Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Javier Milei’s victory, it is crucial to approach Milei’s election cautiously and avoid interpreting it as a definitive sign of a substantial conservative shift in Argentine politics. To comprehend Milei’s success, it is essential to delve into the Argentine context, where it seems to signify more a public frustration with the establishment than a straightforward resurgence of right-wing populism.
By Imdat Oner*
After a second-round election on November 19, 2023, libertarian candidate Javier Milei emerged as the president-elect of Argentina, securing 56 percent of the votes compared to his opponent Sergio Massa’s 44 percent. This victory marked a significant milestone, as Milei garnered the most votes in any election in Argentine history.
In the wake of Milei’s decisive win, former US President Donald Trump commended the Argentinian president-elect, asserting that Milei would “truly make Argentina great again.” Jair Bolsonaro echoed these sentiments, hailing the victory as a triumph for “progress and freedom.” Some right-wing activists are already envisioning a domino effect, anticipating that Milei’s success could pave the way for Trump and Bolsonaro to reclaim power in 2024 and 2026.
Despite the global far-right’s excitement over Milei’s victory, it is essential to approach Milei’s election with caution and refrain from interpreting it as a clear sign of a significant conservative shift in Argentine politics. Understanding Milei’s success necessitates a nuanced exploration of the Argentine context, where it seems to reflect more a manifestation of public frustration with the establishment than a mere resurgence of right-wing populism.
Milei’s ascension to the presidency is unprecedented, marking the first occurrence of an outsider leading Argentina. His far-right inclinations, epitomized by his self-proclaimed anarcho-libertarian stance, set him apart from the conventional political spectrum. Peronism has upheld its supremacy in Argentine politics by building an alliance that encompasses both the left and the right, uniting trade unions and major businesses. The party movement has effectively established an organizational structure with widespread influence, extending across the country.
Milei, a former TV commentator and economist, presented himself as a symbol of change against this establishment that has been in power in Argentina for the past two decades. His campaign was marked by a strong anti-establishment narrative, echoing the widespread dissatisfaction among voters. He focused on economic ideas and blamed past administrations resonating with a population weary of traditional politics. His use of a chainsaw as a symbol of cutting state spending emphasized his commitment to making radical changes.
In this context, Milei’s electoral success primarily derives from economic dissatisfaction rather than an embrace of far-right policies. The economy with inflation over 140 percent yearly and 40 percent of the people in poverty has fueled a collective desire among citizens for a departure from the existing status quo. Massa, the current Minister of Economy, faced the full force of public frustration during one of Argentina’s most severe economic crises in decades. Milei smartly connected with people by presenting himself as the leader of significant and quick change, contrasting with what many see as the mishandling of past administrations.
However, Milei’s confrontational style, lack of political experience, and limited allies in Congress add an additional layer of unpredictability for the future. In reality, he could turn out to be one of the least influential Argentine presidents in many years. His political party, Freedom Advances, currently has only seven out of 72 seats in the Senate and 37 out of 257 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies. Even if legislators from right-wing parties, including members of Mauricio Macri’s Republican Proposal party, support Milei, he won’t have enough support for a governing majority. The complexity of passing laws and radical reforms requiring a qualified majority poses a significant governance challenge for the president-elect. Securing the necessary majority for passing laws and projects entails negotiations with various factions within Peronism. Furthermore, Milei’s coalition does not have a single governor in any of Argentina’s 23 provinces.
The difficulties ahead for Milei extend beyond legislative hurdles. The implementation of a shock therapy in the economy often results in substantial adverse effects on employment and income, potentially sparking social unrest that could further strain the country’s already complicated situation. The extent of Milei’s ability to capitalize on his personal popularity will play a significant role in shaping his political influence over the country. To achieve the objective of forming a legislative majority, Milei will need to maintain popular support.
In conclusion, while Javier Milei’s political style may bear similarities to Trump and Bolsonaro, his success in Argentina is more indicative of a deep-seated frustration with the establishment and traditional politics. As Milei assumes the presidency, the world watches with curiosity to see whether his unconventional approach can bring about the promised change in Argentina or if it encounters the challenges inherent in radical policy shifts.
(*) Imdat Oner is a former Turkish diplomat who recently served at the Turkish Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a Ph.D. from Florida International University, where he wrote a dissertation titled “Great Power Competition in Latin America Through Strategic Narrative.” His articles have been published in the Journal of Populism, War on the Rocks, The National Interest, Americas Quarterly, Foreign Affairs Latinoamerica, and the Miami Herald.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
The parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey were held in May 2023, representing a pivotal moment amid concerns of a democracy in decline, eroding rule of law, and a worsening state of gender equality. On May 14, 2023, President Erdogan secured 49.52 percent of the vote, while his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.88 percent. The subsequent runoff election saw Erdogan’s share increase to 52.18 percent, with Kilicdaroglu holding 47.82 percent. The electoral process was marred by numerous controversies, including allegations of interference, leading Turkey to depart from its international legal commitments.
During the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, the ruling AKP secured 268 seats out of the 600 available in the assembly. Leading the People’s Alliance, the AKP and its coalition partners captured 322 seats in total. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) under Kilicdaroglu obtained 169 seats, further reinforced by an additional 212 lawmakers from its Nation Alliance coalition. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), running as the Green Left Party (YSP) due to a court closure case, managed to secure 61 seats. While not formally aligned with Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, the HDP strongly opposes Erdogan and provided unwavering support to the CHP leader.
With this background of Turkey’s 2023 elections and the ongoing democratic regression in mind, it is important to underscore the gender-related aspects and consequences of this situation. Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks elucidate: “Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.”
Rasim Ozgur Donmez and Fazilet Ahu Ozmen emphasize in their book that “the Turkish Republic has been rooted in hegemonic masculinity,” where hegemonic masculinity denotes the patriarchal dominance of the mainstream class or ethnic group, as well as the dominance of men over women. Against this backdrop, a critical analysis of the results of the recent pivotal election reveals that the Green Left Party holds the highest proportion of gender representation, boasting 48 percent female deputies among its total seats. Among the 600 parliamentary members, 50 female members were elected from the AKP, 30 from the CHP, 30 from the Green Left Party, 6 from the İYİ Party, 4 from the MHP, and 1 from the TİP, making up slightly over 20 percent of the total with a collective of 121 women MPs.
Nilden Bayazıt, the General Director of the Ben Seçerim (I Elect) Women’s Platform, interprets these results as a reflection of the fact that “political parties generally do not prioritize women’s inclusion in their candidate lists.” Berrin Sönmez, the Spokesperson of the EŞİK platform (Women’s Platform for Equality), concurs, stating that “in a period focused on elections and alliance negotiations that concern women’s rights and lives, candidate lists should have unequivocally favored equal representation.”
Didem Unal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, underscores that “AKP’s election campaign demonstrated that anti-genderism was a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ ‘Anti-genderism’ here denotes an ideological and strategic opposition to a broad spectrum of feminist principles and socio-political reforms and a construction of fears and anxieties around gender in the name of protecting ‘national values’.”
In light of these ideas, it becomes evident that not only the discourses during political campaigns but also the more prolonged language and strategies employed by the AKP have set the groundwork for the state’s transition towards increasingly authoritarian actions and policies, alongside perpetuating gender-based inequalities and injustices. The oscillation between prohibition and subsequent allowance of headscarves in public positions serves as an illustration of how Turkey’s political history, marked by its gendered nature, is further highlighted by a security-oriented perspective. This perspective manifests through matters linked to women, attributing distinct significance and connotations to their roles, status, and lived experiences.
Amidst the gender-focused discussions and measures of the current conservative ruling party deeply rooted in Islamic principles, the AKP, the decision to lift the ban on headscarves arrived after years of restrictions imposed on their use within state institutions. Nonetheless, the gender-related policies implemented by the party did not result in a genuine expansion of freedoms and rights for women. Instead, these policies exposed persistent patriarchal frameworks within the party’s leadership, projecting the archetypal conservative woman as primarily a mother, homemaker, and caregiver. Consequently, the removal of the ban essentially became insignificant in terms of advancing women’s rights.
Following a September 2010 referendum that curtailed the authority of both the judiciary and the military, while concurrently augmenting President Erdogan’s influence in judge appointments, Turkey has increasingly steered towards an authoritarian form of governance. At present, the Turkish government is employing an Islamist narrative to consolidate its backing among the predominantly conservative populace—comprising the majority of voters—by fomenting public discontent against progressive movements linked to Westernization and democratization. Over the past decade, opposition to women’s perspectives, notably those aligned with feminism, has undergone a pronounced surge. Women’s societal roles have gravitated towards more traditional paradigms, with the government deeply enmeshed in shaping personal choices and behaviors. Significantly, areas such as family size, abortion rights, public displays of female laughter, and even childbirth methods have come under state control, frequently in collaboration with influential figures, including male religious leaders. These discussions have persistently framed women’s roles within the context of traditional and Islamist ideologies. Manifestly, a substantial segment of Turkey’s populace endorses this approach, believing that the country as a notable regional power is countering Western imperialism while upholding Islamic conservatism.
The ruling party and government have consistently disregarded calls for the implementation of gender quotas in the political sphere, and their efforts to address gender-related disparities and discrimination, particularly concerning sexual orientation, have proven insufficient. This ultimately culminated in Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. As the influence of the AKP government solidified, individuals with diverse ideologies and political stances found themselves subjected to various forms of organized and societal aggression.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
In 2022, 334 women lost their lives due to femicide in Turkey, and in 2021, the number was 280. The significant rise in femicide cases is largely attributed to the issue of impunity. This underscores the critical impact of the mindsets, language, and discourses employed by state representatives on women’s tangible engagement in politics and decision-making roles within society. This extends to encompass the actual implementation of laws and actions that influence women’s participation and status.
 Dönmez, & Özmen, F. A. (2013). Gendered identities criticizing patriarchy in Turkey. Lexington Books.
The intertwined dynamics of the ‘patriarchal trifecta’—forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and so-called honor killings—create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s harmful effects. For example, a woman compelled into a marriage against her will not only faces the trauma of forced marriage itself but also a heightened vulnerability to marital abuse due to a lack of communal and societal safeguards. Similarly, a woman subjected to FGM, whether in her youth or later in life, faces an increased likelihood of being coerced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. Her limited social agency and societal constraints make it difficult for her to resist such pressure.
As researchers, especially on topics related to gender studies and cultural analysis, we must constantly decide the degree to which our investigations will inform and/or transform the world we are studying. Considering this, I have decided to investigate issues surrounding Kurdish women which are both personally and professionally important to me.
My research, which is connected to my Marie Curie Fellowship and ongoing, looks at the status of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), or what could equally be defined as Southern Kurdistan or Bashur. The more specific focus of my exploration, connected to this issue of women in the KRI, investigates how gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) – such as honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and marital or familial violence – form an intertwined relationship. Which is not just true for the KRI, but everywhere in the world. As these specific assaults on women, seem to go hand-in-hand with places that lack institutional protections and structural barriers to lessen their occurrence.
As part of my postdoctoral fellowship research, I have begun exploring what I deem to be the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of forced marriages, FGM, and so-called honor killings – which should more accurately be called “misogynistic murder,” but for the purposes of this topic I will utilize the commonly accepted term. It seems this trifecta forms a symbiotic relationship, in which they reinforce one another.
So, for instance, a woman who is forced into a marriage against her will, is more likely to also lack the communal or societal protections to ensure that she is then not abused by her husband, so in some of these situations there is a correlation, if not an outright causation – which is up to us as scholars to seek out.
Moreover, a woman who experiences FGM either in her youth or later years is also disproportionately likely to be forced into an arranged marriage against her will and lack the social agency or societal flexibility to refuse. Likewise, in the case of honor killings, a woman who is murdered by her father or brothers, is also more likely to both have had FGM carried out on her or be in a situation where she is likely to be placed into arranged or forced marriage.
