Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey, a perfect storm of anti-democratic​ populism?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Turkey suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the global democratic imagination. Once celebrated as a ‘model for political learning’[1] and the Middle East’s ‘only Muslim Democracy’[2], Turkey has become a ‘U.S.-style executive presidency – minus the Supreme Court and Congress’ (ECFR, April 8, 2017) and ‘the biggest jailer of journalists in the world’ (Amnesty International, 2017). Of course, Turkey is not the only country to have recently experienced democratic backsliding. Yet, the Turkish case differs from the more familiar instances of populism witnessed in Europe and the Americas. The populist playbook employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers a partial blueprint for the antidemocratic populist strategies employed by other right-wing populists. This populist strategy combines neoliberal economic policies, religious polarisation and media capture. Let us begin with a glance at the country’s democratic legacy.

Even before Erdogan’s tenure at the helm of Turkish politics, democracy in Turkey was plagued by top-down, autocratic tendencies, manifest in four military coups between 1960 and 2000. Elected in 2002, Erdogan’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented itself as a moderately Islamist alternative to the secular Kemalism of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Invoking alignment with the European Union (EU) and the prospect of eventual accession, the AKP promised to improve individual freedoms, reduce the military’s role in government and better recognise Kurdish language and culture. These noble ambitions notwithstanding, the AKP repeatedly clashed with secularist political establishment, committed to upholding Mustafa Kemal’s prohibition on virtually all public manifestations of religion. 

Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’.

Civilians demonstrated near the Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) building during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey on June 08, 2013.

For instance, the AKP’s 2007 appointment of President Abdullah Gul, whose wife publicly wears hijab, triggered a constitutional crisis and an investigation of the AKP for violating the principle of laicism. From 2008, the Ergenekon trials sought to combat the role of the deep state (the military, bureaucracy and secret service) in government affairs. At the same time, lawsuits against bureaucrats, NGOs, civil society and journalists evidenced the AKP’s willingness to rescind civil liberties to reaffirm its own power. Following a series of resonant electoral victories, the AKP increasingly weakened national institutions staffed overwhelmingly by Kemalist rivals. Erdogan’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 showcased this distaste for all political opposition to a global audience.

A Populist Strategy to Monopolise Political Power 

Less than three years after the Gezi protests, the failed coup attempt of July 2016 ushered in a fundamental change for democracy in Turkey[3]. Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. The measures enacted after the 2016 coup attempt are part of a multi-pronged populist strategy to monopolise political power in Turkey. Its antidemocratic effect is compounded by harsh repression of elected Kurdish politicians, civil society groups and minority populations. While highly significant, the Kurdish issue is too large and complex to be satisfactorily analysed in this series. 

In the economic realm, Erdogan employs a variant of neoliberal clientelism. Despite promoting a series of business-friendly policies – such as the privatisation of public land,  and the weakening of labour unions – the AKP receives the majority of its votes from economically disadvantaged sections of society[4]. These voters are kept onside using Islamic charity networks who distribute benefits and services in the AKP’s name[5]. At the same time, clientelism reached new levels under Erdogan. Kickbacks from AKP-friendly enterprises constitute a major source of donations for party affiliated organisations[6]. The same enterprises benefited from lucrative public-private partnership construction contracts with AKP controlled municipalities. The catastrophic tenure of Berat Albayrak (Erdogan’s son-in-law) as Minister of Finance and Treasury (July 2018 until November 2020) and the military drone contracts awarded to Selcuk Bayraktar (his other son-in-law) exemplify a political system that places loyalty above competence (Al Monitor, September 11, 2019)

In this economic order, citizen loyalty for democratic institutions is undermined as jobs and benefits cease to be a matter of rights or merit but are tied to membership of an AKP supporting “people”[7]. Thus, after the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used the state of emergency to disown the “enemies of the people”. His government appropriated over one thousand schools, companies and hospitals owned by members of the Fethullah Gulen-affiliated Hizmet Movement allegedly behind the attempted coup. It also sold seized businesses, such as the Koza-Ipek Conglomerate, to AKP loyalists. Thus, by combining business friendly liberalisation, clientelism and expropriation the AKP increasingly monopolises the Turkish economy. 

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan follow his speech during an election campaign rally of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on June 17, 2018.

