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The Turkish election as a warning against the irresistible charms of populism

We urgently need a constructive and open dialogue between different strands of thought within the populism theoretical oeuvre, if we are to develop progressive political strategies.

lead lead lead Donald J. Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Brussels, Belgium - 11 Jul 2018. Robin Utrecht/Press Association. All rights reserved.

RETHINKING POPULISM.; At a time when new political actors are mounting electoral and increasingly systemic challenges to contemporary democracies in the name of the people, there is little consensus in what the phenomenon is among academics, political activists and citizens alike. openDemocracy has been featuring articles on populist phenomena for some years (Mudde, Rovira Kaltwasser, Mouffe, Marlière, Pappas, Skodo, Sofos, Stavrakakis and Katsambekis, Gerbaudo, Gandesha, Tamás to name but a few) and has been successful in stimulating a recurring interest. But despite or perhaps because of the extensive and thought-provoking research on populism, the term has come to denote a range of widely diverse phenomena.

Our aim is to bring together voices that don’t often interact, either because they belong to different fields of work, or as a result of geographical distance, to contribute to a vigorous and constructive debate and the cross-fertilization of different strands within the populism theoretical oeuvre. This is not only in pursuit of theoretical and conceptual clarity, but it is also an issue of practical urgency if we are to develop effective, progressive political strategies. 

In his article discussing the Turkish presidential and parliamentary election of 24 June, Omer Tekdemir provides an interesting evaluation of the positions and discourse of the three major contenders; the ‘left-leaning populist’ – as he characterizes it – ‘Peoples’ Democracy Party’ (HDP), the Kemalist secular populist ‘Republican Peoples’ Party’ (CHP) and the right-wing conservative populist, ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP). Identifying a number of qualitative differences between the contenders, Tekdemir does not hesitate to call them all populist.

This constitutes a thought-provoking contribution to the relevant debate, worth engaging with for a number of reasons. First, it prompts us to think the very complex case of Turkey, a society with a long tradition of extraparliamentary governance (i.e. army interventions, tutelary restrictions to democratic governance), usually legitimized through appeals to a transcendental national will and unity, using the lens of the theory(ies) of populism, at a critical juncture when so-called populist parties and leaders seem to be setting the tune of political developments worldwide.

Second, it implicitly, yet clearly, suggests that in such a society an effective challenge to the hegemony of the ‘conservative populist’ AKP and its leader can be mounted through a progressive populist response. And – although in passing – it recognizes in the attempt of Jeremy Corbyn to reconfigure Labour and progressive politics in the UK a similar radical democratic populist agenda, a potential blueprint for a democratizing populism of the left.

Drawing on a rich theoretical tradition, namely the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on radical democracy, Tekdemir adopts a version of ‘[t]he discursive hegemonic approach of Laclau [that] identifies populism as something that constructs the political in terms of the people (the underdog) versus elites (the establishment)’, hastening to add that, of course, populism ‘can either further or frustrate democratic ends’. However, as my own understanding of populism largely draws (eclectically) on the same theoretical tradition, I believe we can go further in doing justice to the richness and complexity of Laclau’s argument in its application to the example of Turkey. Moreover, my aim in this discussion is to take up the challenge of Tekdemir’s argument as an opportunity to think aloud about the state of our engagement with populism not only as academics, but also as activists and citizens.     

Tekdemir’s argument

Premised on a discussion of the contenders’ discursive strategies, Tekdemir is not alone in suggesting that all three have adopted a populist discourse. Emre Erdoğan, Tuğçe Erçetin and Jan Philipp Thomeczek also point out the prevalence of a populist rhetoric as far as the aforementioned parties and their leaderships are concerned. And like them, Tekdemir argues that the AKP discourse displays exclusionary themes, as opposed to the discourses of its rivals, and identifies a number of interesting qualitative differences between the contenders.