I believe understanding this trifecta of oppression against women globally, but in particular in the KRI regarding women, is of utmost and critical importance. My research thus far aims to do that, and by its full completion, will hopefully have achieved this goal.
To this point, my literature review and interviews I have conducted so far paint a picture on the topic which is nuanced and contains both positive developments and work that still needs to be done. For instance, it is important when analyzing the state of women in the KRI, to understand it in the context of the region historically, and at the present time. Often times, I believe researchers, particularly in or from the West, arrive in “exotic” new environments, and expect that all of the cultural norms they are used to are universal.
These presumptions then also usually fuel the foreign NGOs and institutions that have considerable funding but tie those resources to the quote “natives” fixing their outdated ways of living. So, while these drives to increase human rights globally can have positive gains, they can also begin to resemble the colonial ethnographies of the past, where Europeans showed up to observe and then speak for those they observed, while critiquing from a place of privilege.
In my case, as a woman from the KRI, I am not investigating a foreign place that I do not understand, but my own community, and I am able to do so with the understanding of the many overlapping cultural complexities that inform these phenomena. For instance, my early investigations have shown the role that religion, tribe, political persuasion, and rural versus urban geography can play in these issues. In this, there seems to be a discrepancy in the prevalence of this trifecta, based on if the individuals live in the main urban centers of the KRI – Hewler (Erbil) and Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) or if they derive from a village or smaller city.
I am also looking at the role that faith plays and if there is a difference in how religious a woman’s family is. This in turn, is connected to the role that upbringing can sometimes be fate, so I investigate how much formal education a woman has had and if she is allowed to work outside of the home. As again, there seem to be certain factors that begin to appear so frequently together, that they appear to form the words of a song. And what my research on these issues has shown me thus far is revealing. But as with any research, each ‘answer’ only begets another question.
For example, it seems that the constraints of religious conservatism are blunted by women gaining access to formal education, but is this really a case that more open-minded families are likely to allow their daughters to get education in the first place? Or is economic class connected, as wealth seems to have a similar progressive effect, and wealthy families are also more likely to allow their daughters to seek formal education? The tangled web of causality it seems is never fully discovered and I acknowledge that no research is ever fully complete – but blocks built atop one another.
You also cannot study women’s equality in the KRI, without looking into the governmental policies there. So, for example, there have certainly been some gains for women in the KRI based on laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since their de facto autonomy was established in 2003. These gains are particularly present when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has actually been backsliding on women’s rights, since Baathism ended. Which is ironic, as Saddam’s rule was particularly brutal and oppressive for Kurds and especially women, but overall, the Arab women of Iraq, have seen their personal freedoms decrease in many ways under the new less-secular post-Saddam regimes.
In contrast, the KRG governing the KRI for instance, has made some legal gains and set in place protections on the recommendation of the UN and other world bodies, for several reasons. The most generous answer would be that it is because they are the right thing to do and the majority of men in society are ready for such progress. And the strategic or perhaps cynical answer would be that they are the prescriptions demanded from the international bodies that I mentioned earlier, who give their resources to the KRI and then uphold the place as a quote beacon of women’s rights in the Middle East.
The geopolitical motivation for upholding the KRI in this way, also serves Western interests as it can potentially justify Western intervention in other places, who still do not guarantee their women full freedoms. But that is more an aside and would be a research study in itself.
However, my research thus far also displays worrying trends. For instance, the other side of this beacon of equality argument, is that the KRI still features cases of women desperately self-immolating and far too many honor killings or presumed honor killings which can often be reported as suspected suicides. The methods of violence deployed against women, either from their husbands, scorned men wishing to marry them, or their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s name before the community, often are brutal methods of shooting, suffocation, or stabbing. You also have cases of suspicious burning, which are reported as suicides, but often could be murders set up to appear as such.
What my research so far also displays to me, is that this gender-based violence, and these honor killings are based on a range of personal beliefs from the men committing the violence. For instance, I am interested in the views of men who hear of honor killings and whether they agree that it can ever be justified. Because a man might say he theoretically does not agree with a stranger being honor killed but would support such a reality if their sister carried out certain sexual acts, which they deem to be an attack on their entire family’s dignity.
Also, the views of women on the periphery are crucial, so I look at the views of women on honor killings, and whether they become accomplices, as you can sometimes see in the case of mothers or aunts, who fail to push back against the issue, or lack the freedom and protections to ally with the victims of it.
In the same way that historically a colonized people would always have members of the population who would collaborate with their oppressors, in the case of gender this is also a possibility. That is of course not to blame women, because those who lack structural power, will often do what they deem necessary for short term survival.
This trifecta is also upheld by a combination of variables, including beliefs that are justified as “tradition” or “our culture”, as if denying women their full rights is in itself an act of cultural preservation. This dishonest claim can be particularly potent, because Kurds historically have had their language and cultural rights banned by repressive states, so by packaging patriarchal control as inherent to “Kurdishness,” it makes freeing these women a betrayal against an identity that many men are proud of and trying to preserve.
Of course, there are other variables as well. Such as social class and economics. It seems that since poverty does not allow for many material comforts, people will seek out to at least own and hold on to their family “reputation” and “good name.” Again, like with the argument that it is cultural, since even men in the KRI who own relatively very little, take solace in the fact that they supposedly possess some invisible “honor.” As a result, it can be difficult to ask a rural impoverished family of men who own nothing, to give up the only thing of value that they believe they possess.
There are also philosophical questions at the heart of these issues. Such as the idea of “freedom” and importance of “love.” Both concepts can be complicated and overlapping. For instance, many men in the KRI will agree with that idea that Kurds should be free from occupation by the Iraqi State, and even get angry with the idea of the Baghdad government mistreating women. But some of those same men will then defend Kurdish wives being occupied inside of their own home, or Kurdish sisters having their dating life being policed by their brothers. This is why the idea and Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) in neighboring Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) I believe has been so potent of a concept, is it addresses this paradox.
And to the idea of love, my research is also interested in whether women who enter arranged or forced marriages loved their husbands at the time of marriage or love them now. Although this may seem like a basic idea, I feel it is fundamental. Because if you remove the idea of love from these marriages, then they often become either desperate economic arrangements to survive, or agreements between fathers and perhaps even mothers, to essentially barter off their daughters. In some ways, the perception or idea of freedom is also tied to the issue of FGM as well. As some of the reasoning behind FGM can be the belief of men that a woman without FGM would be overly lustful and that she cannot handle the responsibility of such freedom.
As you can see, there are many variables to consider with such a large topic. But it is my hope that by the completion of my fellowship research, that I will have a fuller picture of how all these issues tie together in the KRI. With the hope being that there may also be some universal issues that would be applicable to the outside world as well. Because women cannot have life and freedom – jiyan and azadi – if they are preventing from controlling their own bodies or romantic lives.
(*) Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and a consultant on gender related issues and society. Previously, she was a Visiting Fellow at the WashingtonKurdish Institute and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Alongside her research in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies, she is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics such as cultural production, gender-related issues and society, gender empowerment. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist ideology, anchored in the notion that he embodies the genuine and morally upright voice of the Jewish people in Israel, fuels his resolve to confront institutions that hinder his government’s agenda. From his perspective, entities such as the judiciary that intervene and obstruct the realization of the people’s will become subjects of his critique and endeavors to undermine their autonomy. While his recent declaration of a “pause” on judicial reform may be momentary, it implies that he could recommence his endeavors to restrict judicial independence in the future.
On March 27, 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made an announcement stating that the government would temporarily halt its plans to reform the country’s judiciary. This decision came after a series of escalating anger and protests against the proposed reforms, which have been widely criticized as an attack on the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced by the Likud Party in January 2023, aimed to grant greater control over the judiciary to politicians in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset. If implemented, this legislation would have allowed a majority in the Knesset to overturn decisions made by the Supreme Court on constitutional matters. Additionally, it sought to increase the government’s authority in appointing judges, thus undermining the independence of the judiciary.
Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the Deputy Leader of Likud and the Justice Minister, defended the proposed judiciary reforms, arguing that increased government control over the judiciary is necessary because Israeli judges allegedly disregard the will of the people and obstruct the legislative efforts of elected officials. Levin further asserted that the judiciary is undemocratic, stating, “We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us.” In essence, Levin believes that Israeli judges wield excessive power, and Likud’s objective is to curtail this power and restore it to the hands of “the people.” They argue that the judiciary’s perceived overreach interferes with the democratic process, where elected officials should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the citizens.
If Likud’s plan to diminish the power of the judiciary is unpopular with voters and has engendered a backlash in the form of mass protests and claims that Netanyahu is tearing up the very fabric of Israel’s constitution and pushing Israel toward “civil war”, why is Netanyahu so adamant that the legislation should, at least in some form, be passed? Some commentators have suggested that Netanyahu’s primary motivation is self-preservation, and a desire to avoid being convicted on corruption charges based on claims he accepted bribes and participated in other forms of criminal conduct. There is likely some truth to this claim. Indeed, Likud has already passed a law preventing the judiciary from declaring Prime Ministers unfit for office. However, Netanyahu is far from the only populist who has sought to diminish the power of the judiciary and centralize power around himself. Indeed, following an election victory, and to cement themselves in power and continue to present themselves as fighting ‘elites’ despite themselves being in government, populists often seek to attack the independence of state institutions, which they accuse of thwarting the will of ‘the people.’
The far-left populist government in Venezuela has also moved to eliminate judicial independence in the name of pursuing a socialist revolution that would ultimately give power to ‘the people’. Hugo Chavez began the process of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters of his regime and suspending unsympathetic judges, a trend continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose policies, according to an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have left “the independence of the justice system …considerably undermined.” Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan “judicial authorities have participated or been complicit in …abuses”, including “extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances”, crimes enabled by the “lack of judicial independence”.
Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the concept of a truly independent judiciary has been elusive. However, under the leadership of populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), attempts to diminish the already limited independence of the judiciary have become more pronounced.
One significant event that provided an opportunity for Erdogan and the AKP to assert control over the judiciary was the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, which targeted their government. Taking advantage of the situation, the AKP took steps to remove judges who were perceived as unsympathetic to their agenda. Approximately 4,000 judges who were believed to be aligned with anti-AKP factions within Turkish society were dismissed from their positions following the coup attempt. Simultaneously, the AKP utilized its power to appoint judges who were supportive of the party. This led to a significant influx of pro-AKP judges, with approximately 9,323 new judges and prosecutors recruited between the failed coup and the end of 2020, leading to a bizarre situation in which “at least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less”.
This trend has raised concerns about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. These actions have further eroded the separation of powers and the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy. The rapid appointment of inexperienced judges has fuelled scepticism about their ability to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair and impartial judicial proceedings.
The AKP has since used its control over the judiciary to abuse the judicial system, using it to persecute opponents, often accusing them of terrorism. Indeed, the decline of judicial independence in Turkey has led, according to a Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights report, to “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as the presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again.” The Turkish government defended its actions by claiming that the people removed from the judiciary and those otherwise persecuted “are affiliated with FETO, a terrorist organisation that has infiltrated the civil service over the years”, suggesting that the government was merely protecting the Turkish people from criminal wrongdoers.
The attacks on judicial independence in Turkey continue to this day and are perpetrated not merely by the AKP, but also by its allies. For example, in March 2023, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli – whose party is a junior member of the coalition government led by the AKP, attacked Turkey’s constitutional court for ruling that the government’s freezing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s bank accounts was unconstitutional. Bahçeli responded to the decision by calling the court “the backyard of the separatist terrorist organization” and claiming it “is not the court of the Turkish nation” insofar as its decision failed to represent the desires of the Turkish people.
