Can Europe Make It?

Could Turkey’s opposition provide a model for the defeat of populist authoritarian rule?

COVID-19 could strengthen global resilience against populist authoritarianism. Those movements should also learn from each other.

Seren Selvin Korkmaz
11 May 2020
‘Thank you Ankara’ – billboard of newly elected mayor, Mansur Yavas, April, 2019.
‘Thank you Ankara’ – billboard of newly elected mayor, Mansur Yavas, April, 2019.
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Altan Gocher/PA. All rights reserved.

In Turkey under populist authoritarian rule, despite all the pressure, exclusion and fragmentation tactics of the government, there is still resilience for democracy and a vibrant opposition. The voter margin between the opposition and the ruling bloc has narrowed significantly in recent years.

As a typical competitive authoritarian regime, the Turkish government divides the opposition, creating a perception among the public that the opposition cannot win and that their votes will not count. That is why citizens in these regimes share the common perception that the opposition is unable to win. Such was the situation before the local elections of March 2019, after 18 years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, both at the local level and centrally. Now, there is hope of change that can reclaim democracy via elections in Turkey. Gaining municipal seats has given the opposition some room for manoeuver in the political game. Hence, during the Covid-19 crisis, the government targets municipalities in particular when it intervenes to provide services for the people. But Turkey’s opposition strategies aimed at tackling the populist government may provide a model for democratic movements which struggle with populists around the world.

Now, there is hope of change that can reclaim democracy via elections in Turkey.

The rise of populism in the last three decades has dramatically shifted world politics. Institute Global reported that the number of populist parties in power has increased fivefold, from four to 20, between 1990 and 2018. By gaining seats in national parliaments and coming to power, populists have had a significant impact on both domestic and international politics.

Populists in power undermine the democratic institutions, that is, free and fair elections, free access to information, the accountability of government, the right to free speech, the rule of law, freedom of the press. They also suppress the opposition, not only through the use of force, as do authoritarian leaders, but also with popular support. Populist leaders like Erdoğan, Trump, Orban, Johnson, Modi, Bolsanaro, Netanyahu – they all benefit from their shared experiences, to motivate and support each other. There is an invisible populist coalition around the world. However, there is also strong global resilience against populist authoritarianism. Those movements should also learn from each other.

There is an invisible populist coalition around the world.

Nowadays, Turkey’s President Erdoğan has been directing much of his energy into tackling the opposition rather than COVID-19. His focus on the opposition is related to the typical populist strategy he deploys to cover up reality by citing internal and external threats as being to blame for the ongoing problems in society. However, he is also very aware of the potential threat coming from an opposition which gained a historic victory in recent local elections.

Over 18 years of AKP rule in Turkey, power has been monopolized, the democratic institutions of the country have been undermined, civil society has been suppressed and politics has been polarized. However there is still a vibrant opposition and the margin of votes between the opposition and the ruling bloc is actually very narrow. Newly-formed election alliances among different ideological camps of the opposition together with fresh discursive strategies recently brought a significant victory in the shape of the municipal elections of March 31, 2019, in most of the larger, metropolitan cities of Turkey. Among these İstanbul, Turkey’s biggest city and its economic centre was a huge, symbolic win. The Government and Higher Electoral Council tried to deny the opposition candidate İmamoğlu’s victory on March 31. But in the repeat elections of June 23 the opposition increased their votes almost 60-fold and got 54% of the votes. This victory motivated the opposition struggling against populist governments around the world. For instance, Budapest, during his candidacy, visited İmamoğlu to learn from his experience and told him “you are a source of hope for Budapest”. Karácsony won as the joint candidate of Hungary’s opposition against the populist Orban’s candidate.

A fragmented playing field

Under AKP rule, Turkish politics has become more and more fragmented, polarized and the room for manoeuver of the opposition has been restricted by both legal and extra-legal pressures. A fragmented and frustrated opposition struggled against a unified populist bloc until 2017. The agenda of Turkish politics was perpetual polarization, based on the left versus the right, secular versus the religious, or Kurdish against Turkish. Under the populist rule of AKP, this polarization created a sharp division between political blocs that inhibited any inter-bloc shift.

The political system in Turkey had been divided between three blocs: People’s Alliance (AKP+MHP) as ruling bloc, Nation Alliance (CHP, İYİ Party, Felicity Party) and the pro-Kurdish HDP. But in the last local elections, the HDP cooperated with the Nation Alliance. Beginning from the 2017 referendum campaign, the opposition has created a wide-ranging alliance and adopted various new strategies to combat the populist government. Meanwhile two new parties on the right launched by previous AKP cadres have recently joined Turkish politics as new members of the opposition: the Future Party (Gelecek) of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the DEVA Party of the former Economy Minister Ali Babacan.