Diyanet Used to Supress Dissent 

From 2011 onwards, Erdogan increasingly used the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, to entrench AKP narratives in mosques, religious and educational institutions[8]. In addition to imposing its own religious interpretations and mobilising religious segments of society in support of Erdogan, the AKP used Diyanet to supress dissent against the regime[9]. This conscious politicization of an avowedly non-partisan state body entrenched distinctions drawn by Erdogan and the AKP between the religious “people” and their secular “enemies”. The exclusive definition of the “people” around Islamic institutions and AKP support allowed Erdogan to privilege conservative values and traditional family structures[10]. Women contemplating abortion, single mothers and other “non-traditional” family units face discrimination and are labelled unpatriotic.

The July 2016 coup attempt inspired a new level of religious polarisation, in which the “enemies of the people” were extended to include Muslims supportive of- or allegedly affiliated with Fethullah Gulen. Ten-thousands of, so called, “Gulenists”, were dismissed from their jobs, arrested and/or detained as alleged ‘terrorists’ and members of a criminal ‘cult’ (The New Yorker, October 10, 2016). Erdogan’s self-characterisation as the leader of the faithful disavows large swathes of Turkish society, who are either secular, non-Muslim or critical of Erdogan’s regime. 

Beyond this highly instrumental approach to religion, the AKP’s relationship with Turkey’s mass media is characterised by its willingness to arrest journalists for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda[11]. From early into his tenure, then-Prime Minister Erdogan painted mainstream media moguls like Aydin Dogan as the tools of “deep-state”, an elitist faction scheming to undermine the “people’s will”. More recently, Dogan Media Company – once the owner of major newspapers and television channels – was left no option but to sell its media outlets to Demiroren Holding a conglomerate with close ties to the President Erdodan (New York Times, 21 March 2018). Olay TV, another independent news channel, was forced to close due to government pressure (Ahval, December 26, 2020).

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy.

Turkish riot police bloc protesters as they surround the headquarters of a Ipek Media Group linked to a Erdogan regime critic, enforcing a court order to seize the media outlets, in Istanbul October 28, 2015.

Fourth Pillar of Democracy Was Undermined 

In addition to undermining mainstream and critical media outlets, the AKP now controls the messaging of the public broadcaster TRT and the state-run Anadolu news agency, thereby further side-lining critical and opposition voices[12]. Pro-Erdogan businesspeople are encouraged to fund media outlets, publishing houses and creative agencies filled with uncritical government supporters. Invasive laws and media blackouts nurture a culture of overt- and self-censorship among journalists[13]. During the state of emergency declared in 2016, this fourth pillar of democracy was comprehensively undermined. Large-scale media censorship, widespread arrests of journalists and the closure of additional media outlets sparked an exodus of critical journalists out of the country[14]. Independent voices were framed as illegitimate plotters against the “people”. This latest stage of Erdogan’s populist media-capture strategy undermines the principle of accountability of the ruler to the ruled, as to have any practical significance voters need accurate, verifiable information about the government.

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy. Key figures in Turkey’s democratic opposition – including Selahattin Demirtas the Kurdish leader of the progressive pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – are imprisoned and defamed as terrorists. 

As the next part of this series will suggest, Turkey’s democratic decay is emblematic of a wider trend affecting democracies across different religions, cultures and geographies. Despite its severe democratic decay, Turkey is still deemed an indispensable partner by many within the EU and a key NATO ally. This picture is complicated by military escalations with its long-term rival Greece (ECFR, March 13, 2020), its meddling in the Libyan civil war, its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and Erdogan’s continued assault on international institutions – including the European Court of Human Rights (Al Monitor, December 23, 2020; Politico, December 10, 2020)

The collapse of the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement on migration in March 2020 exposes another key vulnerability for Turkey’s democratic partners. Having effectively abandoned Turkey’s prospects for EU accession in 2005, Europeans have surrendered a key means of encouraging Turkey’s democratisation. The failure of democracy in Turkey does not bode well for a world in which democratic values are increasingly questioned. 


References

1) Çavdar, Gamze. “Islamist New Thinking in Turkey: A Model for Political Learning?” Political Science Quaterly. 121, no. 3 (2006): 477-497. Crossref.

