Rethinking Populism

Gender and authoritarian populism in Turkey: the two phases of AKP rule

Unless a strong democratic left alternative appears, it will not be possible to curb and reverse the patriarchal anxieties of men.

Alev Özkazanç
3 February 2020, 2.44pm
Women spread the performance of the Chilean Las Tesis protests in a protest in Istanbul, Turkey, December 15, 2019.
Erhan Demirtas/PA. All rights reserved.
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

The case of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power in Turkey for 17 years, requires elaborate scrutiny extending beyond its populist logic and considering its articulation with other discourses such as neoliberalism, Islamism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

Such scrutiny also necessities a periodization of AKP rule which has undergone a dramatic transformation. In its first two governmental terms (2002- 2011) the AKP acted mainly as an emergent centre-right party rather than a right-wing populist one – self-designated as “conservative-democrat”. It represented the forward march of the Islamic-conservative constituencies to the centre of power without alienating most of the electorate and accommodating the demands of its constituency to the requirements of neoliberal capitalism, in the context of further democratization enabled by the EU accession process.

Then, going through a drastic period of transition between 2010-2015, the party transformed itself into a nationalist-populist party pushing the regime into electoral-authoritarianism with the imposition of a new constitution and the establishment of one party-one-man rule.

The AKP has always relied on a populist logic which has gradually come to the forefront over time. Initially, this populist narrative stayed within the confines of a long-established legacy of the Turkish centre-right, which pitched the “conservative-pious masses of Anatolia” against the “Westernist Republican bureaucratic elites” and “modernist seculars”. But in the course of events, a slippery slope from a reformist to a revolutionary polarization has developed, transforming the AKP itself in the process.

Janus-faced gender politics

“What else would women want?”

In its first phase, the Janus face of AKP rule was reflected in its gender politics. Two different and incompatible aspects of gender politics co-existed side by side. On the one hand were the policies promoting gender equality in line with the requirements of the EU accession process whereby major legal and constitutional reforms were implemented, albeit not wholeheartedly, but mostly thanks to pressure from and collaboration with a vibrant feminist movement. It should be noted that the dependence of the AKP’s “moderate” position on gender equality in the EU process rendered it flawed from the very outset. Still, when, by 2007, violence against women had risen to alarming levels, legal efforts intensified, culminating in the promulgation of n.6284 Law against Domestic Violence – a law with no tangible positive impact until now.

The “moderate” character of the period was reflected in the signing of the European Council Istanbul Convention in 2011. The Convention was the first international agreement with concrete provisions for combating violence against women. Turkey was the first signatory thanks to the contributions of the Turkish feminist movement. Yet, alongside the attempts to “keep up appearances” with regards to the EU-imposed gender equality agenda, another conflictual policy of growing islamisation of politics and of reinforcing the role of women as mothers, wives and caretakers through a family-based social welfare policy curbed the impact of the reforms.

Although its policies by no means matched the massive gender equality projects of left-populist parties in Latin America, the AKP still managed to draw extensive electoral support from women (up to 55%) – notably among conservative women and women of lower-class urban families. Compared with right populist parties in Europe, which were until recently known to be predominantly male-supported, the AKP has been more of a women`s party.

There were two pillars underpinning this appeal to women voters. One was the AKP`s support for the lifting of the ban on headscarfed women entering universities and public offices – perhaps the most contentious political issue for more than ten years. Yet, even the narratives regarding the liberation of the headscarfed women from the oppressive Republican elites were articulated mostly in terms of human rights. Moreover, the AKP`s support for women was not limited to the opening of public spaces to them. Instead, it mostly drew on organizing and mobilizing masses of women for party politics, especially at the local level.

This meant a considerable level of empowerment for most women even if they were not elevated to the upper echelons of the party. Furthermore, the most effective aspect of local politics has been the unprecedented level of social welfare assistance distributed to urban poor families through local authorities, religious foundations and pro-government NGOs. The political success of this strategy for solidifying the AKP hegemony among the urban poor and women has been well documented in the literature. Yet, there is a deeper consequence of family-based local politics which is often overlooked. As put by a female AKP local activist in Istanbul, “the AKP conveys the message to women: ‘we are going to discipline and tame your husbands and children. In our community men provide for the family, and thus the unity of the family is secured. Provision of jobs and [instilling] the fear of God (in men) powerful enough to protect you against the outside world and compassionate at home. What else would women want?”

