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Turkey’s three-dimensional populism, three leaders and three blocs

The election is therefore offered a choice between three blocs, each of which mobilises people in terms of a different type of populism as expounded by their respective charismatic leader.

lead Jailed presidential candidate for Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition, Selahattin Demirtas, makes his first television appearance in over a year and a half on June 17, 2018. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The upcoming presidential election in Turkey is another interesting example of the global populist zeitgeist, albeit taking on diverse forms in different countries in southeast Europe, the east Mediterranean and the Middle East. Turkey has been subject to the power of the right-wing conservative populist, Justice and Development Party (AKP) for the last 16 years under the former football player Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who is in some sense a charismatic leader).

The AKP’s hold on power has created a sense of despair on the part of the opposition (similar to that during Thatcher’s years in the UK with her claim that ‘there was no alternative’ to the neoliberal order) until June 2013 and the emergence of the Gezi protest movement, which has been compared to other grass roots (or square) movements such as occupy, the anti-austerity movement and the Arab spring.

Gezi as an irregular, populist social movement rejected the existing representative democracy by arguing that as the mass of ordinary people, they were not represented by the elitist centre-right and centre-left parties. Instead, the many components of the Gezi movement synergized with the new Kurdish-led and left-leaning populist Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) that for the first-time afforded a real opportunity for representation of not only a collective Kurdish political identity but other excluded groups and brought 80 MPs into the Parliament in June 2015.

The HDP established a chain of equivalence between its diverse components without essentialising Kurdish identity over other alliances, using radical democracy as a common point of affiliation. The HDP uses a different discourse than the orthodox pro-Kurdish political parties through the charming left-wing populism of the human rights lawyer, Selahattin Demirtas. He is one of the candidates for the presidency in the June 24, 2018 election but has been in prison for over a year facing a prison sentence of up to 142 years on terrorism charges (plus four years for insulting Erdogan) while approximately a hundred mayors of his HDP party have been replaced by government-appointed trustees.

The discursive hegemonic approach of Ernesto Laclau identifies populism as something that constructs the political in terms of the people (the underdog) versus elites (the establishment) – although how populism is deployed can either further or frustrate democratic ends. Interestingly, the AKP as a party of the right successfully employed the discourse of ‘the People’ against the Kemalist status quo during the structural crisis of the regime, emphasizing stability and development within a liberal democratic framework, a policy of seeking EU accession and a neoliberal capitalist economy.

After some time in power, however, the AKP began to define ‘the People’ in more religious, and recently more nationalist, ways. The party, now acting as a new power elite, offered the rhetoric of creating a ‘new Turkey’ by social engineering and tended towards a majoritarian and illiberal political stance.

Within this authoritarian populist context, which we might describe as post-political (where the state-centred policies of the centre parties, both religious and secular, are hard to distinguish apart), the Kurdish political movement realized that it was not enough simply to pursue the demand for Kurdish national rights. Instead, the mainstream Kurdish political agents (such as the Democratic Society Party and the Democratic Regions Party) adapted a ‘progressive nationalism’ (similar to that of the Scottish National Party that electorally replaced the Scottish Labour Party on the left) which reached beyond regional politics and provided the ground for the HDP’s radical democratic project (a project bearing a relationship to Podemos and Catalan nationalism). This radical democratic bloc came to represent the demands of diverse groups based on religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as well as economic minorities, in an inclusive left-wing populism.

The CHP

In the upcoming elections, the main opposition Kemalist secular Republican Peoples’ Party (the CHP and the founder party of the Republic) are using an offensive strategy and promoting their MP Muharrem Ince, a former physics teacher (who comes from a Sunni Muslim and leftist background), as the candidate for the presidency.