[2] Lewis, Bernard. “Why Turkey Is the Only Muslim Democracy.” Middle East Quarterly. March 1, 1994. https://dev.meforum.org/216/why-turkey-is-the-only-muslim-democracy .

[3] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[4] Bozkurt, Umut. “Neoliberalism with a Human Face: Making Sense of the Justice and Development Party’s Neoliberal Populism in Turkey.” Science & Society. 77, no. 3 (2013): 372–396. Crossref.

[5] Cosar, Simten and Metin Yegenoglu, “The Neoliberal Restructuring of Turkey’s Social Security System.” Monthly Review. April 1, 2009. https://monthlyreview.org/2009/04/01/the-neoliberal-restructuring-of-turkeys-social-security-system/

[6] Özdemir, Yonca. “Turkey’s Justice and Development Party: An Utmost Case of Neoliberal Populism.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Consortium for Political Research, Montreal, August 26–29, 2015.

[7] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[8] Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16, no. 4 (2016): 619–635. Crossref.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Yilmaz, Zafer. “Strengthening the Family Policies in Turkey: Managing the Social Question and Armoring Conservative–Neoliberal Populism.” Turkish Studies. 16, no. 3 (2015): 371–390. Crossref.

[11] Yilmaz, Gözde. “Europeanisation or De-Europeanisation? Media Freedom in Turkey (1999–2015).” South European Society and Politics. 21, no. 1 (2016): 147–161. Crossref.

[12] Esen, Berk , and Sebnem Gumuscu . “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581–1606. Crossref.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

Political sociologist Dogu Ergil. Photo: Evrensel

Political sociologist Ergil: Populism has a deadline

“Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

 In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Dogu Ergil argues that conditions are ripe for the emergence of populist leaders. Such figures take centre-stage if popular hopes are shattered and institutional fatigue weakens governmental systems. Populism may surface even in the most developed democracies when systemic fatigue takes hold and populist leaders start exploiting peoples fears, pessimism, and hopes. In general, these leaders idealize the glorious past but seldom have a solid projection of the future. Populist leaders will persist as long as the conditions require their existence, but populism has a deadline; the deadline is reality.

Scholars argue that there has been a worldwide rise in populist movements over the last decades. Some of these populist movements are defined as inclusionary, but most of them are exclusionary; all of them are fed by various ideologies and sentiments like racism, nationalism, xenophobia, souverainism, homophobia, polarization, dividing society into us” vs them,” creating internal and external enemies, aggravating anti-immigration sentiments, antisemitism, islamophobia, Euroscepticism, and anti-globalism, etc. Do you also see a rise in populist movements and, if so, what are the main reasons driving this phenomenon?

Populism is a political approach adopted by politicians that do not trust the “people” and popular government. They claim to be the true representatives of the people. Hence, there is no need for the involvement of the people in the political process. Instead, they can do a better job of representing the people and deciding on their behalf.

“The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them.” 

Given this definition, populism and popular government are quite different in nature. Populist leaders dislike organized society. They shy away from popular participation in politics (participatory politics) that can hold them responsible for their deeds and decisions. In fact, the politics of populism is an indirect process; it may be called “proxy politics”: for the people, by the leader!

In the politics of populism, institutions, societal organizations (civil society), and organized labour (trade unions) are probable sources of opposition to and conspiracies against the populist leader, who knows and does the best for the people. 

The reason behind the rise of populist movements all around the world can be explained by several factors. Initially, people, by and large, do not feel comfortable deciding on their own on critical issues. Instead, they expect able leaders to lead them to a better future. People are willing to give up their right of choice and pass it on to political leaders who they deem to be superior to them. As Eric Fromm coined, this is a sort of flight from freedom.” Masses do not feel capable enough to decide on complex issues that involve serious risks and require a certain level of expertise like economic management, security, or international affairs. This void allows populist leaders to exploit peoples trust. 

Wherever you see an increase in populism, you see people who feel insecure and threatened by existing conditions. By and large, people feel excluded – like they’re on the losing side or their living standards are deteriorating. They gasp for help and hope from a source that is more powerful than themselves. At that moment, the populist leader appears at their doorstep to restore their hope and self-esteem. The slogans of populist leaders are almost identical: 

“Lets make our country great again,” or Our strength is in our blood, history, and unique qualities,” etc. 

