Naming the political game in Turkey: populism

Turkey elected its first president through direct suffrage; so what can we expect now? It is populism that is increasingly in charge of Turkey's politics -  not any one person.

Sezin Oney Emre Erdogan
19 August 2014

Supporters celebrate presidential victory of Erdogan in Turkey. Demotix/Ahmed Deeb. All rights reserved.

The big day is tomorrow”.

A full-page advertisement, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's face in the foreground, flashed this statement in bold typography, the day before Turkey's presidential elections on August 10. The background to the ad was ‘turquoise’, the colour that Erdoğan had chosen for ceremonial carpeting, replacing diplomatically traditional ‘red carpets’. In opting for these, government circles quoted by the press reasoned that “red carpets symbolized elitism; and turquoise, instead happened to be the color of Turkey, the color of people”. Changing the ceremonial colours was one of the symbolic acts that signified the perception of a “New Turkey” championed by Erdoğan and his party, Justice and Development (AKP).  

On the ‘big day’, Erdoğan became the winner with a slight majority: 51.9% of valid votes, where voting turnout was only at 74%, the lowest score during AKP rule. İhsanoğlu, the candidate of two major opposition parties, the centre-left People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and other smaller parties supporting their coalition received about 39%. Meanwhile Demirtaş, the candidate of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), supported by some left wing parties, procured 9.7% of the votes.

Already the day after the big day, analysts began to point out that it would in fact be the 2015 parliamentary elections that would be the ‘turning point’ for Turkey.  Before voting for presidential candidates, the local elections on 31 March were also branded as the ‘decisive vote’ determining Turkey’s political future.

So with two electoral ‘turning points’ and another imminent in the new year; we are entitled to ask where  Turkey is heading. Is Turkey moving towards authoritarianism, is it becoming a dictatorship, or is the vision of “New Turkey” vision of Erdoğan and his supporters herald a more democratic and prosperous country?

The agent or the structure?

Analyses of Turkey’s politics generally focus on Erdoğan as the key actor.  This veteran politician, dominating domestic politics, and also the international politics of the surrounding area of Turkey became well-known, with the ‘name only’ rendering any introductory titles like ‘Prime Minister of Turkey’ or ‘the President of Turkey’ meaningless. His big dream was to become the ‘head of the public’, and he made it explicit in the recent electoral campaign that if elected for the post, he will be opting for a system change; towards a fully-presidential system.

As Erdoğan has gained more and more power, finally scooping the prized post of the presidency, a major shift has indeed taken place in Turkey’s politics. Some have identified the nature of the change as escalating ‘conservatism’, yet others argue that it is ‘nationalism’, or even ‘neo-Ottomanism’. We argue that what has become the dominant feature in Turkish politics in the course of the last decade, is “populism” with its increasing emphasis on the “people’s rule”.

The mercurial character of populism is hard for academics to pin down. Is it an ideology, doctrine or a mindset? Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, France's Marine Le Pen are all referred to as contemporary ‘populist’ leaders. Greece is said to have two polar opposites in the populist spectrum; left-populist SYRIZA and extreme-right Golden Dawn. Historical cases are as at least as chameleon-like; Argentina's Juan Perón, Brazil's Getúlio Vargas are cited as ‘populist’, throwing their names in the same bundle with the US's People's Party of the late nineteenth century.

Ernest Gellner concluded that, “Everyone is talking about populism, but no one can define it”. Yet there is more of an academic consensus over its symptoms. An over-reliance on the binary opposition of “us vs them”, “elite vs the people”, “good vs the evil”, and catchy but hollow statements characterize populist rhetoric. Let us take up the definition of political scientist Cas Mudde:

 “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

Based on this definition, Turkey's politics on the eve of the presidential elections oozed with populism. By and large, Erdoğan and Demirtaş are referred to as the ‘winners’ of the election, while İhsanoğlu is designated a ‘loser’ by political commentators, here and here. Erdoğan is the obvious winner of votes with the majority of the votes, and Demirtaş attracted public attention through social and traditional media channels by raising his party’s votes by 2-3% compared to previous elections. But they share another commonality which goes totally unobserved; both of them are self-styled, populist leaders. Their perceived and actual “success” owes a lot to ‘populism’.