Opposing strategies

Scholars have spilt much ink trying to analyse the strategies of opposition under competitive authoritarian and populist regimes:

– Bunce and Wolchik argue that in competitive authoritarian regimes, the vulnerabilities of the regime do not by any means translate easily or usually into electoral victories for the opposition.[1] They examine 11 elections in competitive authoritarian regimes to analyze a winning opposition strategy. Their findings suggest that the opposition is only able to win if they use specific electoral strategies. These strategies include forming a unified opposition agreed on a single candidate; doing ambitious, nationwide campaigns; collecting and using public opinion data to frame the discourse of the candidates; mobilizing voters to vote; applying pressure on regimes to reform election committees; forming youth movements to support change via these elections; creating resources in terms of money and people; training people to carry out international monitoring; and concentrating on last-minute voter turnout campaigns and exit polls.[2]

– Chantal Mouffe argues that the only way to struggle with right-wing, authoritarian leaning populisms is to adopt a left-wing populism. According to Mouffe, politics itself is based on conflict and not on the liberal idea of reconciliation. That is why Mouffe proposes left-wing populism as the mechanism to fight back against right-wing populism.[3]

– According to Jan Werner Müller, to combat populists both the politicians and the media have to address the questions which are raised by populists, but launch a critique of their framing. Müller suggests building partial majorities within the political system rather than aiming to create the notion of ‘the people’ as a whole.[4] In addition, he suggests involving international election monitors even though it cannot guarantee an end to electoral fraud. Moreover, he argues that the opposition should adopt a mild form of discourse that does not trap populist losers between the prison and the palace. In other words, the opposition should give populist losers a way out that replaces the existential threat – populists should not fear losing everything if they lose a vote.

– Another way for the opposition to win in countries where populists in power are using local institutions. According to a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Democracy Fund, using city and state laws to empower local judges and challenge national level laws will enable the opposition to restrict a powerful executive. Also, governing cities may create a model in which the opposition can demonstrate its ability to govern to the voters.

Turkey’s opposition tactics

In Turkey, AKP won the last six elections and has kept the majority of the seats in the parliament. Any opposition has been suppressed by government strategies. However, the opposition still experiments with counter-strategies to win against the populist rule. Both this vibrant resilience and the winning of the larger cities of Turkey in the last local elections show a possible way forward that deserves further attention.

Turkey’s opposition was successful for several reasons. First, as opposed to Mouffe’s approach, the opposition in Turkey hasn’t adopted another form of populism. Rather, they try to retake the politics into “center”. Secondly, with the shift in the socio-economic situation of Turkey, rising inequalities, mass-clientelism, the shrinking of the economy, the opposition has mobilized a policy based on the everyday problems of people as opposed to a polarizing identity politics. Third, as Müller argues, the opposition has become successful in local elections when they give up the discourse which threatens the loser populists with “prison”. Moreover, the opposition in Turkey is better able to unify and mobilize its supporters since the 2016 referendum. Now, they use the power of local governance to reclaim democracy and social justice in Turkey that is worth elaborating in detail.

Why local governance matters in Turkey

Turkey is a unitary system and each province is headed by a governor appointed byAnkara: parallel to this, there are elected mayors in each province. Local municipalities are subordinated to Ankara and remain weak vis a vis the central government. However, they have a significant role in Turkey. The local elections of 2019 were a game changer for two reasons relating to their symbolic power.

First, municipalities have always provided a terrain in which the opposition could act throughout the Republican period. For instance, AKP’s predecessor the Refah (Welfare) Party represented pious people via the municipalities in a way that created a pathway for the AKP model. Leadership and personality are still very important in Turkish politics and impact on voting behavior, as recent public perception research conducted by the IstanPol Institute, of which I am co-founder, confirms. People seek saviors and protectors, given the flaws of weak institutions. So being mayor allows you to prove your leadership capacity to serve people, as President Erdoğan previously did himself as mayor of İstanbul.

Second, municipalities are the core location for rent-seeking and clientelist relations in Turkey. By controlling the metropolitan municipalities with their huge budgets, the AKP consolidated its financial and political agenda at the local level. The party followed a neoliberal populist agenda combined with this increasing nepotism and clientelism. Hence, the loss of major cities including Istanbul, Ankara is a major blow for AKP’s rent-seeking economy. Furthermore, AKP had used urban space and municipality services to establish rent mechanisms. The commodification of land, urban transformation projects and clientelist redistribution mechanisms created a chain of patronage relationships which ensure continuous support for the party. The loss of such municipalities means that AKP’s hitherto flawless rent-seeking mechanisms have broken down.

An additional factor is that the system of the government which was changed to a hyper-presidential system in 2018 also enhanced the role of the municipalities. The presidential system overall has tended to undermine the patronage networks that people are used to in Turkey. It created new patronage mechanisms that relied instead on macro-level networks. For instance, in Turkey voters perceive members of parliaments or local branches of parties as agencies enabling their access to networks. It was easy to access the benefits of networks via local party branches and members of parliament. But in the Turkish presidential system, party cadres have no more power as such. The ruling party itself together with their MPs also lose their significance, because power is more concentrated in the President and the executive branch appointed by him.