Populist leader generally attribute greatness to the past, which has been usurped by sinister imperialist forces and their villainous internal counterparts. Reclaiming the might and glory of the past is the most attractive promise of populist leaders. For instance, in Turkey, the reconstruction of the idealized Ottoman period is almost necrophiliac; it’s as if the Empire didn’t disintegrate a century ago.  

Populists seem to promise an idealized past instead of a better futurewhich they fail to deliver. That is why the past is always gilded and more glorious in populist discourse. The masses do not question this regressive image as long as it satisfies their need for pride and hunger for self-respect.

“Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.”

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Reality Overwhelms Hope

Is it correct to demonize populism in general? Isn’t there any valid pretext for emergence of populist movements when conditions avail? Furthermore, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of the people” rather than ruling elites” and imposing bureaucrats.” This rhetoric intrigues people. And the record of the ruling elites so far is not so promising, all over the world. 

Populist leaders do not emerge out of the blue. The deteriorating conditions necessitate them. The gap between the failing or ailing system and disillusioned people is filled by populist politicians. People are in need of confidence and self-respect and are in search of better living standards. Populist leaders will always emerge as long as such conditions surface. Once adverse conditions disappear, populist leaders will become invisible.

We need to remember that populism” is just the opposite of popular rule.” Popular rule, in other words, popular government,” enables people to exercise their will and be involved in the governance of daily life in a less indirect way. This may be approximately called democracy. Democracy is the best way of governance that human beings have so far invented; it’s certainly better than any other existing system. 

Populist leaders propose simple answers to complicated questions. For instance, imagine a country where there is a badly run economy, an unproductive system, huge debts, rampant unemployment, dysfunctional education, negative balance of payments, and so forth: all these issues require sophisticated expertise to solve them. People do not understand or do not bother to understand the root causes and remedies of such complex issues. This is the opportune moment when a group of opportunistic politicians may emerge and propose simple answers like deporting immigrants or denying minorities basic human rights. 

These simplistic answers or remedies garner support from fragile groups who feel threatened. The promise of making things better” resonates with social classes who feel their expectations of a secure present and better future has been lost. They increasingly feel that the ailing system is inefficient, corrupt, and heartless. Populists exploit these negative feelings. Their rhetoric – to make up for past losses and to build a better future – wins the hearts and minds of the expectant people. Unfortunately, they offer no solid foundation for problem solving, instead offering only pejorative remedies.

Populists share the populace’s negative feelings towards the establishment, but they lack the depth of solid criticism and a sound roadmap of reform. This is populisms inherent weaknesses. As a sweeping movement, populism starts to wane as reality overwhelms the excitement of the rhetoric. Thus, populism has a deadline. The deadline is the realization that populist leaders do not deliver what they promise. The power of mobilization does not match with the success of realized hopes. Populist leaders either do not make comprehensive structural changes or fail while trying. Reality overwhelms hope and excitement. The balloon inflated by the populist leaders bursts on the surface of the sharp realities of the day.

The people are left with two choices: either to organize and be a part of the efforts to build a popular governance or join the trail of another populist leader and continue to be duped. The second way is much easier, although it does not lead to anywhere. Populist politicians sway people but do not lead them to “El Dorado.”

 Well, do you see any correlation between Wallersteins anti-capitalist views, like the world system theory, and the rise of populist movements in Latin America? 

Capitalism is prone to crisis but also has the potential to correct and upgrade itself until the next crisis. Marx predicted that the capitalist system will collapse one day, a prophecy that is not yet realized. However, Marx was right in pointing out that capitalism has innate flaws: exploitation and inequality, hence injustice. As long as theres inequality and injustice within a system, it will sooner or later collapse or undergo dramatic changes. 

Indeed, capitalism has proved resilient and undergone serious changes. It led to social democracy, a more egalitarian form of governance. With technological changes, working patterns changed along with class structure. You no longer have two antagonistic classes but many layers of the workforce that are complimentary. Tensions between them can be institutionally reconciled. These changes mitigated class struggle in industrialized countries. However, the fierceness of competition between antagonistic classes still rages in non-industrialized countries. Having said this, let me remind you that exploitation, inequality, and injustice remain unchanged in the capitalist system and these systematically hurt people. Dissatisfaction and suffering worsen at times of crisis, and [this is when] populist politicians take centre-stage. 