Drawing on the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, he argues, for example, that the HDP’s populist discourse is qualitatively different from that of its political adversaries as it ‘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’, expressing ‘the demands of diverse groups … in an inclusive left-wing populism’. He contrasts this sub-genre of populism, to the more conservative and authoritarian one of the AKP that employed the discourse of ‘the People’ against the Kemalist status quo, before giving it later a more religious, and recently a nationalist emphasis. Tekdemir juxtaposes this brand of populism to what he intriguingly calls ‘the humanitarian populist leadership’ of CHP candidate, Muharrem İnce that, in his opinion, represents a ‘successful social democratic populism’ although, unfortunately, he does not elaborate on this ‘populist’ current.

Complicating the situation, to his distinction between the populisms of the AKP, CHP and HDP, Tekdemir adds a further example, that of the Gezi protest movement which he paradoxically defines as ‘an irregular, populist social movement [that] rejected the existing representative democracy … as the mass of ordinary people … were not represented by the elitist centre-right and centre-left parties’.

Despite the nuanced character of these interventions, Tekdemir’s, as well as, to a lesser extent, Erdoğan, Erçetin and Thomeczek’s discussion referred to above, seem to identify virtually every expression of collective action in Turkish politics as populist. Why is that? Is populism endemic in Turkish politics? Does it constitute a dominant trope of articulating interests, demands, fears and aspirations? One would argue both yes and no depending on one’s definition of populism and, indeed, there are many available to choose from.

To be fair, Tekdemir hints at more elements of a definition that are worth considering – and these provide very interesting signposts for a debate on populism. He identifies the centrality of the notion of equivalence, a notion that is often used rather descriptively without consideration of its implications for the way political identities work; he interestingly implies that Erdoğan, İnce and Demirtaş, the imprisoned co-chair of the HDP, are all ‘in some sense’ unequivocally charismatic, or at least ‘charming’, although he leaves the reader in suspense as to the location and role, if any at all, of charisma in his theoretical toolkit. In this respect, his fourth example, Gezi, must fail to qualify, given the lack of a clearly identifiable leadership that could display such charms. So again, we need to refine our terms. Finally, the article points out the indeed interesting ambiguity between the CHP’s institutional/vertical politics and the ‘individual/horizontal populist’ style of leadership of its presidential candidate, Muharrem İnce – a discrepancy that also begs for further discussion on the relationship of organizations and leaderships and their respective discursive logics, as well as the roles of mediation and representation in populist politics.

Turkey is indeed a challenging case that can lure researchers to the appeal of a minimal (as proposed by Cas Mudde) understanding of populism, but also to the comfort of a conceptual/terminological laxity, I would argue, that deprives the concept of the critical edge and the political utility that it should, in my opinion, have. If, following Ben Stanley as well as Mudde, we accept that populism is in practice a complementary ideology, one that 'does not so much overlap with, as diffuse itself throughout full [sic] ideologies’, we may end up with a theoretical framework that renders any reference to the people as part of a binary understanding of the political sufficient to qualify as populist. But what would happen if we were to probe a little more rigorously into the modalities of the construction of ‘the people’ and then discuss which of these may justifiably make sense being labeled ‘populist’ ?

What is more, in a system where the election of an executive president relies on securing the support of an absolute majority of the electorate, candidates are compelled to forge coalitions that will bring together diverse political constituencies and to develop a language and a logic that will ensure the coherence and durability of the latter. This can be a populist language that will reproduce antagonistic understandings of the political field, where adversaries are seen as enemies with irreconcilable and mutually incompatible interests, and that will privilege, as Mudde argues ‘the people’ as the incarnation of a general will – and, I would add, a concomitant notion of collective, as opposed to particularistic or individual, rights and interests.

On the other hand, alternative popular, yet not populist discourses can deploy a language that recognizes ‘the popular’ as diverse, compatible with the existence of particularistic interests, the product of continual processes of construction of shared horizons and solidarities where the ‘other’ is a mere adversary. In this case, I would argue – and of course this is open to debate, thin definitions of populism like the one identified above, in the first case, serve as labels with insufficient conceptual depth or political utility.