Of course, it is not only populist governments that seek to diminish or eliminate judicial independence. Autocratic regimes of various ideologies often desire control over the courts, while even liberal democracies that emphasize the separation of powers may encounter challenges with governments attempting to influence the judiciary.
A notable example is the United States, where the Supreme Court has long been a political battleground between Republicans and Democrats. The Court has become a focal point for key cultural and social debates, including issues like affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion. During election campaigns, both political parties pledge to appoint justices who align with their party’s ideology, effectively undermining the independence of the judiciary and turning the Supreme Court into a politicized institution.
In many other countries, governments attempt to “pack” the courts with judges who align with their political agenda or take steps to weaken the independence of the judiciary. These actions occur in both autocratic and democratic contexts, reflecting a broader trend where governments seek to consolidate power and influence over key institutions, including the judiciary.
Such attempts to undermine judicial independence have far-reaching implications for the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and the overall health of democratic systems. They raise concerns about the impartiality of court decisions and the potential for politicization of justice.
However, while many different kinds of governments may seek to diminish the independence of the judiciary, populists differ from non-populists in two important ways. First, populists often argue against judicial independence by asserting that a powerful and independent judiciary can hinder the “will of the people.” Populists generally believe that democracy does not solely rely on the right to vote or the protection of minority rights and dissenting voices. Instead, they argue that the majority group, which they perceive as the authentic and morally virtuous people, should hold all power. This can take the form of direct democracy, where decisions are made through plebiscites and referenda, or through a political party and a single leader who claims to understand the will of the people. Populists view judges as an undemocratic group that should be entirely stripped of power if they intervene to strike down government legislation. Populists tend to view judges as obstructing the populist agenda and impeding their ability to enact policies that align with their vision of the “people’s will.” They often criticize judges for being detached from popular sentiment and accuse them of imposing their own biases and ideologies on the legislative process. Populists also argue that the judiciary should not possess the authority to overturn decisions made by elected officials, as they consider it an affront to the principle of majority rule.
Second, once populists have succeeded in winning an election, and especially after winning successive elections, they may find it difficult to portray themselves as fighting against a governing ‘elite’ in the name of ‘the people.’ After winning elections and governing for a significant duration, populists can find it challenging to maintain the image of being outsiders fighting against a governing “elite” on behalf of the people. As they become part of the establishment themselves, it becomes necessary for them to identify new “elites” to position themselves against in order to sustain their populist rhetoric and maintain their appeal as champions of the people.
In this context, the judiciary often becomes a target for populists. Judges, who typically uphold the principles of separation of powers, judicial independence, and the rule of law, are likely to resist populist attempts to bypass legal procedures and override constitutional protections. Being highly educated professionals with a commitment to legal principles, judges may not align with populist parties or support their legislative agenda. Populists and their supporters often perceive judges as part of a cultural “elite” that they view as immoral and disloyal to the ordinary people.
This portrayal of the judiciary as an enemy of the people serves the populist narrative by allowing them to position themselves as the defenders of the “real people” against an alleged “corrupt elite.” By framing the judiciary as part of the elite and presenting themselves as the voices of the people, populists can maintain their outsider status and continue their fight to reclaim power on behalf of their supporters.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister having served in the position for fifteen years, and who is the most significant politician of his generation, the fight to reform Israel’s judiciary – despite its dangers to Israel and the popularity of the Likud led government – thus serves an important purpose. It is no longer easy for Netanyahu to present himself as a populist outsider, having marginalized all left-wing opposition – which Netanyahu and Likud have long portrayed as too sympathetic and indulgent towards the Palestinians – and having served as Prime Minister for almost the entirety of the post-2009 period.
Pursuing judicial reform helps Netanyahu present himself as a populist fighter struggling against Israel’s unelected ‘elites’ in the name of the people, whom he seeks to protect from outside and internal forces that seek to destroy the Jewish state. Moreover, Likud’s decision to empower religious courts while attacking the independence of the secular courts is a demonstration of their commitment to de-secularizing Israel, and in a sense to create an alternative system of justice to the ‘elite’ dominated secular judiciary. It is also the logical outcome of his populist ideology and belief that he represents the voice of the authentic and morally good Jewish people of Israel. That rigid populist logic demands that Netanyahu attack bodies and institutions that impede his government’s agenda and which, by doing so, also prevents the people from exercising their will. Thus, Netanyahu’s ‘pause’ on judicial reform may prove to be just that, a pause before he again attempts to diminish judicial independence and the ability of judges to thwart the will of ‘the people’.
It is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Turkish President Erdogan’s prolonged tenure in Turkey allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule. By monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo that insulted the way of life of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a deep polarization in society to maintain his grip on power.
In my Project Syndicate piece titled “Erdogan’s Success Story” (June 14, 2011), I provided a positive assessment of Erdogan’s remarkable economic achievements over the past decade, highlighting Turkey’s expected entry into higher-income country status during his third term. However, I concluded the article by posing the question: “How will Turkey utilize its rapidly growing economic power?”
In a notable departure from the initial period (2003-2011) when Erdogan strengthened his position and reformed the regime, he veered away from the essential factors that contributed to his success. The period following the 2011 election victory witnessed a shift towards a process of power intoxication, culminating in the complete consolidation of the presidential government system (PGS) in 2018. This marked a departure from the so-called “orthodoxy,” replaced by a more arbitrary approach characterized by learning by doing and trial-and-error, which Erdogan referred to as “heterodoxy.” Although this era resulted in unprecedented economic and political turmoil, Erdogan’s election for a third term as president raises the question of why a populist government that initially came to power amidst an economic crisis did not encounter more significant challenges.
However, empirical evidence suggests that populists often come to power through relatively “free,” if not entirely “fair,” elections, yet only a few of them are consistently able to exit power. This usually occurs through being voted out of office, primarily if they manage to stay in control long enough to transform the system into a more authoritarian one. Consequently, the modes of departure often involve scandals, impeachment or resignations, constitutional crises, refusals to step down, coups, suicides, or tragic accidents. The recent elections in Turkey have demonstrated that in cases of democratic backsliding, an economic crisis alone is a necessary but insufficient condition for an authoritarian leader to change course. The positive case of successfully defeating an authoritarian populist in Brazil in March 2013 highlights that the sufficiency condition lies in the opposition’s ability to employ and manage various factors more effectively than the government, even when the latter abuses state power.
Erdogan as a Mastermind of Populism
Engaging in debates about the fairness or fraudulence of Erdogan’s election victory at this stage does not provide significant insights. As highlighted by Funke et al., when populists manage to remain in power for a decade or longer, they often shape their country’s political destiny in negative ways. After Erdogan’s prolonged tenure, Turkey has regressed from being considered a “free” country, as indicated by the Freedom House Index of 2023, and the elections can no longer be deemed fair. In a country like Turkey, where the general election results show that the opposition party (Republican People’s Party, CHP – 25%) consistently lags behind the ruling party (Justice and Development Party, AKP – 35% on May 14, 2023) by approximately 10 percentage points for nearly 21 years, the transfer of power appears unlikely, regardless of the coalition formed.
While the definition of populism may vary, as the Pope declared, it is commonly viewed as an “evil” that tends to lead to undesirable outcomes. Erdogan’s brand of populism aligns perfectly with a Machiavellian approach, where any means or methods to secure victory are deemed permissible or legitimate. Engaging in a political game with a leader like Erdogan, who does not hesitate to employ divisive tactics and polarize society through the creation of antagonistic groups such as “us vs. them,” “the people (ordinary, virtuous citizens) vs. the elite (pro-statuesque, corrupt, self-serving),” “true believers vs. infidels,” and “nationalists vs. traitors,” is a recipe for a nightmare scenario. He consistently invents and substitutes (foreign or domestic) enemies, identifies (internal or external) scapegoats, stokes security concerns within society, and perpetuates a state of conflict to solidify his hold on power.
Populism, with its rhetoric in defense of the rights of the “innocent and silent majority” against the perceived beneficiaries of an establishment or elite, implies that political power should not be held by economic, financial, intellectual, or political elites, but by a homogenous and virtuous “people.” This perspective, as highlighted by Arnesen and Peters, draws from Norris (2018) and encourages the emergence of a charismatic leader who presents themselves as an outsider to the establishment and claims to understand the “true desires” of the people, representing their voice and serving their interests. Consequently, this discourse undermines the significance of “mediating institutions,” particularly in the countries dominated by a paternalistic or patrimonial culture like Turkey. As a result, modern governance institutions, norms, and values, such as the division of labor and expertise, lose their relevance. Merit is increasingly replaced by loyalty and militant advocacy, and professional, autonomous specialized institutions are either weakened or filled with supporters. Erdogan’s era exemplifies the harm inflicted upon institutions and the economy as populists remain in power. It is important to note that Erdogan’s “populism” is not a learned, an acquired or imported ideology but an original synthesis deeply connected to geography, culture, history, and the cult of his leadership personality.
Several factors play a decisive role in Erdogan’s populist discourse:
A multipolar world in power transition without an omnipotent hegemonic power dictating its unilateral will to the “rest.”
Geopolitics, which can be negotiated and marketed in such a world, just like the geography of Turkey. A situation that brings both high risk and return.
A majority population whose “memory” has been manipulated and updated with an older version of the software, ancestors, and religion being the two strategic tools.
In such a geostrategic location of great power rivalries, Erdogan’s situation can be likened to a person who owns few rooms but several keys to open them. Obviously, it is almost impossible to find the right key and open the door in time always quickly. But he doesn’t waste time opening the door; either he breaks it in an emergency or uses the only lock in this geography to open all the doors with a magical capacity; culture! In that regard, Erdogan can be called the “inventor of populism” in the 21st century when it comes to the creation and exploitation of a nostalgic “populist heartland” that corresponds to a retrospectively imagined utopia built on an abandoned but undead human based past.
As Yilmaz and Morieson put,“the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.” Keeping society intact with his constantly renewed agenda, Erdogan’s emotional populism allows him to employ the elements of religion-history-culture and friends-foes antagonism.
An additional defining trait, and perhaps surprising to some, is Erdogan’s religious belief, encapsulated by the motto “After you have done all you can, leave the rest to God and trust it.” This philosophy stems from the recognition that in the face of complex and ever-changing circumstances, risks are amplified by deteriorating institutions and declining human capital. Such challenges reflect the vulnerability of the “one-man system,” where even an omnipotent dictator cannot single-handedly handle significant challenges. In such situations, prayer becomes the only recourse, driven by the conviction that “the new day will come with new hopes or opportunities!”
Erdogan’s approach to economic management serves as a field where his populism is exemplified through the stylized characteristics outlined above.
The Transformation of Turkey’s Economy: From Orthodoxy to Heterodoxy
In countries with strong institutions, an orthodox economy signifies a market that operates based on its internal dynamism, guided by market-friendly rules that address potential market failures. Conversely, in a country dominated by authoritarian populism, a heterodox economy implies arbitrariness and uncertainty. Both of these approaches were tested and experienced in Turkey from 2003 to 2023. In this article, Erdogan’s economic management can be examined within three distinct periods: the first period (2003-2011) characterized by the application of good governance principles to a reasonable extent, the second period (2011-2018) marked by a turbulent transition to a completely different regime, and finally, the consolidation of the authoritarian PGS since 2018.
In the following discussion, I will summarize the key achievements and highlight unresolved problems that have spiraled out of control, particularly with the consolidation of the single-man regime under the PGS.
During the first period, the orthodox approach primarily involved:
(i) the establishment of quality institutions such as central bank autonomy and the rule of law,
(ii) fostering peaceful coexistence and regional relations through the “zero problems with neighbors” policy, and
(iii) pursuing integration with the EU, the global community, and global governance institutions.