The struggle for equality will go on forever, further improving the system and ensuring the struggle for justice will not end. Although it isn’t the collapse of the capitalist system and the realization of the ensuring revolution, as Marx predicted, multiple revolutions have occurred in science and technology. These changes altered the modes of production and politics. Rather than a big, sweeping revolution, there have been multiple revolutions, which have changed life as we know it. However, in societies which have benefitted little from improving conditions, or where existing systems experienced entropy, we have witnessed the emergence of populist movements and leaders.

How exactly do you define the interplay of populism and authoritarianism? Is it just a matter of strongman politics, or are there some other social, economic, and/or political factors?

Populist leaders can emerge anywhere, even in the most economically and/or politically developed countries. Populism raises its head when democracy and affluence decline, and pessimism is on the rise. By definition, populism is a by-product of a degenerate democracy or popular government that has enjoyed elections and elected governments. 

There are also traditional autocracies, kingdoms, and emirates where democratic culture or popular government have not been developed. Political development is gradual and slow in such societies. Democratic culture doesnt flourish where there are no individual freedoms and basic rights. We cannot talk about populism in such societies. However, we can talk about forced mobilization and ruler domination. Populism exists where individuals give up their free will for a “superior” person who they expect to be their “saviour.”  

Respect for freedoms – like freedom of expression or freedom of association – are key to forming a democratic culture. Its hard to form popular governments where democratic ideals are not institutionalized. For instance, after the Ottoman Empire, the sultanate was replaced by an authoritarian bureaucratic government that claimed to directly represent the people. In fact, “populism” was among the basic [constitutional] principles of the Turkish republic. 

The leaders during the first decades of the republic were not coming from liberal backgrounds. They all relied on the unrivalled power of the state rather than rallying popular support. Only after multi-party politics was instituted (1950), did we witness the emergence of populist leaders. 

“There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents.”

Populism Is Based On Conspiracies

How do you interpret the relationship between conspiracy theories and rising populism?

There is a direct correlation between conspiracy theories and the way things are perceived among less enlightened groups. The atmosphere of populism is riddled by conspiratorial thinking. Faults are projected onto alien perpetrators. Failures are attributed to the misguidance of foreigners or their treacherous internal agents. With regards to Turkey, economic problems are the result of a so-called “interest lobby” that manipulates Turkeys monetary system and undermines its monetary system. There are always sinister foreign forces that want Turkey to fail and to disintegrate. Conspiracy is a substitute for failure. Populist leaders do not say that they have failed but attribute their failure to conspiracies where the culprits are external agents. Populist leaders need conspiracies; they are an integral part of their discourse.

Do you see any correlation between pessimism about the future of the world (or country or self) and the rise of populism? Do they affect each other?

Pessimism, fear, feeling of loss, but with the hope of regaining whats lost – these are the psychological foundations of populism. 

Do you think this widespread rise in populism is a permanent situation or a conjunctural phenomenon triggered by socio-political and economic problems?

Well, there are developed and undeveloped economies. There are also developed and undeveloped democracies, or put in different words, developed and undeveloped political institutional edifices. But all of these can be shattered by an economic (market collapse) or political crisis (i.e. war). Affluent economies can disintegrate, and people may fall into poverty. Germany for instance, at the end of the World War I, was destabilized and this industrial power had become a poor country. Or on the other hand, an exemplary political system, such as the United States, fell into such political disenchantment that Mr. Trump emerged triumphant from the 2016 elections. Many commentators have stipulated that the American Dream” has come to an end, and people were reacting by supporting a populist politician, namely Mr. Trump. Trump called for the rejection of the established system and proposed his own “wisdom” as its replacement. 

The U.S. example suggests that a rich and productive economy and an established constitutional democracy may fall into entropy, allowing the emergence of populist leaders.

Do you think populism is related to political culture? Is it possible that it wins general approval in some societies and is refused in others? 