A deeper consequence of family-based local politics… is often overlooked.

But this deal comes with a special obligation on the part of women which requires that “women should trust the party and care for the peace at home and not confront their husbands directly`. So, this was the core deal the AKP made with women: compliance with traditional gender norms, domestic obedience and political devotion in return for jobs for men, social welfare and more importantly a `civilizing effect` on men. As Deniz Kandiyoti puts this “after all, the oldest deal with patriarchal power in all its forms, [is] now being played out on a national scale with the powerful resources of paternalistic populism”.

Rise of the leader as the saviour of the people-as-nation

Beginning with the AKP`s third term in government in 2011, Turkish politics has gone through a series of major events leading to an exit from democracy under the domination of one-man authoritarianism.

In this period, the deep dynamics of polarization endemic to the political system went out of control, leading to the breakdown of an inclusive conservative-democratic discourse of government. As Murat Somer concludes, the demise of democracy was due to the “built-in perverse dynamics” of the "authoritarian spiral of polarizing-cum-transformative politics”. The transitional period between 2013-2015 was a critical turning point where AKP rule was challenged both by a growing democratic opposition as well as by the party’s partner in the power bloc (i.e. the Fethullah Gülen Community).

In the Gezi Resistance Movement in 2013 and later in the June 2015 elections where the HDP (a coalition party of the Kurdish movement and Turkish left) secured a critical electoral success which robbed the ruling party of its parliamentary majority, the AKP faced for the first time an alternative oppositional logic which signalled the early formation of a democratic-popular coalition, successfully challenging the right-populist narrative of the AKP. Confronted with the promising rise of a new constellation of opposition demanding peace and democracy, and losing its parliamentary majority in the elections in the process, the AKP reacted by ending the peace negotiations, resuming military operations in the Kurdish region and transforming the regime into full-blown authoritarianism. The pursuit of restructuring the regime combined with “existential insecurity” triggered by fluid geopolitics and the attempted coup d'état in 2016 by the Gülen community led to Turkey`s descent into authoritarianism.

The leader was no longer the representative of the national underdog against the elites but the saviour of the nation against the non-national alien `terrorist` forces.

The current full-fledged authoritarianism cannot be explained only in terms of a populist logic. Following the distinction suggested by Benjamin de Cleen between a populist (down/up antagonism) and a nationalist logic (in/out opposition), I suggest that the populist logic of AKP has been articulated with reference to a more dominant ultra-nationalist, nativist and authoritarian narrative of “people-as-nation” vs “non-national internal and external enemies”.

Admittedly, a populist narrative of the AKP as representing “the oppressed”, “the underdog” and “the victimized” has always been there. But gradually this populist polarization has turned into an exclusionary nationalist-populist dichotomy of inside vs outside. Hence, the leader was no longer the representative of the national underdog against the elites but the saviour of the nation against the non-national alien `terrorist` forces.

Thus, there has been a dramatic shift to a narrative of people-as-nation, whereby the whole nation has been constituted as oppressed by external elites and their non-national local collaborators – which has practically meant the whole opposition in the country (i.e. 50% of voters).

Pious women vs. the women in red

“they attacked my covered sister”

Gender politics has played a critical role in this transition to authoritarianism. The Gezi Resistance and HDP politics triggered an authoritarian response on many levels, including hetero-patriarchal fears and anxieties. Massive protests in Gezi in 2013 showed the visibility and proved the vitality of the women’s and LGBT movements. As a response to Gezi, Erdogan not only resorted to the narrative of the nation as threatened by external powers but also to a more specifically Islamic-populist rhetoric revealing alarmist gendered fantasies.

When an AKP-affiliated covered woman falsely alleged to have been attacked by Gezi protestors because of her headscarf – “insulted, kicked and pissed on by 100 men half-naked wearing leather gloves and black bandanas” – Erdogan and his followers in the media used this provocative allegation to vilify the protestors. Addressing a massive crowd in a meeting after the events he said, “They dragged my covered sister on the streets near my office and attacked her and her child”. He also contrasted the impious acts of the Gezi crowd with “his covered sisters who never resorted to rebellious acts despite being treated as outcasts, not being allowed into the universities. They showed patience knowing that patience brings salvation”.