Except for the global economic crisis of 2008-2009, the first period witnessed domestic reforms, solid institutional capacity, and comparable long-term growth performance to similar countries. The economy expanded by an average of around 5.8 percent, as depicted in Figure 1, although with a visible loss of momentum. By 2013, national income surpassed the trillion-dollar threshold, and per capita GDP reached $12,500, propelling Turkey to the status of an “upper middle-income country” for the first time.
Figure.1 Economic Growth in Turkey (2003-2022)
i) According to Acemoglu and Üçer, a notable development during this period was the dominance of overall productivity growth over factor inputs, marking a significant shift. Additionally, the implementation of monetary and fiscal discipline contributed to a decrease in inflation from 55% in 2002 to single-digit figures by 2005.
ii) In terms of financing economic growth, there was a notable increase in capital inflows across all categories and terms, which facilitated a smooth expansion. Furthermore, thanks to fiscal and monetary discipline, interest rates experienced a significant decline across all categories and terms. This period also witnessed a reduction in the budget deficit and a decrease in the share of interest burden on the budget.
iii) According to World Bank data, there was a striking improvement in income distribution during this period. This was evident in the decrease of the Gini Coefficient from 0.45 in 2005 to 0.38 by 2007, indicating a more equitable distribution of income.
On the downside, despite positive progress in leading economic indicators and relative macroeconomic stabilization, the following aspect remained fragile, with long-term implications:
i) While the population increased from nearly 65 million to 85 million as of 2023, primarily due to the influx of millions of unorganized refugees, GDP receded to nearly 800 billion dollars after 2019. As a result, per capita GDP also declined by 8000-9000 dollars, indicating Turkey’s middle-income trap status as of 2022.
ii) Turkey’s potential for growth did not improve, primarily due to a decline in productivity growth resulting from the discontinuation of reforms after losing external anchors, such as Turkey’s full membership negotiations process with the EU.
iii) The halted structural transition led to the persistence of a growth model based on classical low-value-added, capital-labor intensive industries. Moreover, the share of upper-middle-income technology in production and exports remained stagnant at around 2.5% until 2022, showing no improvement over nearly two decades. It is worth noting that countries like South Korea and China achieved a share of 35% at a similar development level.
iv) Reflecting the insufficiency of national savings and structural weaknesses, Turkey’s reliance on imports and capital inflows for growth persisted. As a result, each period of economic growth led to a significant increase in the current account deficit, which reached approximately 5-6 percent of GDP in 2022.
In his third term, which began in June 2011, Erdogan exhibited an increasing authoritarian tendency, reflecting a sense of power intoxication. Unfortunately, this period saw a decline in the gains that had been achieved. The process was initiated by the corruption operations on December 17-25, 2013, and further exacerbated by the self-orchestrated coup attempt by “the team Erdogan” on July 15, 2016. It culminated in a complete overhaul of the system in 2018, leading to a severe economic downturn referred to as a “free fall.”
Throughout the years, Erdogan systematically politicized and undermined the independence of key judicial institutions, including the Council of State, Court of Cassation, Court of Accounts, and the Constitutional Court. He also exerted control over institutions such as the Central Bank, Statistical Institute, Competition Authority, and banking supervision and regulation bodies. This process resulted in a loss of control over inflation, unemployment, domestic and foreign deficits, and the accumulation of national debt. Official figures indicate that annual inflation reached 86% in 2022, significantly higher than the global average rate of less than 8%. These macroeconomic imbalances were primarily causedby the excessively low policy rate pressure imposed on the Central Bank of Turkey and excessive monetary expansion, which became rapidly unsustainable. Moreover, these policies enabled Erdogan-backed speculators to generate exorbitant profits.
Then Why and How Erdogan Wins: A Hate and Hope Paradigm
In a country the size of Turkey, lacking abundant natural resources, it is impossible to conceal economic facts and failures from the public and international community for an extended period. Manipulating data through Soviet-style fabricated politburo methods or exerting strict militant control over autonomous policy-making authorities like the statistical institute is ineffective. This is because the impact of these developments is directly felt in people’s daily lives.
This finding aligns with the overall understanding that populist economic policies have a short lifespan and are not sustainable. Furthermore, it predicts that such a government either loses power or transitions into complete authoritarianism. Unfortunately, Turkey currently teeters on the brink of such a development following the May 2023 elections.
Does Erdogan’s continued stay in power, particularly with the main opposition party CHP trailing the ruling party by almost 10 points, imply that economic factors have lost importance in authoritarian regimes during elections? While the literature suggests that populist parties often come to power after a macroeconomic crisis, the reverse is not necessarily true. These elections demonstrated that an economic crisis is necessary but insufficient to dislodge an authoritarian government. It also indicates that Erdogan skillfully constructed an ‘uneven playing field’ and relied on a dependent electoral majority. The opposition made every effort to win the rigged game, even adopting the populist-ethnonationalism strategies of its adversary, but ultimately failed. In addition to Erdogan’s “success” in providing livelihood security to a significant portion of the electorate, he also stoked security concerns and fear of a return of the old status quo elites, known as “White Turks,” who previously threatened and humiliated the lifestyle of ordinary citizens.
The most crucial factor that neutralized or balanced the devastating economic crisis, as indicated in Table 1, is the extensive and effective use of the “Welfare regime.” Despite Turkey’s unfavorable rankings in all categories compared to similar authoritarian populist countries like Argentina and Brazil, it excelled in implementing widespread social support programs, including those targeting the most vulnerable families. Furthermore, these measures were presented skillfully within the framework of culture and religion, yielding profound political consequences. Culture matters. In a region where the notion of citizenship demanding justice and the rule of law as a public good has remained premature for centuries due to the culture of patrimonialism, citizens perceived “social support” not as a constitutional guarantee but as a benevolent offering from the Sultan. Their “loyalty” was consequently secured through a minimum level of economic security, protecting those who felt neglected and left behind.
Table.1 Governance in Selected Populist/Authoritarian Countries
The second decisive factor is the utilization of immigrants as a source of cheap labor and a voting reserve for the ruling AKP. Despite having to work informally in low-wage sectors without social security protection, Erdogan adeptly leveraged foreign funds, primarily from the EU, to compensate for their losses, including providing social protection. In the midst of a deteriorating economic environment, the opposition’s discourse of repatriating immigrants did not resonate, particularly among small and medium-sized companies, due to this practice that alleviates labor costs for millions of refugees and grants a comparative advantage to low value-added sectors.
In addition to financial support, Erdogan fostered a strong emotional connection and sense of belonging among the immigrants by invoking a highly susceptible concept from religious literature known as “ummah” or “Ansar brotherhood.” Moreover, he transformed this imaginary notion into tangible expectations that shape the minds of millions of people. Depicting a mythical “global land of brotherhood” based on religious commonalities and historical memories, Erdogan conveys the message: “Just like our esteemed ancestors, it is time to reclaim our history as the worldwide Muslim diaspora eagerly looks to us as protectors.” As a result, sympathy towards Erdogan among the average person on the streets of any Muslim country may be higher than in Turkey itself.
While these “pull factors” served their economic purpose, Erdogan also strategically employed “push elements” in his rhetoric. Believing in the power of media under his control and the limited memory of the people, Erdogan not only took credit for past successes but also shifted blame for past failures onto present-day politicians who were not in power at the time and never governed Turkey. In a country with low levels of political, religious, and economic literacy, he manipulated the decision-making capacity of the electorate through the media he seized. The production of manipulated statistics, inventions, and innovations within this context instilled a sense of pride and superiority in a society yearning for a return to the glory days of the past.
Therefore, it is evident that populist politicians, even if they come to power through free elections, deviate from the same path when they stay in power for an extended period and transform the regime. Erdogan’s prolonged tenure allowed him to skillfully reshape the political regime into a one-person rule.
By capitalizing on and monopolizing the achievements of his ancestors and emphasizing religious values in opposition to ultra-secularist elites, whom he portrayed as foreign puppets and defenders of the oppressive status quo which oppressed and insulted the life patterns of ordinary citizens, Erdogan successfully created a significant divide that was crucial for maintaining control.
To secure the loyalty of the people, with whom he had “connected with heart and imagination,” particularly those who were likely victims of economic difficulties, Erdogan employed a combination of cultural and economic transactional policies. He not only provided various economic benefits but also manipulated them by instilling fear of losing their privileges and fostering a sense of national security, sovereignty, and even independence. When one considers the opposition parties’ leadership, policy quality, and communication skills with the public, it becomes clear that Erdogan would not be replaced with the configuration of such a coalition.
While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Islamist populist Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, the Union falls short of making serious warnings in this regard.
Turkey’s Islamist-populist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of the main opposition party CHP and the candidate of six-party opposition bloc in the elections held on Sunday. Despite the twin earthquakes that killed more than 50.000 people in early February, a looming economic crisis, and the deepening polarization, Erdogan managed to secure another five years at the helm of Turkey. Seemingly, his Islamist populism entrenched with authoritarianism paid off at the ballot box and enabled him to enter the third decade of his rule which means he will be ruling Turkey for a quarter of a century. While he received 52 percent of the vote, his challenger Kilicdaroglu got 48 percent.
The Turkish Parliament, whose members were elected in the first round of the vote on May 14, 2023, is deemed to be the most conservative-nationalist House in the hundred years of the Republic. Combined with increasingly authoritarian regime of Erdogan, the future does not bode well for almost half of the population who voted for the opposition. As BBC put it ‘the strategic NATO nation’ had chosen its path, most voters opting for a seasoned autocrat rather than an untested democrat in the form of Kilicdaroglu. While Kilicdaroglu stressed the need to revitalize the relations with the European Union (EU) – which is frozen for almost a decade – and revise the migrants deal that was agreed in 2016, Erdogan barely mentioned the EU in his election campaign. For Erdogan, the relationship with Brussels is run on a transactional basis.
For the first round of elections of May 14, the joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) found that the legal framework did not fully provide a basis for holding democratic elections. Frank Schwabe, head of the PACE delegation, underlined that Turkey did not fulfil the basic principles for holding a democratic election. “Key political and social figures are in prison even after judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, media freedom is severely restricted and there is a climate of self-censorship. Turkey is a long way from creating fair election campaign conditions,” said he. For the second round, Schwabe reiterated his position that the second round also took place in an environment that in many ways did not provide the conditions for holding democratic elections. Selahattin Demirtas, the former leader of the second largest opposition party, pro-Kurdish HDP is still in jail despite the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that he should be freed with immediate effect.
“What happens in Turkey in terms of its democracy and in terms of its place in the region has a huge impact on Europe, on Asia, and of course on all of the global issues that we’re all grappling with. So, it is really important,” said she. And the Economist, the British weekly announced on its cover that the Turkish election was the most important of 2023. “Most important, in an era when strongman rule is on the rise, from Hungary to India, the peaceful ejection of Mr Erdogan would show democrats everywhere that strongmen can be beaten,” wrote the weekly. There was hope if Erdogan could be defeated at the ballot box, it would send a message to all the populist authoritarian regimes across the globe.
Although it was not unexpected that Erdogan would use a populist discourse to demonize his opponents, what is surprising was Kilicdaroglu’s embrace of populist rhetoric right after it became obvious that the presidential election would go to a run-off on May 28. Kilicdaroglu who lost the first round of presidential elections by almost 5 percent of the vote immediately changed his course and employing an ethnonationalist strain, swerved right. He promised to send home millions of Syrian refugees and doubled down the nationalist tone in his rhetoric. According to an Al Monitor/Premise poll which was conducted between May 19-23 across Turkey, 71 percent of the respondents favored an imminent return of refugees. The economy and refugees stood out as the top two issues that the respondents deemed challenges for the country. To win the nationalist votes, Kilicdaroglu signed a protocol with the leader of the far-right Victory Party, Umit Ozdag. Ozdag proclaimed the return of the refugees as the number one priority for his party. The protocol promised to return all of the refugees within a year. Right after the first round of elections, Kilicdaroglu claimed Erdogan had brought 10 million refugees to the country and that number would increase if he would remain in power. Adopting a fearmongering style, Kilicdaroglu implied that ‘our daughters’ would not be able to go around safely if the Syrian and other refugees would stay in Turkey.