To return to the examples used by Tekdemir, whereas the AKP/MHP ‘People’s Coalition’ advocates without any inhibition a host of punitive administrative, judicial and extra-institutional measures to effectively destroy, symbolically and/or physically, anyone who contradicts the ‘national will’ and brands ‘others’ as terrorists and enemies (purges and vilification already intensifying a few days after the election), I have difficulty considering as similarly populist the more pluralistic discourse of the HDP. Indeed the latter is largely devoid of the conspiratorial, phobic elements of the discourse of the ‘People’s Coalition’ that prioritizes and validates national unity and homogeneity (premised on ethnicity or religion) at the expense of particularistic and individual rights.

The same can be argued about the unity, or rather solidarity, encapsulated in the so-called Gezi spirit. Indeed, the latter was definitely not perceived in timeless and transcendental terms but was understood and experienced as something akin to what Ernest Renan called a daily plebiscite, a tense yet creative coexistence continually tested and reaffirmed and premised on respect for difference. As I have argued elsewhere, Gezi was a fluid and multifaceted movement/moment characterized by a multicentric culture of contestation, a shared and constantly and openly negotiated universe of discourse and action.

This does not of course deny the thread that provided some degree of coherence through this polyphonic universe, the interaction and formation of shared frameworks that make the diversity of the experiences of protesting participants intelligible and relevant to individuals and groups that would otherwise be ‘relative strangers’. Indeed, the symbolic and material violence exercised by the government largely shaped the attitudes, perceptions and actions of those protestors and provided the raw material for the construction of shared injustice frames and a clear divide between the protesters and the regime.

But, having said that, the distinctive quality of this – momentary – achieved togetherness cannot justify subsuming Gezi in the same political subspecies of populism as the AKP/MHP coalition or even that of the CHP/İYİ/Saadet Parti. My skepticism regarding such a line of argumentation extends considerably beyond the actual case of Gezi. It relates to the need to develop theoretically and historically informed definitions that can allow us to explore critically the phenomenon of populism in an array of societies beyond Turkey. Tekdemir himself points out that Gezi has been compared to the anti-austerity mobilizations, the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, all different instances of collective action, in different contexts but bearing some similarities worth considering.

The Turkish case with its prolonged transition from Kemalism to a post-Kemalist era, with multiple elections impacting on political discourse, with the frequent recourse of political actors to extra-institutional legitimation, with a cult of messianic leadership and the primacy of the collective rights of the nation embedded in its political culture provides a fertile ground both for the study but also for the misrecognition of populism. Tekdemir’s approach, in my opinion, therefore opens up an interesting discussion on the utility of our current theoretical toolkit, its utility and its limitations.

Re-thinking populism: a tentative agenda

We are clearly at an important juncture, both theoretically and politically. There is broad consensus on some of the characteristics of populism as most theorists understand it nowadays. This relates to the minimal definition as proposed by key contributors in the debate such as Mudde who see populism as more or less a ‘thin ideology that considers society to be essentially divided between two antagonistic and homogeneous groups, the pure people and the corrupt elite, and wants politics to reflect the general will of the people’.

This allows the researcher to recognize populist traits in diverse movements and types of mobilization, and even potentially classify grassroots (or square) movements such as Gezi as populist. Such an approach recognizes a political Zeitgeist increasingly characteristic of the current conjuncture. It also implies that the success story of populist mobilizations need not be exclusively a property of authoritarian or conservative leaderships but can be emulated by the left as long as the popular is defined in progressive, democratic terms. This is something implicit in another important current in the study of populism epitomized in the work of Chantal Mouffe whose latest book, For a Left Populism has just been released. Drawing on Laclau’s earlier work on populism as well as their work on radical democracy, Mouffe argues in favour of a qualitatively different populism that will be best placed to counter and challenge reactionary, xenophobic versions of populism as well as inherently undemocratic, neoliberal technocratic political modes of governance, suggesting that populism ‘is not an ideology or a political regime, and cannot be attributed to a specific programmatic content. It is compatible with different forms of government. It is a way of doing politics which can take various forms, depending on the periods and the places. It emerges when one aims at building a new subject of collective action – the people – capable of reconfiguring a social order lived as unfair’.