Erdoğan and Demirtaş were the most media-savvy candidates of the campaign; specifically because their charisma transfixed media attention. True enough, Erdoğan is criticized for dominating the mainstream media through state takeovers and pace-giving to ‘sympathetic journalists’ through personal pressure. He is accused of creating a ‘pro-Erdoğan’ media,using strategies that combine the styles of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It should be noted that in almost all Erdoğan’s campaign rallies his keynote speeches were televised live. Moreover, the state media outlets of TRT favoured Erdoğan and AKP; omitting the other candidates altogether. According to a recent study of the campaign period, TV channels allocated more than 2,674 hours to Erdoğan, 707 hours to İhsanoğlu and only 466 hours to Demirtaş. On the other hand, Erdoğan’s advertisements broadcast 6340 times, as against 977 broadcasts of İhsanoğlu and 166 of Demirtaş. Having said this, Erdoğan's own touch of stardust as a political actor also galvanises media attention; amplifying the effect of the monopoly. In other words, Erdoğan might be working for exclusive coverage at the expense of the opposition; but he also has the skill to attract media attention and keep the eyes of the public glued to him.

Demirtaş, alternatively, has a strong and unified party base with very active participation on the part of campaigning HDP youth members. Left-wing journalists also gave a helping hand, designing a robust media campaign especially focusing on social media and TV; although their financial resources were very limited compared to those of Erdoğan.

Means aside, the key to media success of both Erdoğan and Demirtaş was their very populist and leader-oriented narrative. Both come from deprived backgrounds, and both have been especially keen to emphasize their ‘simple folk’ derivation. İhsanoğlu, who has a somewhat .aristocratic lineage in the Ottoman elite had to craft his ‘humbleness’ by making “bread” his campaign symbol. But, he had a hard time trying to get a foot in edgeways between Erdoğan and Demirtaş when it came to their rivalry over embodying “the people's man”. The latter have become so much the charismatic leaders of their respective parties that it is almost as if their persona was ‘the Party’ during the election campaign.

‘We, the people’ vs ‘the corrupt elite’ narrative

While Erdoğan and Demirtaş both excel in creating ‘charismatic leadership’, all three candidates had strong constructions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. All three, also including İhsanoğlu, contended that they were ‘true and sincere representative of the people’ and that they were crusading against a ‘corrupt elite’.

In Erdoğan's case, the ‘bad’ is coined as ‘old Turkey’, which includes all his rivals. Specifically in this presidential elections, Erdoğan positioned himself as the candidate of “the People” against the candidates of the “State” in the presidential campaign.  His main slogan - very similar to that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as related by Daron Acemoğlu and Robinson - was very simple and assertive, “National Power, National  Will”.

Beyond these elections in the Erdoğan lexicon “the nation” and “the people” meaning “We” has come to rest on two key cleavages: ‘Enemies of Turkey vs Turks’ and ‘Elites vs Ordinary People’.

Who are the “Others” versus “Us” in Erdoğan's conceptualization? Here is a comprehensive list:

- Nationalists forming the natural constituency of the MHP

- Kurds who do not support AKP, sympathizing with HDP

- Alevis of Turkey generally favouring CHP (Alevi constitute a Muslim community, traditionally oppressed by the Sunni majority throughout the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s history)

- The secularists who feel that their life-styles are threatened by Islamists.

And depending on the international agenda, “Jews”, “Armenians”, “Christians”, “Westerners”, “Europeans”, “Americans”, “Israelis”, “Egyptian coup plotters” also take their turn in being demonized as the ‘undesirable’ or ‘evil others’.

Facing all these “problem groups”, Erdoğan presents himself as the advocate of the lower and previously “excluded” segments of society during the first 80 years of the republic, before he stepped onto the scene. The poor, conservative, deprived majority of the population, exploited by the elites, are natural allies of Erdoğan, according to his rhetoric. The nouveau riche of the economic boom times, those who have climbed up the class ladder using the new business opportunities available since the early 2000s are also among Erdoğan’s “us”.

Erdoğan argues that the excluded ones are “prevented” from becoming the upper crust of the society, due to the jealous greed and discriminatory practises of the “old elite”. Erdoğan contests that he is the “humble servant” of the “people”, the “pure” and “traditional” majority of Anatolia. Access to social services and public infrastructure (such as healthcare, transport services like trains, highways) are presented as symbol of Erdoğan’s “service to the people”. For example, 10 out of 25 outdoor banners of Erdoğan’s campaign were about these services of the AKP governments, and 10 were about ordinary people supporting Erdoğan.