This fantastic narrative around wild men attacking an innocent pious woman was a reflection of the anxieties triggered by one of the most iconic images symbolizing the Gezi Resistance: the real picture of a young woman in red who is standing resolutely despite the tear gas sprayed on her by the police during the first days of the Gezi protests. In the coming years, as women increasingly challenged the normative ideal of a modest, pious, and dutiful woman promoted by the AKP, the masculine reaction would come to the fore.

Women at the junction of Islamism, populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism

With the assertion of naked power politics after 2015, gender politics was reshaped within the complex matrix of religious-nativist nationalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, militarism, and authoritarianism. Since then, multiple political logics with different genealogies have combined to reinforce patriarchal politics. The government's efforts to redesign the family and education policies along religious lines, the erosion of legal and institutional advances and the surveillance of women`s bodies and sexuality has meant the end of the earlier moderate attitude on gender equality, however flawed.

Some government supporters started to advocate the overtly Islamic regulation of family law. Motherhood was elevated, not only in religious terms but also as a national duty to procreate so that external powers would be unable to prevent Turkey from becoming a big nation. As familism replaced gender equality, the women’s movements, LGBT people and their organizations have been repressed by the state. A gendered state of emergency regime most fiercely attacked the Kurdish Women`s Movement, leaving its local organizations devastated, activists and PM`s arrested and even harassed in parliament.

AKP discourse has combined multiple logics such as Islamism, populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism to produce a highly gendered divide between “us” and “them”.

AKP discourse has combined multiple logics such as Islamism, populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism to produce a highly gendered divide between “us” and “them”. In Islamist discourse, we see that the divide is between the “veiled, modest, chaste, virtuous, obedient sisters and mothers” and “the sexually assertive, the unchaste, the rebellious” – as in the words of a top government official, “women shamelessly laughing in public. The epitome is the feminists who are `sexually immoral` and fighting against the policy of promoting early marriage,thus seen as defending adultery and destroying the family. The nationalist narrative, on the other hand, works on several sub-texts all of which are intermixed to produce a neat dichotomy of “the native-national” vs “alien-traitors”, “internal enemies linked with external powers”.

Foremost, here comes the pitting of the figure of the Anatolian mother, “the mother of a martyr” against women who are deemed to be terrorists or affiliated with terrorism, i.e. Kurdish women guerrillas, female members of HDP in the parliament, the Kurdish women`s movement, mothers of disappeared people asking for justice, (“Saturday Mothers”) and the feminist activists who are fighting for peace.

Secondly there is the image of the `family mother` figure who is willing to sacrifice everything for her family and nation, basically by giving birth to at least 3 children as dictated by Erdogan, constructed against the image of feminist women who are fighting for reproductive rights and gender equality. While the “family woman” is seen as a native-national, the feminist is being coded as foreign-guided and alien.

All these dichotomies are further intermeshed with a populist divide between the people and the elite. Thus, the modest and pious mother-sister is prototypically portrayed as an uneducated and poor woman from a small Anatolian town or from an urban poor family, pitted against an educated, middle-upper class secular woman, who “despises native people`s values” in her manners and outfit. She is typically caricatured as a woman from Izmir (the most westernized city with a much-secularized culture deemed as “infidel”) who is also an ardent supporter of CHP – the main opposition party.

Lastly, the figure of an LGBT person is increasingly constructed as someone whose existence is deemed not only alien or non-native, but a threat to humanity, civilization, and the order of God.

The crisis symptoms of patriarchal authoritarianism

youngsters are not getting married anymore”

A masculine show of power epitomized in a one-man regime has never been without its serious tensions, and it rapidly started to display symptoms of crisis that have surfaced especially after 2019 local elections when the AKP-MHP alliance lost the municipal and province level elections in major cities, foremost in Istanbul.

Nowadays, the AKP regime is facing strife and trouble on many fronts, including its gender politics among others. Even in the darkest moments during the State of Emergency (2016-2018) on many occasions, the women`s movement showed resilience and said “No to the Presidency and Patriarchy”. Women thereby managed to prevent further setbacks regarding issues such as violence against women, early marriages and divorce regulations. The government`s attempt to reverse the growing secular dynamics of Turkish society (including within the conservative urban classes), and particularly the assertion of women’s and young people`s desires to live their own lives were doomed to failure. But, as the persistent assertion of women`s rights both in the domestic and public realms becomes more and more intractable, it triggers more violent and misogynist reaction on the part of men.

