Painting portraying a Kurdish woman in traditional costume by the artist Khairy Adam.

Surveying the landscape of women’s rights: Observations from a researcher

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.

By Shilan Fuad Hussain*

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 Washington Kurdish 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.

Graham-Irina

Irina von Wiese replaces Sir Watson as the honorary president of ECPS

Former MEP Irina von Wiese replaces Sir Graham Watson as the honorary president of ECPS. Sir Watson is stepping down after almost 4 years as president.

Sir Graham Watson is stepping down as the honorary president of ECPS to start a new career as an academician in Canada. Irina von Wiese who served as a British MEP in the European Parliament before the Brexit will replace Sir Watson. Watson who has been the founding honorary president of ECPS since 2020 said ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and respected institution on the European scene. ‘Never in living memory has its work been more needed… Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of ECPS is lent extra urgency and importance,’ said Sir Watson. Sir Watson will continue to support ECPS as a member of the Advisory Board.

We are, as ECPS, grateful to Sir Watson for all the work he has done for our think-tank and happy to welcome Irina von Wiese as our new president. Von Wiese who is involved in local politics in Britain and also teaching in France will certainly contribute a lot to the work of ECPS. “It is a great honor to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years,” said von Wiese. She underlined that the work of ECPS was more relevant than ever adding that national populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition, but they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. “From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties,” said she. 

Statement by Sir Graham Watson, Former Honorary President of ECPS

It has been a privilege and a pleasure to have been able to serve the European Center for Populism Studies as its first Honorary President.

I am pleased to say that during my time in office – thanks largely to the work of the dedicated founders and staff of the Center – the ECPS has grown to become a well-rooted and widely respected institution on the European scene. 

Never in living memory has its work been more needed. The continued erosion of democracy and the rule of law in Europe and beyond is of growing concern to those who seek to live in freedom and in peace. Millennial citizens inherit a world in which skies have darkened and the storm clouds swirl. Thus, the work of the European Center for Populism Studies is lent extra urgency and importance.

As I gravitate from the world of active politics to that of academia, I am increasingly conscious of the importance of fact-based research and the fight against ‘fake news.’ It is probably not an exaggeration to suggest that humankind risks entering a new dark age. Thus, I impress upon my successors the need to redouble their efforts. If we can muster the courage and the determination – the guts and the grit – we may yet ensure that the bloody wars and dictatorships of the 20th century are succeeded by a 21st century in which the good will, compassion and common humanity of concerned citizens can be harnessed to the creation of a more just, democratic, and happier global demos.

I am pleased that you have chosen a person of the caliber of Irina von Wiese to succeed me. I am sure that together you will go on to achieve even greater impact.

Statement by Irina von Wiese, Honorary President of ECPS

It is a great honour to be appointed Honorary President of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). Stepping into Sir Graham Watson’s shoes is not easy, and I owe him a huge Thank You for all his work as ECPS Honorary President during the past years, as well as his personal friendship and support during my time at the European Parliament. Graham will continue to advise the ECPS and provide his deep well of experience and wisdom to the Center.

Sadly, the work of the ECPS today is more relevant than ever. National populist leaders rule not just in far flung countries without democratic tradition: they have risen to power in the heart of Europe, and on its periphery, from Hungary to Turkey, Belarus, and Russia. Many of these leaders emerged from democratic elections and continue to use the semblance of democracy as legitimization for their autocratic regimes. 

Where populists haven’t quite grasped power, they have put noticeable pressure on governments. From Sweden to France, there is no European country that has been immune from the influence of national populist parties. 

In 2023, the ground is fertile for populists: perceived or real socio-economic decline, political polarization and the omnipresence of increasingly sophisticated disinformation combine to instill a sense of disenfranchisement. Migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBT people, and vaguely defined ‘metropolitan elites’ serve as the usual scapegoats in this quest for power. In my own country, the United Kingdom, the divisive Brexit referendum exacerbated these threats. 

The war of aggression unleashed by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has brought into focus where this slippery slope can lead. On paper, Putin was elected, but in absence of resilient democratic structures, his stronghold over the Russian people allows him to rule as a dictator. As happens so often, journalists became the first victims of his quest to dismantle democracy. Once the free press was shut down, they coast was clear to eradicate any opposition and brainwash the population through a steady stream of disinformation. Without paving the way in his own country, Putin would not have been able to start and sustain his war against Ukraine.

It is time to fight back.