Counter-populism as an antidote to Erdoğan?

Demirtaş was positioned as the polar opposite of Erdoğan in the political spectrum in the presidential elections. He presented himself as the deprived outcast in the neighbourhood, dedicated to fighting for “our” freedom. Demirtaş was a figure on the landscape before the presidential elections; but he did not attract much media attention even though he is the leader of the pro-Kurdish party HDP. However, for the first time in this election campaign, he suggested that he was the “vox populi” not only of the Kurds, but of all those who are “suppressed” and “repressed”, ranging from “women” to LGBTI to the Armenian minority. Since the rhetoric of “serving the people” is the preserve of Erdoğan; Demirtaş’s populism remained confined to “saving the people” against the “elite” and the state. He tried to align himself and his movement with every element of the “excluded”.

For Demirtaş, statements such as, “People will become the President, not myself” struck a chord in the social media. At other instances, he also twitted that he has trouble paying his credit card bills. Elsewhere, this would have been taken as a “personal failure”, opening for debate his capabilities as a political leader. But, in Turkey, where 380,000 people struggle with credit cards or bank debts, there seem to be a lot of people identifying with Demirtaş’s statement. Ironically, Demirtaş made the single declaration that embodied the character of the presidential elections; “Think of a president; in fact, do not think too much…”. He meant to imply that he was the obvious candidate, necessitating no further thinking. But, without intending this, he managed to hint at the increasingly populist nature of the political game in Turkey. 

“No country for nerdy men”

If Demirtaş made the signature statement of the campaign by saying “But do not think too much…” , İhsanoğlu provided a very apt “closing sentence” once results were announced. He said, “My words are finished, I am very glad that this is over”.  Indeed, İhsanoğlu was bound to lose the populist game, relying on performative speech alone. As a professor of Islamic science and the former Secretary General of the Islamic Conference Organization, he stood completely at odds with this ‘humble but tough guy’ game. He was criticized mainly because he did not give impression of a ‘people's man’, but instead a high brow, bookish mon cher.

Mon cher” is how Erdoğan sarcastically refers to diplomats, alleging that they have a French affectation as in the Ottoman times. İhsanoğlu had tried to mingle with ‘the people’ as much as possible during his campaign, breaking the fast with ‘people’ during Ramadan, and tweeting back to even the most minute message from ‘the people’. He liked to be seen calmly conversing with those who argued with him on the street. And in a clean break with his academic past, he did not produce a single page of written documentation about his vision for the presidency. 

A significant characteristic of the first Turkish presidential race was the total lack of written statements, further evidence of the ‘Populist Zeitgeist’. In our earlier work, we put together a short analysis of the candidates’ websites. To summarize: Erdoğan's campaign website (with the address the Turkish version of "nation's man.com") designed as an outlet for his supporters, also included an 88-page vision-strategy. This document was a mixture of a list of promises for “democratic, prosperous and pioneering Turkey” and another list of his successes in performance in infrastructure, education and health issues as a clue for his future performance as the president. The current constitution of Turkey doesn’t give executive power to the President for building bridges. However Erdoğan is very clear about his ambitions to push for a more active presidency and even a systemic change, for fully presidential powers, without putting them in his manifesto.

Demirtaş’s vision is presented in a 54-page, "New Life Document", designed as a brochure, presenting only one sentence and a photograph of the candidate on each page with a very attractive visual presence. A summary of these statements is very simple and easy to remember: “Freedom for all” - but there is no clue there about how to reach this very difficult target.

In the final analysis, the game of populism might be thin on the ideological side, but it acts as an ‘Iron Curtain’ diverting public attention from Turkey’s true socio-economic problems. And it will be here to stay as the election’s real winner. 

What’s next for Turkey?

In the coming months, Turkey’s political system will be experiencing fundamental changes, as Erdoğan will seek ways to remodel the parliamentarian system into a fully presidential one. The perils of presidentialism will be coupled with the perils of populism: polarizing political campaigns, a divided society and even more unaccountable political structures favouring the politically powerful.

Erdoğan's party has been picked out as a role model for the young and potential democracies of the Arab Spring. Erdoğan indeed created a model; but as it turns out, Erdoğan is modelling a “populist leadership”. Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, often referred to as a ‘populist’ himself, recently noticed. Declaring the era of “liberal democracy” over, he cited Turkey as a “model”.

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