While Kilicdaroglu was busy in forming alliances with the far-right parties, Erdogan, too, was seeking to enlist the support of religious populist and far-right parties. Erdogan who won five parliamentary elections, two presidential polls and three referendums, this time around, felt he could be beaten by the opposition. Thus, he agreed to create an alliance with the Islamist New Welfare Party and the Kurdish Islamist Huda-Par (Free Cause Party). Huda-Par is essentially the political projection of Kurdish Hizbullah, an Islamist organization, unrelated to Lebanese Hezbollah, known for its gruesome murders in the 1990s. These two parties have declared that they want Turkey to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention and the repeal of the Law 6284 which basically provides protection for women against violence. Moreover, Erdogan went ahead to court far-right leader Sinan Ogan campaigning heavily on terrorism. In the large meetings which hosted tens of thousands of people, he showed fake videos that falsely implied his opponent Kilicdaroglu had links with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Besides politics, Erdogan has successfully pursued a populist political ideology together with cultural populism. Erdogan’s authoritarianism is more than ballot box as he employs television and music, monuments and memorials that have been prime levers of a political project, a campaign of cultural ressentiment and national rebirth. As the New York Times reported it, this cultural metamorphosis reoriented national culture and promoted a nostalgic revival of the Ottoman past ‘sometimes in grand style sometimes as pure kitsch.’.
What Next With EU?
While a new term for Erdogan will bring more challenges, Turkey will remain a crucial interlocutor for the EU on many issues, including migration, energy, and regional security, particularly against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Turkey has applied EU back in 1959, was declared candidate in 1999 and started accession talks in October 2005. It is the longest history of a candidate country ever. It has been 18 years since the accession talks started however barely16 chapters out of 35 have been opened and only one chapter has been provisionally closed. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel together with the Greek Cypriots have been instrumental in blocking the accession talks. Erdogan’s authoritarian populist streak has also been pivotal in European Council’s decision to freeze accession talks in 2018. This is due to Ankara backtracking on democracy and civil liberties, particularly following the 2016 coup attempt (whose details are still murky), and tensions over developments in Turkish foreign policy. Included were Ankara’s naval operations in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, as well as Ankara’s Syria policy and Cyprus. In 2018, after a similar decision by the European Parliament, the EU froze the accession negotiations, although they were already comatose.
‘The EU’s serious concerns on the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have not been addressed. There was further backsliding in many areas,’ said the European Commission country report of 2022. On most democracy indexes, Turkey has gone down dramatically. According to World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in the beginning of May, Turkey together with Tajikistan and India dropped from being in a “problematic situation” into the lowest category and now ranks 165 out of 180. “Turkey jails more journalists than any other democracy,” said RSF. After Erdogan’s win of the presidential election, it will not be surprising if he tightens his grip on fundamental freedoms and on freedom of expression, in particular.
The relations between Turkey and EU have been transactional since almost 2013 when Erdogan embraced authoritarianism after a huge corruption scandal erupted implicating his son and several of his ministers. One of the milestones of this relationship has been the refugee deal of 2016 according to which Turkey would prevent the crossings of migrants to EU.
EU, without committing itself to any form of membership talks has openly called for ties based on mutual benefit. “The EU and Türkiye continued high-level engagement in areas of common interest such as climate, health or migration and security. This was in line with the EU’s offer to support a more positive dynamic in EU-Türkiye relations, expressing readiness to engage with Türkiye in a phased, proportionate, and reversible manner in a number of areas of common interest, subject to the conditions set out by the European Council. On energy, Türkiye continues to be an important and reliable transit country for the EU,’ said the country report of 2022. On the refugee deal, the EU has commended Turkey for hosting more than 3.5 million people.
EU has clearly determined that Turkey under Erdogan has been less democratic and more authoritarian, however, Brussels falls short of making serious warnings in this regard. “There are serious deficiencies in the functioning of Türkiye’s democratic institutions. During the reporting period, democratic backsliding continued. Structural deficiencies in the presidential system remained in place. Key recommendations from the Council of Europe and its bodies have yet to be addressed. Parliament continued to lack the necessary means to hold the government accountable. The constitutional architecture continued to centralize powers at the level of the Presidency without ensuring the sound and effective separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary. In the absence of an effective checks and balances mechanism, the democratic accountability of the executive branch continues to be limited to elections,’ remarked the country report.
This transactional nature of the relationship has been confirmed by the messages of EU leaders in the wake of the presidential elections. While the foreign policy chief Josep Borrell congratulated Erdogan and called for the continuation of relations based on mutual interest, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invited Erdogan to Berlin without mentioning the serious backsliding on fundamental freedoms.
The world order has been rapidly shifting from a unipolar to a multipolar one. The battle over Europe’s future and the emerging new security architecture will have major implications for the EU and Turkey. As a major security, political and economic actor, Turkey will have a vital role in the future of EU. Thus, Brussels should craft a clear strategy to address dramatic deterioration of fundamental freedoms on the one hand and deepen relations with a view to revitalize the accession process, on the other.
Erdogan’s primary adversary is no longer the opposition, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.
By Savas Genc*
Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a span of almost 22 years, Turkey recently witnessed an election in which the opposition had a chance of victory for the first time. In a nation grappling with an official inflation rate of approximately 80 percent, opposition leaders united to form an electoral coalition with the aim of securing success in the election. Hinging on the fervor of the masses to bring an end to the Erdogan regime, the opposition parties engaged in lengthy negotiations and crafted policies that pledged a restoration of the parliamentary system. By emphasizing the strengthening of democracy, an independent judiciary, and transparent governance, the opposition diligently conducted extensive public engagements over several months to instill confidence in the electorate.
In various independent international indices, Turkey has steadily witnessed a decline in terms of justice, democracy, media freedom, human rights, and corruption, progressively exhibiting an authoritarian trajectory. The opposition formulated its entire electoral strategy around the backdrop of economic distress, the repatriation of over 4 million Syrian and Afghan migrants, and the disintegration of a modern state along with its liberal democratic institutions. They presented a vision of a democratic system in alignment with European Union (EU) standards, incorporating merit-based recruitment schemes for public positions, and advocating for gradual repatriation of migrants through negotiations with the Assad regime in Syria and the EU. The opposition introduced an election program that was virtually flawless in its technical details and captivated the public with its competent cadre of seasoned politicians and academics.
Discussions on Opposition Candidate
The coalition of six opposition parties, having conducted thorough deliberations on the political and economic agenda to be presented to the electorate, deliberately deferred discussions regarding the presidential candidate during their gatherings for months. This cautious approach was adopted to prevent any potential disintegration of the electoral alliance. The criteria for a viable candidate were well-defined. The candidate would originate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party within the alliance, and would need to garner support from both Kurdish voters and conservative masses. Various opinion polling firms consistently indicated Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, as the candidate who best embodied this criterion.
Recognizing Imamoglu’s growing popularity and his strong prospects of winning the elections, President Erdogan took notice and, having faced defeat in Istanbul twice before, invoked judicial mechanisms. It became evident that Erdogan had exerted influence over the judiciary to impose a political ban on Imamoglu. On the day when the decision on the political ban was announced, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who was anticipated to express support for Imamoglu, coincidentally had a scheduled trip to Germany. In the aftermath of the court’s verdict and the subsequent political ban imposed on Imamoglu, Kilicdaroglu, who had been contemplating a presidential candidacy, engaged in discussions of significance over breakfast with prominent figures from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish party with close ties to the center. The Kurdish leaders conveyed their intention to field their own candidate if Kilicdaroglu chose not to run, citing concerns regarding the nationalist background of another potential contender, Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara.
Alliance Reaches a Critical Juncture as Kilicdaroglu Insists on Candidacy
Following Erdogan’s official decision to call early elections in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on February 6, 2023, the opposition alliance initiated meetings with the objective of nominating a joint candidate. Kilicdaroglu successfully advanced the nomination process by offering each of the three smaller parties in the alliance a minimum of 10 parliamentary seats and a ministerial position. However, the Good Party (İYİ Party), which holds the second strongest position in the alliance and does not rely on the CHP’s support in the parliamentary elections, sought to halt this trajectory.
Meral Aksener, the leader of the Good Party, raised objections to Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, citing doubts about his electability. Observing that her concerns were being disregarded, she issued a strongly worded press release announcing their departure from the alliance. This development shattered the hopes of opposition voters. Kilicdaroglu, who had made considerable headway in positioning himself as the preferred candidate for the Kurdish constituency, was taken aback by the fierce reaction of his nationalist partner. In the face of a vehement response from opposition constituents following the dissolution of the alliance, Aksener had no choice but to return to the negotiation table. Reluctantly, she declared their support for Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy, on the condition that the two mayors, Imamoglu and Yavaş, assume the role of vice presidents.
The Electoral Process
Kilicdaroglu embarked on the election with two formidable and popular vice-presidential candidates, resulting in a commendable performance. His campaign maintained a positive tone, refraining from responding to Erdogan’s provocations, while focusing on democratization initiatives. Conversely, Erdogan accused the opposition, which enjoyed Kurdish support, of being linked to terrorism. Employing deep fake videos, he asserted that banned PKK leaders were collaborating with Kilicdaroglu. The masses, initially distancing themselves from Erdogan due to the economic crisis, began to rally behind him again, fueled by concerns over Kilicdaroglu’s security policies.
The opposition was taken aback when Erdogan secured 49.4 percent of the vote in the first round. Their hopes of outpacing Erdogan and even winning the election outright were drastically altered as they entered the second round with a recalibrated strategy. Kilicdaroglu, in a bid to appeal to nationalist voters, who were crucial for securing their support, made a significant shift by signing a memorandum of understanding with the ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant Zafer Party. However, this move disappointed Kurdish voters and dissuaded their participation in the elections.
The Factors Behind Erdogan’s Re-election
It is widely recognized that Erdogan does not possess the qualities of an intellectual politician. However, his remarkable ability to win elections and retain power for 22 years showcases his prowess as an election-winning machine. Faced with the looming risk of electoral defeat, Erdogan strategically relied on identity politics as his trump card. He tapped into the deeply held sentiments of nationalist and religious conservatives who view the Turkish republic, once controlled by secular elitist forces, as a cherished possession they are unwilling to relinquish. By portraying the opposition as godless, Erdogan positioned himself and his party as the safeguarders of the religious masses’ interests and achievements.
The primary fault line in Turkish politics lies in the clash between secular/modern and conservative/traditionalist voters. Despite the nation grappling with a profound economic crisis, erosion of judicial independence, curtailment of media freedoms, and the failure to address the immigration problem, the broad conservative electorate rallied behind Erdogan’s leadership.
Erdogan’s prospects of securing re-election appeared highly improbable merely a year ago, given the prevailing deep economic crisis, as indicated by numerous opinion polls. However, he resorted to political tactics aimed at enticing voters, including the liquidation of all foreign currency and gold reserves held by the treasury. Additionally, the early retirement law was passed, granting hundreds of thousands of citizens under the age of 50 the right to retire. By increasing the minimum wage above the inflation rate, Erdogan successfully garnered support from the Anatolian masses, where the cost of living is relatively lower. Moreover, Erdogan’s position was bolstered by Russia’s decision to postpone Turkey’s $20 billion natural gas debt until after the elections, while countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia extended billions of dollars in loans to the Erdogan government through swap agreements, further consolidating his position of influence.
