What do the Turks want?

22 Ocak 2015

Bu yazı 22.01.2015 tarihinde Hurriyet Daily News Gazetesi'nde yayımlanmıştır.

The choices of citizens of a country on various issues are important parts of the inputs that governments receive during their decision-making process, so governments try to gauge the perceptions of the public more or less accurately. In democratic societies, public opinion becomes even more significant and effects the policy choices of governments. Therefore, it is important to know what a certain society wishes at any moment in time.

It is often argued that Turkey is a complicated country, and the game of guessing its future direction is frustrating to many Turkey-watchers as its political agenda changes so often. One way to understand the direction of a country is to conduct regular public opinion surveys to keep track of the changing preferences of its citizens. With this in mind, let us look at the results of “Social and Political Trends Survey - Turkey,” which was released on Tuesday by Kadir Has University. It has data from 1,000 people in 26 cities across the country, gathered over the last four years. The full results can be accessed on the university’s website.

Although the survey looks into several issues, ranging from the most important topics on Turkish citizens’ agenda to the success of the government’s policies, as well as public perceptions about confidence in institutions, the role of the military in political life, the Kurdish issue, the social, political and ethnic spectrum of the citizens, and the support for political parties if an election were held today, I would like to draw your attention to a part of the survey related to the country’s international connections.

What fascinates me most in these kinds of surveys is the remarkable consistency of Turkish public opinion to prefer Turkey to act alone in international affairs - and not to ally itself with any states or group of states. This year, the survey revealed that 34.4 percent of the population prefers “going alone” in international affairs. This was a drop from 44.1 percent in 2011. This is no doubt connected to the troubling developments around Turkey and the increasing perceptions of threats from neighboring areas.

The same affect could also be seen in the positive change toward cooperation with the United States, increasing from 5.5 percent last year to 17.4 percent today. Similarly, public support for NATO and EU memberships have increased to 76.2 percent and 71.4 percent, respectively, four-year highs in both cases. Moreover, 30.8 percent of the population now thinks that the U.S. is Turkey’s friend/ally, up from 14.4 percent from the last year.

Yet, a notable size of the population still wishes to behave like a lone wolf and thinks that Turkey is being threatened by Israel (69.8 percent), the U.S. (68 percent), the EU countries (54.2 percent), Armenia (53.6 percent), Syria (52 percent), Iran (50.6 percent) and many others. The facts that Turkey has never been in a war and does not have a land border with Israel do not affect the Turkish public perception, as it has put the country top of the threat list for four years in a row.

Another troubling finding is that while the Turkish public overwhelmingly (93.2 percent) believes that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a terrorist organization, 17.7 percent assumes that it does not constitute a threat to Turkey. Looking back at several bombings in the country over the last couple of years, generally believed to be perpetrated by al-Qaeda-related organizations, including ISIL, and the fact that 49 personnel at Turkey’s Mosul Consulate were taken hostage by ISIL just over six months ago, this is a very bizarre notion, if not downright delusional.

Putting these together with the figures showing majority disapproval of the government’s policies in the Middle East in general, I believe there is enough food for thought.