As the persistent assertion of women`s rights both in the domestic and public realms becomes more and more intractable, it triggers more violent and misogynist reaction on the part of men.

Thus, violence against women, particularly domestic violence, femicide and child abuse, has become a chronic problem in the last 20 years. As I have argued elsewhere, the implosion of the family (in the form of femicide and child sexual abuse and expressed in the recent increase in family suicides) is signifying the crisis of patriarchal masculinity as well as of neoliberal-authoritarianism. Or even, as described by Deniz Kandiyoti, “soaring levels of gender-based and societal violence… not indicative of a securely entrenched patriarchy but of a crisis in the gender order and the polity more generally”. What Kandiyoti calls a ‘masculinist restoration’ comes into play as a reaction to patriarchy`s threatened demise.

A further indicator of the conflictual character of gender politics is the recent emergence of an anti-gender mobilization whereby men`s rights activists start to mobilize around a narrative of male victimization over matrimony payments, child custody, as well as protesting against the 6284 Law and Istanbul Convention. Their anti-gender narratives are replete with homophobic and misogynistic tropes. It seems that the new regime has created a monster that is now challenging its creator. Thus, some pro-government islamist writers dare to condemn even Erdogan`s daughter and her KADEM (Women and Democracy Association, a government-affiliated NGO) for still committing to a kind of gender equality perspective and for running EU-funded projects. Interestingly Erdogan`s wife, Emine Erdogan, recently declared her support for the Istanbul Convention, signalling further tensions ahead.

Attempts to encourage early marriages and the imposition of the three-children-policy have also proved futile. Statistics clearly show that the marriage age is rapidly going up and the natality rates are drastically decreasing. Not surprisingly, Erdogan recently acknowledged and condemned the trends saying "our youngsters are getting married late or even not getting married at all. Extra-marital life is being encouraged by the media. We need to fight together against the great danger. I want at least 3 children because a strong nation is made up of strong families. The solution to many problems including violence against women is to strengthen the family… They implemented sterilization politics long-term. Some Western countries will die out for this reason".

As an immediate reaction to his public statement, many young people posted their views with the #Iamnotgettingmarriedbecause which become TT on Twitter. While most of them mentioned unemployment (a youth unemployment rate reaching 27%) and the high cost of living as the main reason, others shared concerns over education, domestic violence, not wanting to have children and the difficulties of married life. One popular post was quoting the advice of a famous historian to young people "instead of getting married early to wander around to buy home furniture, wander around the world".

On this occasion, we saw that family-based gender politics, as well as oppressive and authoritarian politics, are being confronted on many fronts, mostly by women and young people who are becoming more open to the outside world and insisting on their secular lifestyles and individuality. The AKP has never secured much electoral backing from the youth, but it seems that it is becoming even more alienated from them.

''Don't stop the women, stop the femicides'' – Istanbul protest, December 15, 2019.
''Don't stop the women, stop the femicides'' – Istanbul protest, December 15, 2019.
Erhan Demirtas/PA. All rights reserved.

What next?

You are the rapist”

In December 2019, when a group of feminist women in Istanbul attempted to perform the viral song and dance protest created by Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis, they were faced with police intervention. But this only led to its going viral including women MP`s staging it in the parliament. The song contained references to the Police, Judges, the President, the State and called out “You are the rapist” and “The Oppressive state is a male rapist.” The Minister of Internal Affairs was quick to condemn them as “aiming to undermine the state under the guise of protesting violence against women”.

Now, it seems that we have reached a point when the oppressive state and resisting women and youth will be confronting each other on all fronts, with authoritarianism having more and more difficulty in sustaining itself. So, there are reasons for being hopeful for the future. But two critical questions remain: the lasting appeal of the AKP to urban poor housewives and the emergent men`s movement.

As for the first item, we can hope that it will not take too long before the local bargain begins to collapse as women realize that their children cannot be “disciplined and tamed” by an authoritarian regime which promises no prospect for the future. Also, the deepening economic crisis signals the end of the welfarist bargain. Still, only a democratic left alternative that promises gender equality, justice and social welfare to the people would attract their support. In short, unless a strong democratic left alternative appears, it will not be possible to curb and reverse the patriarchal anxieties of men.


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