My own skepticism lies in the fact that both dominant trends in the current discussion on populism, despite their distinct significant contributions, privilege form over content. It is sufficient for any of those adhering to their definitions to ‘cry populism’ as soon as a political actor adopts a rhetoric that distinguishes the pure people (incarnating a general will) from the corrupt elites. Yet, one could wonder, is this ‘thin ideology’ trope sufficient to make sense of populism? Is populism just an aggregate of beliefs in the goodness of the people, the corruption of the elites and the sanctity of the general will? Is it only tantamount to the deployment of a rhetoric that reflects that? Mudde himself is clear. Different populists and different populisms adopt different styles of government and different policies, so there is no use looking further afield from whatever fulfils his minimal definition. And Mouffe’s point about the centrality of discursively ‘reconfiguring a social order lived as unfair’ does not do justice to the different ways in which subjects of collective action can be imagined and constructed.

A similar understanding of ‘populism as discourse’ or ‘rhetoric’ is also suggested by Ruth Wodak. However she hastens to stress that the term, as she uses it, refers to a rhetoric of exclusion and what I would call the discursive construction of fear, mainly characteristic of the politics of right-wing populist parties that endorse nationalistic, nativist, and chauvinistic beliefs, embedded – explicitly or coded – in common sense appeals to a presupposed shared knowledge of ‘the people’. Despite certain reservations which I will outline in the remainder of this note, I tend to find more mileage in this latter approach as it allows us to construct a more rigorous definition of populism that does not exhaust itself in the realm of rhetoric but probes into the material dimensions of discourse – exclusion and the processes of construction of societal insecurity.

Taking my cue from Tekdemir’s attempt to make sense of the complex terrain of Turkish politics at a period of intense polarization, and from the different theoretical propositions sketched above, I am suggesting that despite the fact that we are witnessing the emergence of a populist Zeitgeist worldwide, we run the danger of developing conceptual and operational definitions of populism that do not meet the theoretical challenges of the phenomenon or the political exigencies of our time.

Yet there are sufficient commonalities in what appears to be a cacophonic universe made up by exclusivist movements and parties that construct definitions of the situation along phobic lines, to compel us to develop a deeper theory and a more clearly demarcated concept of populism. This would allow us to draw a clear line between populist politics and a ‘skin-deep’ rhetoric that is inspired by the emergence and relative success of populist movements as in the case of the adoption of some aspects of populist discourse by mainstream political parties as I have suggested elsewhere.

There is no doubt of the utility of the existing theoretical frameworks. What we need however is a rigorous and constructive debate on how we can develop an understanding of populism that has a critical edge and a conceptual definition that adequately situates the latter vis a vis other concepts and conceptual frameworks.

As already mentioned, the binary modality of constructing the people v its ‘Other’ is more or less universally accepted within the debate. Where there is no clarity however, is regarding the type of this binary divide running through the political. Would such a divide reproduce understandings whereby political adversaries are seen as effective foes (to use Carl Schmitt’s terminology) with irreconcilable and mutually incompatible interests that need to be silenced rather than engaged with? Would ‘the people’ be identified in this context as the incarnation of a general will, a vehicle for reifying and naturalizing collective, as opposed to particularistic or individual, rights and interests? Would such modalities make citizenship dependent on belonging in a collectivity incarnating the general will such as, say, the national community, as in the interesting Turkish case but also in that of Nordic welfare chauvinism, to bring two, at first sight distinct examples, together? Or are other less acute juxtapositions of the people and its ‘others’ (I use lower case this time on purpose), that can still allow room for the expression of social diversity, also populist? 