Erdogan’s Media Empire: An Unassailable Armada
Erdogan, leveraging his extensive media apparatus, has amassed an overpowering media presence that has transformed into an invincible armada. Through awarding substantial public tenders to crony companies, Erdogan’s administration effectively facilitated the acquisition of nearly all major media outlets in the country. For those private media outlets that could not be directly acquired, coercion tactics were employed to align them with a pro-Erdogan stance. Furthermore, the state broadcaster, TRT, funded by public resources, was fortified by the establishment of numerous television channels. During the electoral process, Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan’s opponent, was limited to appearing on a modest news channel, while Erdogan enjoyed the privilege of addressing the public for hours on 24 national news channels. Despite Kilicdaroglu’s repeated invitations, Erdogan refrained from engaging in a political debate on-screen, thereby obstructing his opponent’s visibility. By even impeding opposition advertisements on television through financial means, Erdogan effectively isolated Anatolian voters who relied predominantly on TV channels for news, limiting their exposure to a narrow political bubble.
The Election Turnout
In the context of the election, the opposition demonstrated its strength by securing victories in the metropolitan areas. However, Erdogan’s widespread support among the populace in the expansive Anatolian region played a pivotal role in determining the overall outcome. Through the formation of an alliance encompassing Islamist and nationalist elements, Erdogan exceeded expectations by attaining greater voter support. While Erdogan’s AKP party experienced a decline of 8-9 percentage points in votes, those who did not endorse his party redirected their support to other parties within his political alliance. In the second round, Erdogan, who narrowly missed a first-round victory, successfully gained the backing of his nationalist rival, Sinan Ogan.
The performance of Erdogan had a demoralizing effect on opposition voters, as the first-round results starkly diverged from the data projected by various polling companies. This perception of manipulated elections and the belief that their support for the opposition would be ineffectual led to a significant decline in voter participation during the second round. While the first round witnessed an 87 percent turnout, this figure dipped to 85 percent in the subsequent round. Remarkably, Erdogan maintained a 52 percent share of the vote, positioning himself to potentially govern uninterrupted for 27 years, coinciding with the centenary of the republic.
Erdogan employed strategies such as providing employment opportunities to the offspring of his party’s loyal supporters in roles such as teachers, policemen, watchmen, and salaried sergeant specialists in the Turkish army. Additionally, he bolstered the economic well-being of conservative masses by allocating tenders to his senior executives through his construction industry network. As aptly stated by Brezinski, “Just as oil is a decisive factor in Arab countries, the construction sector and real estate investments play a crucial role in Turkish politics.” Erdogan effectively generated jobs and wealth for substantial segments of the population through his wealth-sharing model centered around construction revenues. The masses, concerned about the potential collapse of the established order, disregarded the country’s institutional and economic crises, experiencing upward economic mobility under Erdogan’s leadership.
The Potential Success of the Opposition with a Different Candidate?
The question arises as to whether the opposition would have achieved success had they fielded a different candidate. In this context, it is crucial to examine Kilicdaroglu’s political track record, characterized by 17 prior unsuccessful attempts in general and local elections, during which he never ventured to challenge Erdogan directly as a candidate. Interestingly, Kilicdaroglu, confident in the prospects of his election chances amidst the deepening economic crisis and the earthquake’s impact, exhibited a reluctance to entertain discussions regarding alternative candidates. Seizing upon the political ban imposed on Imamoglu as an opportunity, Kilicdaroglu engaged in strategic deliberations with Kurdish politicians, aiming to obstruct Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, from pursuing candidacy. This particular course of action instigated dissatisfaction among opposition voters.
While it remains true that Yavas hailed from nationalist roots, it was precisely this background that rendered him a potential contender capable of garnering support from protest voters disenchanted with Erdogan. Multiple opinion polls consistently identified Yavas as the candidate most likely to secure victory against Erdogan in the initial round of elections. Yavas, with his history within nationalist parties, would have been well-positioned to effectively counter Erdogan’s accusations of association with “terrorists” and Kurdish support.
It is important to note that definitive assertions regarding Yavas’ victory over Erdogan cannot be made, given Erdogan’s prowess as an election-winning machine and his mobilization of state institutions to this end. However, it is reasonable to suggest that Yavas’ prospects of success would have been considerably higher compared to Kilicdaroglu, irrespective of the ultimate outcome.
The Future of Turkey Following Erdogan’s Re-election
Numerous political analysts and scholars contend that the recent election outcome in Turkey may represent the final opportunity for democratic reform. With another five years of governance ahead and parliamentary support, Erdogan aims to shape the opposition into a force that merely legitimizes his authority, akin to regimes observed in Central Asia.
Considering Erdogan’s advancing age and increasingly evident health concerns, he must also cultivate a new and trustworthy leader to safeguard his family’s political legacy. Similar to practices in Central Asian regimes, he may need to involve one of his sons or sons-in-law in politics, thereby paving the way for a future leadership transition and the preservation of his family’s influence.
In this process, Erdogan’s primary adversary will not be the opposition, which has encountered challenges in securing electoral victories, but rather the anticipated deepening of the economic crisis. Turkey currently grapples with significant debt, leading to borrowing at prohibitively high interest rates due to its credit default swap (CDS) scores. Although Erdogan managed to stabilize the exchange rate by injecting all available foreign currency reserves into the markets prior to the elections, attracting new investors to the country remains unlikely. A climate of uncertainty, compromised rule of law, and suspended democracy hinders substantial investments. The potential for democratic change could arise if the nation reaches a state of ungovernability, prompting conservative voters to transcend their historical reservations against secularists. Alternatively, the Erdogan regime may solidify its support base irreversibly by effectively managing the economy to prevent social upheavals, ultimately establishing a system where elections serve as mere symbolic displays.
(*) Dr. Savas Genc completed his doctoral studies at the esteemed University of Heidelberg and has been serving as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Heidelberg since 2020, supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s PSI program. Prior to this, he held the position of Professor of International Relations in Istanbul, where he also served as an Erasmus Visiting Professor, imparting his knowledge to students at various European universities. Dr. Genc’s academic contributions encompass a wide range of research interests, including directing the “Research Center for Contemporary Civilizations” and leading notable projects such as “The Perception of Turkish Foreign Policy in the Middle East.”
After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent electoral victory in Turkey exemplifies the winning formula of populism in deeply divided and polarized societies. His authoritarian populism has effectively tapped into the fears, grievances, nostalgia, and hopes of the Turkish people, enabling him to consolidate his authoritarian regime. However, it is important to note that Erdogan’s success cannot be solely attributed to his populist rhetoric, especially considering the ongoing economic crisis in the country.
In addition to his Islamist populism, securitization of the opposition, manipulation, and fearmongering, Erdogan has also employed tactics of electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes. Furthermore, he has greatly benefited from economic populism and neo-patrimonialism. Understanding Erdogan’s winning formula allows us to examine the predicaments Turkey currently faces and consider what Erdogan may do in the future to maintain his winning streak.
After explaining Erdogan’s winning formula, I will try to look at Turkey’s predicaments from the lens of this formula. Unfortunately, there is no good news for Turkey’s educated, Westernized sections of society, as well as Kurds, Alevis, and other political minorities. Erdogan’s approach tends to marginalize and oppress these groups, leading to their continued exclusion and marginalization in the political sphere.
Electoral Authoritarianism and Manipulation of Electoral Processes
Erdogan’s regime is characterized by electoral authoritarianism, where the playing field for opposition parties is heavily skewed, resulting in elections that lack both freedom and fairness. Despite the presence of opposition parties, Erdogan utilizes the full extent of state apparatuses, including security forces and the judiciary, as well as his own party’s massive machinery, which boasts 12 million members (around 20 percent of the country’s adults). Additionally, his control over approximately 90 percent of the conventional media and a powerful digital authoritarianism machine enables him to manipulate information and disseminate disinformation to undermine opposition parties.
Erdogan employs various tactics of electoral authoritarianism to ensure that opposition parties are unable to secure a majority of votes, serving primarily to create a façade of legitimacy for his authoritarian political system. These tactics include gerrymandering, restrictions on opposition campaigns, and the suppression of independent media. Furthermore, the counting of votes is under Erdogan’s control, and opposition parties lack the capacity to substantiate their allegations of election rigging. They are unable to address issues such as the significant increase in the number of registered voters, which has outpaced the population growth of Turkey over the past two decades.
Since 2018, the deteriorating state of the political system in Turkey has led to its classification as “unfree” by organizations like Freedom House. Despite rulings from the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) advocating for their release, many democratically elected Kurdish mayors and parliamentarians remain imprisoned. Journalists, academics, and activists critical of the government face intimidation, imprisonment, and media censorship. This has transformed Turkey into one of the most repressive regimes for journalists in recent history.
While Turkey lacks significant oil reserves like countries such as Russia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, it still needs to remain open to tourists, businesses, and investments from the West. As a result, the regime cannot fully suppress opposition parties and civil society, as they need to maintain the illusion of a competitive political landscape. However, in the end, the regime maintains control, ensuring that the house always wins.
Despite some semblance of political participation and limited space for opposition, Erdogan’s regime employs a wide range of tactics to consolidate power and undermine the principles of democracy, ultimately resulting in the erosion of civil liberties, media freedom, and the ability of opposition parties to challenge the ruling party effectively.
Islamist Populism, Securitization of the Opposition, Manipulation, and Fearmongering
Populism often seeks to create a divisive narrative that separates society into two distinct groups: “the morally righteous people” and “the corrupt elite” who allegedly deny the people their rightful sovereignty. This aspect is fundamental to Erdoganism, the ideology associated with President Erdogan. According to this ideology, “the corrupt elite” consists of the educated, Westernized, and secular segments of society, who are often referred to as “White Turks” and represent around 30-35 percent of the population. On the other hand, Erdoganists consider themselves as “Black Turks,” even though many elite members of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) have lifestyles aligned with the “White Turkish” segment.
Given Turkey’s current challenges in competing with the West, both culturally and technologically, Islamists in Turkey harbor deep resentment towards the West, blaming it for the issues facing the Muslim world. To cope with this, they turn to a nostalgic yearning for the glory of the Ottoman Empire and project it as a Pan-Islamist vision, aspiring for a future Sunni caliphate under Turkey’s leadership. This narrative often involves the propagation of various anti-Western conspiracy theories. According to this view, Western powers and Jews are perceived as determined to impede Turkey’s rise to leadership in the Islamic world, using diverse instruments such as the Kurds, Alevis, Gulenists, secular Westernized Turks, academics, journalists, NGOs, and human rights defenders within the country.
During election campaigns, dissenters and opposition figures are frequently demonized and labelled as traitors, terrorists, internal enemies, non-Muslims, fake Muslims, hypocrites, deviants, or supporters of the LGBT community. Erdogan capitalizes on creating and perpetuating crises to instill fear among Sunni Turks and position himself and the AKP as the sole saviors capable of protecting the country and Islam.
By promoting this narrative and generating fear among his Sunni Turkish support base, Erdogan seeks to present himself and his party as the only reliable protectors of the nation and Islam. This approach helps to solidify his power and maintain a significant level of control, particularly through the marginalization and vilification of dissenting voices and opposition groups.
Economic Populism and Neo-Patrimonialism
Erdogan’s populist approach extends beyond politics and spills over into economic populism as well. Throughout his time in power, Erdogan has implemented various social welfare programs and policies aimed at assisting economically disadvantaged individuals. This strategy not only helps those in need but also cultivates loyalty among his supporters.
One way Erdogan maintains this loyalty is by providing neo-patrimonial public welfare, which can be seen as a form of “charitable patronage.” This involves the redistribution of public resources and the granting of preferential access to public jobs, healthcare, and housing. However, these benefits often come at the expense of marginalized ethnic, religious, and political groups who do not align with Erdogan’s agenda.
What sets Erdogan’s approach apart is his careful presentation of these benefits. He and his party have strategically framed them in a way that portrays the source of these benefits not as the state, taxpayers, or future generations burdened with loans, but rather as coming directly from the merciful and benevolent AKP and Erdogan himself. This messaging resonates particularly well with Erdogan’s Sunni Turkish pious support base.