Muharrem Ince speaks during a rally in Diyarbakir city, June 11th, 2018. Depo Photos/Press Association. All rights reserved.Ince’s humanitarian populist leadership demonstrates a very successful social democratic populism. He personally embraces the diversity of Turkish society and was even against removing parliamentary immunity against prosecution for those HDP MPs accused of promoting terror (namely a separate Kurdish national identity and self-governance) even though his own party, the CHP, supported the AKP’s decision to send them to trial which ended in a significant number of the HDP MPs being arrested or fleeing the country.

Ince became a hope for the liberal supporters of the CHP by reactivating the social democratic face of the party, although this audience already had had similar experiences with Erdal Inonu’s Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) and Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP).

Ince has started to develop a different discourse and has hence promoted a sort of neo-Kemalist six pillars (republicanism, populism, laicism, revolutionism, nationalism and statism) via an egalitarian and libertarian interpretation of Kemalism for his fellow citizens, although from this are excluded Syrian refugees who are accused of being supporters of Erdogan and the backbone of a Salafi Islam as well as an economic burden for the country. The problem here is the resulting ambiguity between the CHP’s institutional/vertical politics and Ince’s individual/horizontal populist leadership.

In the recent post-political situation two main blocs have emerged. On the one hand, there is the Islamic-oriented AKP who have created a de facto coalition in the name of a ‘public alliance’ with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Great Unionist Party (BBP). On the other hand, the secular CHP has joined with the Islamist Felicity Party (SP) and the right-wing Good Party (IYI) (former MHP members) to assemble a ‘national alliance’. Both pacts, particularly that led by the CHP, have ruled out bringing the HDP (because of its Kurdish domination) into blocs dominated by the Turkishnesss discourse of a homogenized citizenship, whether in an Islamic or secular form.

Polarisation and tension

The country’s politics and society are now extremely polarized and tense. The government party has established a new political frontier based on a division between us/friend (pro-AKP and support for a one-man rule presidential system) and them/enemy (anti-AKP, pro-parliamentarian democracy) which is different from the old we/they distinction.

While the HDP’s position can be read as a Derridian ‘constitutive outsider’, the party has re-constructed an alternative political frontier which is based on an ideology and philosophy that does not moralize politics through the appeal to some sacred values not open to democratic discussion (e.g. Muslimness and Turkishness). Furthermore, the HDP has identified ‘we’, ‘the People’, in terms of an agonistic pluralism that brings the conflict into the centre of politics via a conflictual consensus and promotes compromise in disagreement (such as the association between devout Muslims, Alevis, LGBTs, feminists and Afro-Turks and non-Muslims) and one positioned within a symbolic democratic ground based on the democratic principles of liberty and equality for all.

Choice of three?

The election is therefore offered a choice between three blocs, each of which mobilises people in terms of a different type of populism as expounded by their respective charismatic leader. However, if Ince, in the way of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, can manage to shift the CHP’s establishment towards advocating a progressive and popular patriotism instead of ethnic nationalism, especially in relation to the so-called ‘Kurdish question’ and, moreover, if he can create a politics grounded on a new hegemonic articulation, with a partisan nature (e.g. left and right) where economic projects replace the prioritizing of state security over society, then this could pave the way towards more social justice, popular sovereignty and the democratisation of the political system.

This would also allow scope for the radical democracy bloc to widen and deepen. This in turn might create an opportunity for an agonistic negotiation that seeks to transform an antagonistic enemy (one who needs to be eliminated) into an agonistic adversary (one with whom you can negotiate on different concepts, such as democracy, citizenship, etc.). There would be a chance to build an alternative society based on the diverse collective identities of Turkey, a ‘national alliance’ constituted by a dominant and extensive stratum of the Turkish society.

This new initiative could bring new hope for a reconciliation with the Kurdish political groupings and a restoration of democracy away from the current post-democratic system that suffers under the state of emergency, decree law and a toxic demagoguery founded on post-truth and anti-intellectualism.

About the author

Omer Tekdemir is a research associate at the School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. He taught at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster and has been visiting scholar at the Coventry and Durham University.


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