Another area for exploration is the identification of populism’s polar opposites that Mudde has rightly introduced into the research agenda. Indeed, his identification of elitism and pluralism at the antipodes of populism is very useful. Yet, I would argue, it does not entertain the possibility that anti-elitism might be the opposite of populism at the level of rhetoric, but anti-pluralism and anti-particularism might be its opposite at the level of tangible, material political action and of governance – the terrain where actual opponents are excluded, silenced or repressed. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that anti-elitism might often obscure the anti-institutional, anti-particularistic aspects of populism and its inherent ‘aversion’ towards assertions of social diversity.

Another area of potential disagreement relates to the prioritization of a thin definition of populism as an ideology (as opposed to Kurt Weyland’s preference for ‘political strategy’) proposed by Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (although similar alternatives include Rogers Brubaker’s ‘populism as a discursive and stylistic repertoire’). First, I would argue that a thin definition runs the danger of reducing the concept to a mere catch-all term. The emphasis on ideology on the grounds that the endurance of populism is linked to both supply-side and demand side factors, although not unreasonable, is convincing only if our understanding of politics is structured on the basis of a strict division between governing elites (suppliers) and governed constituencies or masses (those who articulate demand), something that underestimates the complexity of the political process where populist discourse is articulated both at grassroots and elite levels and takes shape as a result of complex processes of social construction, involving numerous actors and multiple modalities of translation and negotiation (I refer to these briefly a little later on).

Second, a thin definition does not allow us to establish and test at the level of operational definitions populism’s correlation – noted by Wodak – with anti-liberal but, I would argue, also anti-institutional and extra-institutional politics. Research on Turkey is once more relevant here as Şakir Dinçşahin examines the anti- and extra- institutional discourse of the AKP. But examples come also from further afield.

As again suggested by the case of Turkey, as well as that of Latin American populist movements in the second half of the twentieth century, or even the postcommunist nationalist movements of the late 1980s and 90s – we may need to be more attentive to the frequent, although not unavoidable coupling of populism with charismatic (and I would add ‘unitary’) types of political leadership and, at the level of governance, preference for executive presidential systems or systems where a unitary leadership is seen as preferable to the more ‘corrupt’ and ‘divisive’ representative character of parliamentary systems.

Margaret Canovan also notes the overwhelming dependence of ‘new populist movements’ on personal leadership rather than institutional party structures and I would argue that there is at least a symbolic logic in this preferred leadership modality given the effective redundancy of institutions representing social diversity in a political imaginary where the people possesses one will and demands to exercise ‘its’ sovereignty. Some theorists will however argue that there is not sufficient evidence to warrant such a concern as contemporary populist parties are accepting the rules of parliamentary democracy and leaders depend on their party organizations. I would retort that most ‘populist’ actors are still relative newcomers in established parliamentary systems and, it is only in their consolidation phase (as the cases of Poland and Hungary seems to suggest) that they are able to act as outright systemic challengers.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the trajectory of the AKP in Turkey which, prior to its consolidation, was an ardent supporter of the country’s fragile parliamentary system, only to slide rapidly and violently towards a personalized, presidential leadership model. Debates on the potential extra-institutional dimension of populist politics should also encompass legitimation avenues free of the mediation of parliamentary procedural ‘niceties’ as in cases of street democracy in Milosevic’s Serbia or the appeals of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the national will against supreme court decisions, or to the people in the recent past, to mention just a few examples.

Another important terrain that needs to be explored is that of the genealogy of populism. Several scholars have attempted to pinpoint the moment populist movements emerge or ideologies are articulated and/or the symbolic and cultural archives upon which they are built. Some have identified as necessary conditions the unfolding of crises. Andrea Pirro and Paul Taggart unproblematically see what they call the Great Recession, the migrant crisis, and Brexit as necessary preconditions for the ascendance of Eurosceptic, populist forces in Europe over the past few years, while Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas advance a similar argument. Indeed the very notion of crisis as a precondition for the emergence of populism, as well as the rigid supply v demand distinction is in urgent need of reconsideration. As I mentioned above, literature on collective action and mobilization has made considerable advances in the study of the social construction of injustice, agency and identity, and on the production of societal insecurity and the securitization of migration flows, as well as in cultural alterity in Europe. The theoretical discussion on populism and the notions of injustice and crisis have largely remained untouched by this literature and its potentially radical implications in terms of integrating into our understanding of populism (i) the construction and making sense of crises, (ii) the role of the discursive construction of fear and insecurity, (iii) the role of emotions as well as the (iv) impact of established cultural and discursive archives and repertoires in this process.