Furthermore, thanks to the AKP’s extensive party machinery, they have a deep understanding of the demographics of each street and village. This knowledge enables them to target their assistance effectively and maintain a close connection with their supporters. As a result, even amidst economic crises, Erdogan’s supporters continue to appreciate him, while those from non-AKP backgrounds and educated middle classes often find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges.
This dynamic is evident even in regions devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes. Despite clear failures in addressing these crises, Erdogan and his party have not faced significant repercussions at the ballot box. This can be attributed to the continued support from his loyal base, who remain steadfast in their backing of Erdogan despite any shortcomings or failures.
Erdogan’s populist neo-patrimonial economic model extends to his approach to interest rates as well. Despite the prevailing orthodox wisdom in economics, Erdogan argues that lower interest rates will lead to a decrease in inflation. He also invokes Islamic principles, stating that interest is considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. Many people perceive his stance on interest as stemming solely from his Islamist beliefs. However, there is a patrimonial populist dimension to this approach.
Firstly, it is worth noting that many of Erdogan’s associates and close allies are involved in the construction sector. This sector plays a significant role in Turkey, as they continually build houses to accommodate the country’s growing population. By keeping interest rates low, Erdogan enables his cronies in the construction industry to sell houses, while simultaneously catering to the desires of his supporters, who mainly come from lower-income backgrounds and aspire to own homes.
This policy of maintaining low interest rates benefits his cronies in the construction sector by stimulating housing demand. Simultaneously, it weakens the overall economy and has adverse effects on the middle class. While this policy serves the interests of his supporters by allowing them to afford housing, it comes at the expense of the broader economy and harms the middle classes. As a result, the middle class, who are not necessarily Erdogan’s core supporters, experience a weakening of their economic standing. This indirect wealth transfer through state policies contributes to the erosion of the middle class, consequently weakening the opposition as well.
By implementing such economic policies, Erdogan is not only pursuing his own interests and those of his cronies but also undermining the strength of the middle classes, which poses a challenge to his opposition. Ultimately, this strategy helps consolidate his power by weakening potential sources of dissent and opposition.
Overall, Erdogan’s economic populism, combined with strategic messaging and a strong support base, allows him to maintain political control and keep his voters loyal, even in the face of challenging circumstances and criticism.
What Does Erdogan’s Winning Formula Mean for Turkey’s Future?
After the election results, Erdogan is likely to feel vindicated, but being a vindictive populist, he will not forgive those who did not vote for him. In his celebratory speech, which was previously unifying and conciliatory in tone, he exhibited aggression, polarization, and securitization of the opposition. Despite his extensive efforts, 48 percent of voters remain “ungrateful” in his eyes. This narrow margin of victory makes him vulnerable and fuels his fury. Consequently, he will attempt to weaken the opposition both domestically and abroad using the methods described earlier.
His vindication and vindictiveness will work against the opposition, dissidents, and minority groups. Erdogan will continue to attack and suppress Kurds, Alevis, “White Turks,” Gulenists, and others. He will intensify his narratives about Western crusaders, Jewish lobby, and portray LGBT individuals as enemies of the Turkish people, labeling dissenters as traitors and terrorists.
Erdogan’s electoral authoritarianism and manipulation of electoral processes will persist without restraint. He may establish new so-called “opposition” TV channels and newspapers or capture existing ones to create a loyal opposition media. Additionally, digital authoritarianism will increase, aiming to curtail the influence of social media.
Due to growing repression and the negative impact of his economic populism and neo-patrimonialism on the educated middle classes, many educated Turks and Kurds will choose to leave the country, resulting in a brain drain. “White Turks,” fearing a fate similar to that of Gulen Movement supporters, whose businesses, properties, and homes were seized by Erdogan regime and transferred to AKP supporters, will transfer their wealth to Western nations.
To compensate for the decreasing population numbers and simultaneously decrease the opposition’s vote share, Erdogan will increasingly grant citizenship to Sunni Arabs, Afghans, and Pakistanis, not only in Turkey but also in Western countries and even in their countries of origin. Leveraging his party machine, Islamist pro-AKP NGOs abroad, and a trusted network of Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, these new citizens will be carefully selected.
To win another term as President in Turkey, incumbent Islamist populist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn.
Turkey holds its next presidential elections on May 14, 2023, and for the first time in two decades Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long reign as Turkish President appears to be faltering, as opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu mounts a serious challenge to his rule. Turkey’s poor economic performance, largely the result of Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policies, has contributed to the decline in support for the Turkish leader. Equally, Erdogan’s apparent ill health, which has led him to appear via video link at events he would ordinarily attend in person, has led to growing concerns that he is ailing and no longer capable of running the country. To counter these issues, he and his supporters have sought to build the image of the President as a macho and virile populist who is the only one capable of protecting the Turkish people from their foreign ‘imperialist’ adversaries and leading the country toward a bright future. In contrast, Erdogan’s rival Kilicdaroglu, is portrayed as a physically weak and elderly man, often in domestic environments which can be associated with housework. This image is meant to communicate that Kilicdaroglu is not a worthy candidate as he cannot stand up to the shadowy international ‘elites’ who seek to undermine Turkey’s economy and diminish its power in the world. Part of this campaign involves the creation of memes, a trend encouraged by Erdogan’s online communications staff, who post images of the President on his official Twitter account appearing ‘tough’ and ‘in control’ and dressed in military clothing.
When the Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won power in 2002, he promised his party would govern as ‘Muslim democrats,’ return power to the Turkish people, negotiate an end to the brutal conflict with Kurdish militant groups, and to seek membership of the European Union. More than twenty years later, the AKP has established itself as the authoritarian dominant political force in the nation, marginalizing its rivals and removing them from the military, bureaucracy, and media.
Yet, despite Erdogan’s overwhelming power, polling consistently shows him trailing – albeit only by a small margin – CHP leader Kilicdaroglu in the battle to become Turkish president. Erdogan’s declining popularity among Turkish voters is chiefly the result of the failure of his economic policy, which saw him demand the Turkish Central Bank lower interest rates, a decision which, unsurprisingly, precipitated a period of high inflation. Inflation pressures have damaged Turkey’s economy by vastly depreciating the value of the Turkish lira, weakening Turkish purchasing power, and forcing Turkish businesses to spend more repaying foreign loans. The political result of Turkey’s growing economic problems is a tremendous loss of support for the AKP and Erdogan in Turkey’s major cities. For example, in June 2019 Erdogan’s candidate in the Istanbul mayoral election was soundly defeated by the opposition CHP candidate. No non-AKP candidate had won a mayoral election in Istanbul for a quarter of a century, this result has demonstrated the growing discontent with Erdogan’s Presidency and in particular with his handling of Turkey’s economy.
Erdogan and his supporters, however, have not given up on winning another term as President. In the year leading up to the 2023 Presidential election Erdogan unveiled a number of projects intended to diminish the growing public impression of him as a man losing control of the country’s economy. Rather, Erdogan, ever the canny populist, sought to remake his image into that of a powerful, tech savvy, modern leader in total control of his nation’s destiny, yet as someone who always has the interests of his poorest citizens in his mind.
For example, in 2022 Erdogan unveiled the first electric car produced in Turkey, the TOGG, which he promoted as the “people’s car.” TOGG is heavily promoted by Erdogan, who has used taxpayers’ money to fund its production and in turn used it as a symbol of the modern, technologically powerful Turkey he claims to be building. However, the car is likely to be prohibitively expensive, and it is difficult to imagine how the average Turkish citizen could afford to drive this “people’s car.” This has led some commentators to credibly accuse Erdogan of using the car to win another term in office, and to suggest that the project – so intertwined with Erdogan – will inevitably fail if Erdogan is not re-elected.
In an even more obvious attempt to portray himself as leader of a great military power and defender of Turkey, Erdogan in April 2023 unveiled what may be the world’s first armed drone carrier ship, the multi-purpose amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu. The ship, now moored in front of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, was described by Erdogan as a demonstration of his government’s defiance of “imperialists” and “interest lobbies”, insofar as it was built locally and from mostly Turkish materials. Erdogan also claimed that the opposition CHP “couldn’t have” built the ship, implying they were beholden to foreign imperialists and other anti-Turkish interest groups. In contrast, Erdogan claimed he was interested only in defending the interests of the Turkish people.
Also in April 2023, Erdogan unveiled Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, built with Russian assistance. While Turkey’s relationship with several other NATO countries has been strained by Erdogan’s decision to maintain close relations with Russia, Erdogan appears to see cooperation with Putin as vital to his nation’s – and his government’s– interests. The nuclear power plant, the culmination of an agreement signed with Russia in 2010, provided Erdogan with another opportunity to portray himself as a strong leader providing for his people, and defending their interests. In this case, the nuclear power plant was described to the public as a way of giving the Turkish people greater autonomy through energy self-sufficiency. Moreover, Erdogan described that power plant as helping create a “Century of Türkiye” for the nation’s youth, who he claimed would benefit most from the construction of the reactor and two others planned. Intriguingly, Erdogan did not personally attend the unveiling of the reactor. Rather, the President was too ill to attend in person, and instead he and Putin appeared via video conference at the opening ceremony, perhaps undermining Erdogan’s attempt at using the power plant to burnish his credentials as a strong leader protecting Turkish interests from foreign adversaries.
Erdogan’s supporters have naturally sought to help their leader win another term in office. Cognizant that their leader is in danger of losing office, AKP supporters and operatives have been hard at work creating memes intended to portray Erdogan as a tough and powerful leader who hears the voice of the people and acts always in their best interests. When on May 2, 2023 Erdogan’s Twitter feed posted an image of him dressed in air force clothing and wearing aviator sunglasses, as if he were about to fly a fighter plane, his dutiful supporters began constructing memes based on the image. For example, one prominent Erdogan supporter on Twitter with more than 150,000 followers, tweeted out the image with the caption “Tayyip Erdogan is today’s Abdulhamit,” referring to the last Islamist Ottoman sultan (r. 1876-1909) who held real power over the failing Empire. These media strategies are used to show Erdogan as a leader who is representative of all Turkish people but at the same time, he is powerful enough to bring Turkey to its former glory on the global scene. In contrast, another tweet by the same user showed the same image of Erdogan juxtaposed against a photo of Kilicdaroglu sitting in what is presumably his own kitchen, holding up an onion to the camera. The caption reads “kidding aside, who would you vote for?”
Another popular meme contrasted the image of a virile and powerful Erdogan against a ‘weak’ looking Kilicdaroglu sitting at a table in a white singlet, eating a meal on his own. Discussing the image first tweeted by Erdogan’s Twitter feed, journalist Sevilay Yilman remarks upon the curious decision to portray Erdogan as a powerful military leader, when Erdogan himself sought to end the military tutelage that plagued Turkey throughout much of the 20th century. The photo, she argues, reminds voters that Erdogan may have ended secular-nationalist military tutelage, but that he subsequently inaugurated an even more insidious and all-encompassing form of military tutelage. Indeed, the photo seems to be telling voters that Erdogan has now supplanted the military leaders of the past, and that Turkey remains a deeply militarized nation rather than one ruled by civilian leaders.
Why, then, would Erdogan promote himself using images of this kind? The answer lies in his ever-present desire to promote himself as a populist savior of ‘the people.’ To win power, Erdogan – in an era in which the Turkish economy is crumbling, relies more and more on personalistic rule, and by portraying himself as the chief defender of the Turkish people from their ‘imperialist’ (i.e., American, European, Zionist, international banker) enemies, and from domestic collaborators with imperialists (i.e., the CHP and their allies Kurds and Gulenists).
