Turkey’s populist politics

Erdoğan’s signature speech act is reciting poems; whereas Demirtaş excites his crowds by singing.  

Sezin Oney Emre Erdogan
6 June 2015

Demirtas with his family. During the campaign for Turkey’s first popularly elected ‘Head of the Republic’, we wrote a piece declaring the winner to be “populism”. Turkey will have parliamentary elections tomorrow on June 7 and here is an update on what has changed under this heading since last August.

We would argue that if a change is under way, it is Turkey’s transformation into a fully-fledged populist political system.

Though there is no consensus on the definition of populism, a widely accepted one is proposed by Cas Mudde “as an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general of the people”.

Populism is something more than any simple “people oriented” narrative, it is a chameleon phenomenon that tends to take the shape of the cup it is poured into, ranging from far left to far right in the political spectrum. The literature indicates that popular frustration with the status quo is one of the causes leading to a flourishing populism to flourish. In Turkey, we would argue that particular domestic reasons contribute to popular disenchantment. On the one hand, Turkey’s leadership argues that a systemic change is required for the further development of Turkey, and they mobilize all the political power they possess for strengthening the executive in this task. On the other hand, the erosion of the independence and strength of state institutions and fusion of executive, legislative and judicial powers into the ruling political party’s hands cause more popular disenchantment among the opposition.

Discontent with the current state of politics is a sentiment expressed by both the government and opposition. But, in order to overcome the objectionable  ‘status quo’, whose vision of future will triumph?

If this is the key political query, than it should come as no surprise that in the run-up towards these elections Turkey’s political scene has been engulfed by “us and them” narratives - casting the “pure and good” in a war against the “corrupt and evil” over who is to represent the general will of the people.


Demirtas at a meeting.Against this populist backdrop, charismatic leaders emit highly charged speech acts, choreographed to rally the emotions of their supporters to extremes, oozing with demeaning prose to demonize rival politicians and parties as “barriers to be got rid of” for the people’s will to triumph. This is seen as the only viable form of politics.

Polemics about such non-issues as the degree of religiosity of one leader as compared to other, and casual name tags like, “liar”, “thief”, “infidel”, “murderer” are fired off from one party rally podium to another.  Intense political polarization is artfully manufactured by the leaders’ wars of words with their own charisma as ammunition.

Officially the “Head of Republic”, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, elected in August 2014 by attracting 52% of the votes has to be “independent”, unaffiliated with political parties. However, his desire to transform the political system of Turkey to a fully presidential one has pushed him into having an excessively active role in the campaign for his “former” party Justice and Development (AKP).

Erdoğan’s desire for a presidential system is well-known since the 2000s and he also openly set it as his target in the August elections. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu backs the system change on his own parallel campaign trail, and AKP has put forward its “Presidential System” promise as a top priority, alongside a new constitution in its 2015 Election Declaration. The AKP and Erdoğan argue that the “people’s will” will be best served by a strong leader’s presidency, to fend off the whims and manipulations of internal and external enemies, and the elitist minority’s oligarchic interests that act as the collective stumbling blocks to the Turkish people’s proper representation and power.

But, an unlikely beneficiary of the last summer’s elections; Selahattin Demirtaş (co-leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), one of the three candidates, presents an alternative “us and them” rhetoric.  HDP was previously the only opposition party AKP engaged with, even if reluctantly, for the Peace Process to resolve the Kurdish Question. But, HDP’s distress with the stalemate in the Peace Process coupled with Demirtaş’s individual decision to emerge as a game changer has led to a  vanguard campaign specifically against Erdoğan, AKP and the Presidential system. This is Demirtaş’ moment to shine. It is interesting that the female co-leader of HDP, Figen Yüksekdağ, does not receive even a fraction of the media affection devoted to Demirtaş, despite the fact that the HDP has created a unique platform for co-leadership in all the positions of its party. This is the result of various factors: the ideology of the jailed PKK (armed pro-Kurdish organization) leader Abdullah Öcalan, eager to propagate the “liberation of women”; the prevalence of the human rights movement among politically repressed Kurds; and the European Union and Commission supporting “Europeanization”- and effect inter alias

But, in stark contrast to the past progress of the HDP and its much more staunchly pro-Kurdish precursor parties, which were closed down either due to court indictments or party decisions - Demirtaş’s charismatic stance receives unmatched media attention. He is much praised by political commentators, and even compared by them affectionately to Turkey’s most popular comedian Cem Yılmaz, for being “loved and liked”- as well as being branded as a “Kurdish pop-star of politics”.


Erdogan with a young supporter.In the public psyche, there seem to be two superheroes: Demirtaş and Erdoğan. Demirtaş’s fans call him lovingly by the nickname “Selocan”; and for their part, he is the “most handsome, charismatic, humane and just leader”. Alternatively, Erdoğan’s supporters have the nickname “Tall Man” and “The Master”; and in their view, he is the “most handsome, charismatic, humane and just leader”. 

Erdoğan has long been known for his speech acts, bewitching masses with lofty, emotional and domineering rhetoric. Erdoğan has also another oratorical strength, frequently claiming that “without the will of Allah, no one can succeed“, not without the implication that his success as leader has a higher purpose. Demirtaş is also devout; according to him, “One person can both be a believer of Allah, and can be a leftist, high up to Allah”. But, spiritualism aside, Erdoğan’s signature speech act is reciting poems; whereas Demirtaş excites his crowds by singing.  Erdoğan argues that he is no Sultan, but a humble servant of the people; Demirtaş claims to be the Robin Hood “taking” from the rich to give to the poor.

These charismatic leaders base their campaigns on a clear demarcation line between “Us” and “Them”; AKP’s campaign slogan is “They Talk, We Act”, whereas HDP’s is “WE!”. Both “we”s are the “people”; vaguely defined as masses with one clear and shared identity -“ordinary folk oppressed by the elite”. 

Meanwhile, two other main parties are without the same claim to leadership charisma. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) launched its economic platform promising increasing the minimum wage, decreasing price of fuel oil and doubling social aid given to poor families. The other opposition party, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) also included an increase in minimum wage, elimination of taxes on fuel and fertilizers and granting job security to public sector workers. Their leaders and rhetoric capture much less media attention and do not come anywhere near dominating the agenda as much as the Erdoğan-Demirtaş saga.

But the government has its own “charisma problem”in the shape of Prime Minister Davutoğlu who is criticized by the opposition for his lack of stardust qualities in comparison to Erdoğan. By way of riposte, Davutoğlu criticizes parties other than the AKP, together with their leaders, as precisely being too “populist”.  Turkey’s Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek has jumped on the same bandwagon, claiming that the “end result of populism is bankruptcy”.


Erdogan in a meeting.The truth is that populism is the name of the political game in Turkey, and crafted by none other than Erdoğan himself in his long quest to create a “people’s presidency”. “The End” for any populist system in Turkey is likely to come only when these same “people” have had enough of leadership stardom and charisma. But that seems a dim prospect, some years ahead, and certainly beyond tomorrow’s elections.  

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