassroots. They were wrong. This was a key defining moment in the AKP’s ties with its female electorate.” 

Taluk warns that Erdogan still enjoys popularity among conservative female voters even if AKP’s votes are falling in parliamentary elections. Similarly, Istanbul-based pollster Turkiye Raporu’s March Report says that 45.1% of women said they would vote for Erdogan and 34.5% for Kilicdaroglu in presidential polls, as compared to 34.7 % of the male electorate for Erdogan and 46.7% for Kilicdaroglu. The same poll places Kilicdaroglu at 47%,  7% ahead of Erdogan, and 5.4% undecided.

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