If in the past Erdogan has sought to make Turkish people feel nostalgic for the glory of the Ottoman Empire, he now attempts to portray himself as leading the Turkish people toward a bright future in which they build and drive their own cars, become energy self-sufficient, and command the waves with their own home built armed drone carrier ships. In doing so, they can effectively thwart the destructive desires of unnamed ‘imperialists’ who hate Turkey and its people.
It is interesting to consider how, for decades, the literature on populism has predicted that populists, once they formed governments, would fail to win office on successive occasions because, first, populists could never deliver on their promise to ‘save’ the nation and give all power to ‘the people’ and, second, because once in government they would automatically lose their ability to portray themselves as fighting governing ‘elites.’ The AKP has proven the populism theorists wrong by ruling for twenty years as populists. They have done this largely through the construction of a personality cult around Erdogan himself, and his portrayal as a mighty protector of Turkey, who loves his nation and defends it from its ‘elite’ enemies. However, having vanquished domestic elites long ago, Erdogan and the AKP now portray shadowy foreign forces as an international ‘elite’ that despises Turkey and its people, and Erdogan as the only man capable of defending Turkey from imperialists. The CHP, once the ruling party of Turkey, is reduced in these circumstances to a local collaborator with these foreign ‘dark forces’ attempting to destabilize Turkey and prevent the flourishing of its people.
Erdogan’s self-portrayal as a macho military leader thus at once seeks to strike fear into Turkish citizens, by reminding them that they are in some way at ‘war’ with foreign imperialists, foreign NGOs, the ‘interest rate lobby,’ and internal collaborators with these groups, but also attempts to reassume voters that Erdogan is ready to meet these enemies in combat. In a similar way, as the economy falls apart around him, Erdogan seeks to reassure voters that he is fully in charge, and the nation’s economic woes are the product of foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkey. It is striking, then, that in order to win another term as President, Erdogan has been forced into externalizing and magnifying his populism, portraying not domestic enemies as ‘elites’ that defy the will of the people, but rather shadowy, non-identifiable international forces as the true elite that the Turkish people must struggle against. Thus, with his new nuclear reactor, “people’s car” and drone carrier ship, Erdogan portrays himself as the tough, macho leader the Turkish people require to stand against the international elite oppressing them at every turn.
The image of Erdogan dressed as a fighter pilot and the Turkish navy’s new flagship and technological tour de force, the TCG Anadolu, perhaps best represent Erdogan’s 2023 presidential campaign strategy of portraying the President as a mighty Sultan protecting his people from foreign threats. Evoking in his supporters’ nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, but also feelings of hope for a similarly glorious future in which the Turkish people – and not foreign imperialists – are the authors of their own destiny, Erdogan uses his new ship as a symbol of his defiance of foreign ‘elites’ and ability to defend his own people. It is a strategy that may well be working. For example, one Erdogan supporter, Necati Tan, is quoting as saying “This warship is our national pride” and that with its unveiling “The president has brought back the glory of the Ottoman Empire.”
Will the carefully crafted image of himself as a tough, militaristic leader who, through technological innovation and a drive toward economic and energy self-sufficiency, is saving the Turkish people from the largely imagined foreign forces attempting to undermine Turkish power be convincing enough for the Turkish people to give him another mandate? How commonplace these sentiments are remains unknown, but the result of the May 14 elections will tell us much about Erdogan’s success of this strategy and his ability to distract voters from the collapsing economy.
Funding: This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [ARC] under Discovery Grant [DP220100829], Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.
(*) Ana-Maria Bliuc is a social and political psychologist who joined Psychology at the University of Dundee in 2019. She has a PhD in Psychology from the Australian National University, and prior to her current appointment she held academic positions in Australia at Western Sydney University (2016-2019), Monash University (2012-2016), and the University of Sydney (2006-2012). Her research examines how people’s social identities influence their behavior in a range of contexts including health, environmental (climate change), and socio-political (collective action and social change). More recently, she has focused on research on online communities looking at how collective identities and behaviors are shaped through online interactions. This research has been conducted in online political communities (mostly far right and white supremacist) and online health communities (recovery from addiction). Dr Bliuc’s received funding from the Australian Research Council, and she has published in a wide range of high-quality international journals such as Nature Climate Change, WIREs Climate Change, Computers in Human Behaviors, and Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.
The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do.
ByMaureen van der Kris*
Only a few years ago, during the refugee crisis of the 2010s, it looked a lot like Muslims were the Jews of the twenty-first century. Islamophobia reached new highs due to terrorist attacks from ISIS, which also sparked hate crimes against innocent Muslims fleeing from ISIS (vander Taelen, 2016), as well as inciting hostility and tensions towards Muslims living around the world. Then COVID hit, and hate crimes seemed to be redirected at the East Asian community (Aziz, 2020). In 2023, the new generation is witnessing what their predecessors before them had lived through: blatant antisemitism is retaking the spotlight (Simsek, 2022).
The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved?
Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do. Measures of preventive justice are imperative to make sure populism cannot gain momentum and take over the political and legal structures across Europe as it did in the 1940s. This essay will explain how preventive justice can help us establish a risk-averse society and what these terms mean.
What is preventive justice and how does it work?
In most cases, preventive justice is simply a concept. It entails calculating the risks of harm, before any harm has occurred and taking measures against the would-be perpetrators (Ashworth et al., 2013). It establishes a system that can make people accountable, and thus prevent potential corruption and any other crime that can violate democratic values. Elements of preventive justice exist within criminal law. Many modern criminal law systems are centered around judging and punishing criminal acts and incorporate some preventive measures. For instance, for certain crimes, a crime attempt would be as illegal as committing a crime. These crimes vary across Europe, but the consensus is if the nature of the crime is severe, even an attempt will be punished more severely compared with other criminal attempts (Kelk & de Jong, 2019).
The criminalization of an attempt to commit certain crimes can be considered a function of preventive justice. This simplified version explains how preventive justice works in the criminal law system, but how does it help a democratic society? It is argued here that it can help in many ways -but these need to incorporate the political and criminal justice system to produce practical solutions. One of these problems is the supposedly thin line between freedom of speech and discrimination.
Pulling the reins on democracy
The line between freedom of speech and discrimination is not very thin at all. For far-right populists, the line doesn’t exist at all, and they promote that their discriminatory ideas can only be seen as freedom of speech. This freedom of speech, they argue, has to be protected at all costs (Pennacchia, 2020). The hypocrisy of that statement will not be discussed here, but it is relevant to note the way it has led to cases of domestic terrorism. In France, for example, a Kurdish community center in Paris was attacked by an active shooter just before Christmas. It was reported that this incident was resulted in three civilian deaths, and the attacker had formerly been charged with a hate crime in the previous year (NPR, 2022). It seems that he felt safe enough to repeat his actions in the current political climate of France and is an example of the danger and progression of hate speech cloaked as ‘free’ speech.
These incidents could have largely been prevented by limiting what constitutes as freedom of speech. One may claim that this is the opposite of preserving a democratic society. Still, history has proven time and time again that having no limits on certain democratic principles will result in populists using those exact principles for their benefit and to undemocratic ends, as seen in the case of the rise of Hitler. Due to the lack of limitations on unacceptable speech, Hitler had the freedom to use his hatred for Jewish people as a campaign point (Wilde, 2020).
Although hate speech and hate crimes were regulated more strictly after WWII (i.e. by Germany banning the Nazi flag), there are still discussions about the line between freedom of speech and discrimination. Technically, the criminalization of specific insults is a good start. However, the burden of defining what counts as a discriminatory remark, an insult, falls on the judges. Judges could be very strict when handling lawsuits, as they have been during the Wilders trial in the Netherlands. The Wilders trial concerned a statement made by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders during a rally in the 2010s. Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country, to which they responded by cheering “less, less, less!” The Moroccan community, in response, sued Wilders for his discriminatory remarks and racist mobilization. The Dutch supreme court responded by charging Wilders with spreading hate. However, the court also stipulated that hate speech had no associated intent to act (Wilders v. Plaintiffs, 2009).
The result of the hearing disillusioned some people in the Moroccan community, as Wilders’ specific statements were not considered when judging the case. Some contended that Wilders’ party should have been abolished after that statement. Ethically, one can request a more severe punishment after such incidences of racism. Legally speaking, it is much more complicated.
Preventive justice in the courtroom
In most Western countries, judges can only punish a suspect according to the material principle of legality. In many EU countries, this has been defined as the Nulla poena sine lege principle, or “no punishment without law.” It means a political party cannot be declared illegal and abolished for maintaining an ideology harmful to a democratic society without legal codes. It also means that a judge cannot declare that a statement constitutes an illegal insult when the verdict is riddled with violations of aspects of the legality principle. One of these aspects is prohibiting an overly extensive interpretation by a judge. For example, if the suspect has discursively targeted a person of color, this can be interpreted as an illegal insult under ideal circumstances, but the suspect cannot be charged with a hate crime. This would be different if the suspect used a racial slur to insult the person of color (de Hullu, 2021).
Laws that prevent hate crimes and the strict interpretation of these laws in accordance with the legality principle can work very well. But there are also cases in which laws have an adverse effect stemming from discriminatory policies, which should be illegal. Take the Dutch surcharge, for example. This so-called libertarian policy is aimed to combat fraud committed by people not legally entitled to childcare allowance. However, the policy culminated in a nationwide scandal. It used a self-learning algorithm to identify fraud and, in the meantime, asked inspectors to have much stricter and limiting judgement on childcare allowance specifically for individuals with a foreign last name. Following the outrage, the Dutch government resigned in 2021. However, from 2018 onwards, people have been suffering due to the racist nature of the Dutch surcharge policy (NOS, 2020).
The law does not exist in a vacuum. Democratic practices and a working legal system depend on society, political accountability, and social support. Here I want to add to my discussion the kinds of social context that can help create a safe space for all and a flourishing civil society.
Living in a ‘risk-averse society’
According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a risk-averse society can be described as a society in which legal systems actively try to prevent the risk of certain crimes being committed (Beck, 2003). So, a risk-averse society supports the ideals of preventive justice. Preventive justice can establish the socio-legal infrastructure of a risk-averse society and vice-versa. Some speculate that preventive justice can establish foundations for a risk-averse society. Yet a risk-averse society might undermine democratic values (Barone, 2022).
This would only be true if preventive justice is rooted in unrealistic fears and undemocratic practices. Like the two faces of the Janus or a fire that can both cook or burn, the concepts and ideals of preventive justice or risk-averse society can yield either positive or negative results depending on if they are in the hands of well-intentioned or selfish people. The dilemma of what counts as liberty, if it has limits, if so, how to develop policies that protect freedoms without violating principles of democracy remains a big question, which motivates us to do more theoretical and practical discussions about how to establish a safe space to realize the ideals of preventive justice and a risk-averse society.
In an age where war crimes and injustice make us question the degree to which our civilization has actually evolved, the question is not whether we want to be risk-averse; we do not have a choice. This is strikingly clear when we acknowledge that nuclear power has become a staple of everyday discussions in newspapers, making us believe the doomsday is coming. The choice that falls upon us all is between whether we want to live in a society where the freedom to say whatever we want risks supporting the rise of far-right populism and encouraging hate and even violence. To keep our democracies afloat, we must invest in forming risk-averse spaces and use preventive justice to our advantage. Only then can we fight populism effectively on a more significant level and prevent the atrocities from history being repeated.
(*) Maureen van der Kris is studying Law at Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands. She is in the second year of her bachelor’s degree and at the very start of her legal career. Before joining ECPS, she wrote articles for the members’ magazine of Ad Informandum, the student association for criminal law at UU. Her main interests are women’s rights and preventive justice, while her favorite university subjects are international- and criminal law. As she has been personally confronted with various criminal offences during her childhood. Her goal is to become a criminal judge. She aspires to work at the Dutch supreme court or the ICC one day.