Not really. A particular political culture may resist the lure of populism, if its politico-economic system works smoothly, meaning if it sustains a satisfying living standard, political representation, and responsive government. However, a systemic crisis in the institutional structure may lead to the attrition of hopes and confidence. Then, the rise of populist movements cannot be prevented. Just look at post WWI Germany, which once produced the greatest philosophers, scientists, and artists that the world had ever seen; it turned into a country where racism, chauvinism, and expansionism prevailed. When the good declines, the bad emerges. Opportunistic leaders feed on dead hopes, fears, and self-humiliation. 

“People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities.” 

Does provoking fear among the masses – or in other terms, a politics of fear / a politics of (in)security – pave the way for populist movements? 

People have multiple fears. However, the fear associated with survival is the mother of all fears. Turks have lost an empire. Populist leaders have incessantly provoked their fear of losing again. They fear losing the motherland, the sovereignty of the state, and internal cohesion that may be disrupted by unrest among minorities. Every single populist leader in Turkey played on these fears rather than finding solutions that could eradicate them. 

Another fear common among Turks is being denigrated and losing respect in the international arena. When somebody – be it a political leader or a nongovernmental organization or a think tank – says something critical about Turkey, then the Turkish people feel offended. They demonstrate on the streets for days. This is a result of a lack of confidence. Just remember the Russian plane incident: when a Turkish Air Force F16 fighter jet shot down a Russian attack aircraft near the Turkish-Syria border on 24 November 2015, Turkish leaders boldly said that we did it.” But later, when they began to experience the brunt of Russian retaliation against Turkey, they back tracked. They went to Moscow and almost begged for reconciliation. 

Their first reaction was for internal consumption. Their second reaction was an act of repairing the damage done in the international arena; it was far from boasting. In this case, populism is sort of an internal propaganda process to polish up the image of the regime and the leadership. 

Kurdish people walk by the bombed buildings after the curfew in Şırnak province of Turkey on March 3, 2016. Armed conflict between Turkish security forces and PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) members killed hundreds of people.

“Kurdishness As An anomaly”

Considering the political Islamist hegemony and the prevalence of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, how do you see the relationship between religion and populism” as well as religion and nationalism” in terms of the authoritarian populist discourse? 

Turkish nationalism is an ethnic ideology that excludes all other nationalities other than Turks. It is a reductionist political ideology, which does not incorporate all the citizens of Turkey.

As for the religious perceptions of Turkish society, we could state that the political Islamist ideology looks at society as an ummah (a union of believers) and refers to all existing congregations as the nuances of the whole. Political Islam expects people to behave as part of the larger ummah. When one emphasizes his/her ethnic identity and exacerbates it, nationalism and religious identity exhibit an uncomfortable co-existence, each identity claiming the upper hand. However, when it comes to the Kurdish “question,” nationalism and religion concur on the suspicion and exclusion of the Kurds. 

The nationalists and the political Islamists leave aside their differences and agree that Kurdishness is an anomaly. Kurds are excluded from every single equation at the national political level.

In both the nationalist and religious rhetoric, Kurds are either our brothers and sisters,” not a distinct identity group, or an alien existence that should be kept under control. This is an enormous contradiction in terms of the national solidarity” that is so exalted. 

Theres no problem in nature; there are facts and realities. Kurds are a fact. Just as any fact that is not perceived and managed properly, they have turned into a problem. Turkey has created a Kurdish problem,” which it does not know how to handle. 

Who is Dogu Ergil?

Professor Dogu Ergil.

Dogu Ergil has served as a professor of political sociology at various universities in Turkey and in the US. He has been a visiting scholar in various universities in the US, Britain and Sweden. Mr. Ergil was chairman of the Department of Political Behaviour at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University until late-2000s.

Ergil has earned his BA degree in Turkey; MA and Ph.D. degrees in the US. He worked on political inclinations, ethnic relations, political parties and political violence. He accomplished the first research on political violence in Turkey, which was consummated in a book called ‘Social and Cultural Roots of Political Violence in Turkey’ in 1980, based on interviews in the prison system, on right-wing and left-wing militants. He completed his seminal research ‘The Eastern Question’ in 1995, offering peaceful social conflict resolution methods rather than ongoing violent police and military tactics. 

Ergil has worked with various NGOs on developing more effective leadership, conflict management, and creative problem-solving. He has won awards for his work in international organizations promoting peace and democracy. He has authored 28 books, published a sheer number of academic articles and book chapters.