The presidential system, having decreased the power of political parties and members of parliament in Turkey, has however had a knock-on effect on municipalities. Under the parliamentary system, members of parliament (MPS) had significant power both in national and local politics and politicians mainly used the mayorship as a career move on the way to becoming an MP and thence a minister in the next election (ministers were mainly selected among MPs of the ruling party). Loss of this authority and status has however increased the symbolic role of the mayoralty as a career step and an opportunity to prove one’s leadership qualities. In the local elections of 2019, several celebrities of the Turkish parliament declared their intention to run as mayor.

Furthermore, given the lack of press freedom and strong populist manipulation, municipalities afford a rare opportunity to any leader to prove that you care about people and have the capacity to respond to such daily problems as transportation, access to affordable food, even waste collection. In Turkey’s fragile economic situation, bread and butter issues matter more than identity issues. Hence, here is a key opportunity to capture the votes of the urban poor making up the voter base of the AKP.

Reclaiming democracy and social justice via the municipalities

The AKP uses autocratic measures to obstruct the opposition mayors. These depend in turn on the concentration of power in the executive organs and the instrumentalization of the judiciary.[5] The AKP’s increasing control over the judiciary, media, civil society and the deterioration of checks and balances via institutional changes have severely undermined the power of opposition.

In one year since the election, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning and the Ministry of Interior have been especially charged with drafting laws and imposing restrictions on opposition mayors. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has redoubled its energy in tackling these opposition mayors. In the last two months, opposition mayors were in a leading position to provide social aid to people and help them take precautions in public spaces. Especially in Ankara, Mayor Mansur Yavaş, and in İstanbul, Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, have implemented an agenda that helps those in need due to chronic loss of income during the pandemic. But the donation campaigns of municipalities have been blocked and the government has now set up its own campaign. The free bread and soup distribution campaigns of the municipalities have been banned and the government has closed down a field hospital opened by the opposition-run Adana Municipality.

On the other hand, Kurds, who have historically suffered from lack of representation in central government and brutal suppression, have made municipalities the centre of Kurdish political representation in the Kurdish populated South East region. Pro-Kurdish HDP run municipalities have been under attack since 2015 after the collapse of Kurdish peace process. HDP parliamentarians including the co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, many HDP mayors and thousands of party activists have been jailed. In the local elections of 31 March 2019, HDP won the overwhelming majority of Kurdish municipal offices. However, the government responded with further suppression and purges of HDP mayors. The government appointed “trustees” to some HDP-run municipalities. Mayors were accused of "spreading propaganda" or being members of a "terrorist" organization. During the pandemic, government trustees have been appointed to 5 municipalities of the HDP.

Fighting back

Despite all this pressure, opposition mayors pursue an agenda based on social and political justice. They have adopted transparency and accountability by streaming meetings of their municipal assembly and meetings for tender via online platforms. They have created a chain that supports economically vulnerable people.

But the Government’s plans could backfire if it continues to remove power from local non-AKP authorities. This could strengthen the opposition’s “victimized position” and unite supporters of the opposition parties. Also, it may compel the opposition to be more creative in its strategies for reaching voters.

Yavaş has increased his popularity with this programme based on justice and solidarity.

For instance, when their donation campaign was blocked by the government, the Mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavaş called for another campaign: asking people to visit local markets and pay the debt of their neighbourhoods or to send food to poor people. Yavaş has increased his popularity with this programme based on justice and solidarity. He has also launched a social assistance project to support the most vulnerable groups in society. The Mayor of İstanbul, İmamoğlu, for his part has launched a campaign to fund the utility bills of those in need called “bill on the hook”. As explained in the website of the municipality, this name comes from a longstanding Turkish tradition that dates back centuries, whereby a customer goes to a bakery and pays for two loaves of bread instead of one, telling the baker that the other loaf will be “on the hook” so that another person who cannot afford to pay may ask for that loaf. The municipality allows everyone to pay the unpaid bills of other citizens and heavily promotes solidarity during the crisis. Municipalities also turn themselves into intermediaries between the producer and those people in need. So, they also support local farmers who suffer from neoliberal economic policies especially during the COVID-19.

All in all, the opposition-run municipalities of Turkey and macro-level political strategies of the Turkish opposition might be setting off down a new path that pits resilience against populist authoritarianism. Just as populists create models for each other, we need countermovements that create hope and strategies for the progressives around the world, to enable justice and democracy to be reclaimed.

[1] Valerie J. Bunce, and Sharon L. Wolchik. “Defeating Dictators: Electoral Change and Stability in Competitive Authoritarian Regimes.” World Politics, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, p. 73.

[2] Ibid., p.67

[3] Chantal Mouffe. ”For a Left Populism”. London:Verso, 2018.

[4] Jan-Werner Müller. What is Populism? Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, pp.171-172.

[5] Yunus, Sözen. “Competition in a Populist Authoritarian Regime: The June 2018 Dual Elections in Turkey.” South European Society and Politics 24: 287–315. 2019.

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