There are many more issues that could be added to any agenda comprehensively reconsidering the concept of populism in the current moment, but I will restrict myself to one final question that I have touched upon throughout this discussion; can there be a progressive populism?

I have argued that such latitude risks undermining the explanatory capacity of the concept of populism as this has developed over the past couple of decades, or even longer. My concern is not of a normative nature but one of conceptual efficacy. It is true that, underlying the work of Laclau and of Mouffe, has always been the question of how the Left could articulate a viable and progressive populism. Mouffe’s For a Left Populism can be read as such a theoretically informed programmatic text. What distinguishes left populism, says Mouffe, is ‘that “the people” is constructed democratically rather than on the basis of nation or race. With good strategic leadership, a radically democratic and egalitarian movement can be a match for nativism’. Tekdemir himself recognizes in HDP, Gezi and Corbyn’s Labour party Left populist experiments along these lines and suggests that even İnce’s discourse represents a potentially progressive form of Social Democratic populism.

Depending on the definition of populism one adopts, one can debate if a left variant is possible, and if it is useful to call attempts to construct a popular subject of collective action, or to develop politics of solidarity, populist. At the end of the day the question is where does ‘the progressive’ lie? – in a unified progressive, or revolutionary subject, or in a diverse solidaristic ‘coming together’ of movements and other political actors respecting difference and internal dialogue?

So, Canovan’s argument that central to populism in our democracies is an intricate balancing act between on the one hand pragmatism – manifesting itself in their institutional frameworks and their complex rulebooks and practices of negotiation and compromise – and on the other the redemptive impatience inherent in the wish to be sovereign (important in revitalizing political systems that can otherwise become ossified) is, in my opinion, a deeply problematic one. Although I cannot disregard the prevailing argument that the appeal to a sovereign ‘people’ in populism is in essence a democratic one, I would say that populism shares with democratic politics the demand for sovereignty of the citizenry but imagines this citizenry in a fundamentally different way.

I therefore disagree with her implication that the most privileged locus for the revitalization of our democracies lies in redemptive politics – notably, in a dose of populism. A redemptive politics characterized by frustration at the rigidities of political institutions and the painstaking character of negotiating and building solidarities, a politics of sovereignty marked by the yearning for the excitement of unmediated spontaneity and the warmth of social homogeneity is not necessarily, in my opinion, an element of democratic politics, but at best, to paraphrase Lenin, an infantile disorder of democracy. This is surely especially the case if its underlying political imaginary supports understanding citizenship in exclusivist terms and as dependent on belonging to an undifferentiated ‘people’.

Instead of talking about progressive populism, perhaps progressive forces need to engage in more complex visions of developing solidarities, dialogue and of renewing democracies through a multitude of public spaces where power would be rendered visible and negotiable as Alberto Melucci has argued.

But, at the end of the day this is precisely why we urgently need a constructive and open dialogue between different strands of thought within the populism theoretical ouevre. The theoretical and political dilemmas the Turkish case presents serve as a valuable warning of the seductiveness of populism and of construing any attempt to construct a sense of popular unity or front as populism at a time when it is imperative for us as academics, activists and citizens alike to make sense of the spectre of populism, if we are to develop progressive political strategies.

About the author

Spyros A. Sofos is Lecturer and Researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. His most recent publication is Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 (with Roza Tsagarousianou). He is currently working on a monograph on the Islamic State. He is also co-editor with Umut Özkirimli of a book series on ‘Islam and Nationalism’ for Palgrave Macmillan.


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