The ECPS, based in the heart of Europe, has gathered a group of world experts to advise policymakers, support human rights defenders, inform the public and teach young people about the threats of populism around the globe. It is unique in its role building a bridge between academia and policy, theory and practice. To fight toxic populism, we need to reach people, and give them access to the most efficient antidote: knowledge.

In this crucial time for the future of Europe, it is more important than ever to understand the roots and evolution of populism. The educational and analytical work undertaken by the ECPS is an invaluable resource. It is my privilege as Honorary President of the Center to support and enable this work going forward. 

Israelis protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's anti-democratic move targeting judiciary in Tel Aviv on March 11, 2023. Photo: Avivi Aharon.

Why does populist Netanyahu seek to reform Israel’s judiciary?

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.

By Nicholas Morieson & Ihsan Yilmaz 

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.

The Likud government’s plan provoked outrage from centrist and left-wing parties, which are typically in opposition to Likud. The proposal also sparked massive protests among the Israeli public and drew criticism from members of the judiciary, as well as several foreign governments. For example, in a speech described as “fiery”, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Israel called the proposed legislation “a fatal blow to democracy” which would give the Likud-led government “almost unrestrained power” and would “weaken constitutional protection over … human rights.”

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.

At the same time, Likud plans to expand the power of the religious, and often conservative, Rabbinical courts, giving them “the power to officiate on civil issues for the first time in 15 years.”

Confronted with widespread anger, opposition within his own party and coalition partners, and concerned that the divisive proposal had set Israeli society “on a dangerous collision course”, Netanyahu decided to delay voting on the legislation and instead seek dialogue with opposition forces. However, in a speech announcing the ‘pause’, Netanyahu was adamant that the reforms were good and necessary and that he would continue to pursue them, saying his party would “not allow anyone to rob the people of its free choice”.

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.’ 

For example, Poland’s ruling populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has, since returning to power in 2015, legislated to increase their government’s ability to appoint judges, including to Poland’s Supreme Court. In 2017 the Sejm, Poland’s lower house of parliament, was given new powers allowing it to appoint members to the previously independent body, the National Council of the Judiciary that made judicial appointments. The PiS dominated Sejm and then stacked the body with 15 of their own appointees, effectively giving PiS the ability to decide which judges are appointed to the Supreme Court. PiS argued that the new appointees will better represent ‘the people’, and that greater government control over judicial appointments is necessary in order to root out the old “privileged caste” that dominated the judiciary and ignored 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’. 

The banner 'Potato, onion, goodbye Erdogan' was carried in the 1 May rally än Istanbul, which coincided with the critical 14 May elections in Turkey. Photo: Shutterstock.

A Lesson from Turkey: Economic Crises as Steppingstones, but not Exit Routes for Authoritarian Populists

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.

By Ibrahim Ozturk

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:

  1. A multipolar world in power transition without an omnipotent hegemonic power dictating its unilateral will to the “rest.” 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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)

Source: https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/TUR/turkey/gdp-growth-rate

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

Displays of a foreign currency exchange bureau in Istanbul, Turkey, on May 5, 2023. Photo: Tolga Ildun.

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.

Conclusion

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.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, on May 25, 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Populism reigns supreme in Turkey, what next for European Union?

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.

By Selcuk Gultasli

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.

The election on Sunday was closely watched by European Union, US, the Middle East and Russia. The point was made by Baroness Cathy Ashton, the EU’s former foreign policy chief. 

“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). 

Cultural Metamorphosis 

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.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watching the August 30 Victory Day Parade in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo by Mustafa Kirazli.

The short story of Erdogan’s election victory(!)

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.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attended the rally in Izmir as part of the May 14, 2023 elections campaign in Izmir, Turkey on April 29, 2023. Photo: Idil Toffolo.

Erdogan’s winning authoritarian populist formula and 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.

By Ihsan Yilmaz 

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.

BillWatson

COMTOG Interview with Bill Watson on ‘Path Out’

Bill Watson is an associate professor of learning design and technology and director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments. According to Dr Bill Watson, video games are extremely powerful in engaging students’ attention, but it is the role of the teachers to focus their attention. The game allows students to step out of the classical learning environment and interact with their subject material on a more personal level. Path Out successfully teaches people about the realities of conflict due to its well-researched background, appealing art direction, authentic storytelling and exploration opportunities. Path Out is a unique game providing students with an education in empathy and acts as an interesting template for how niche commercial games are able to find success in formal education.

FrederikSmets

COMTOG Interview with Frederik Smets on ‘Path Out’

Frederik Smets is a UNHCR Education Officer. Path Out is a part of the UNHCR’s broader catalogue of teaching materials on refugees, asylum, and migration. Frederik Smets, UNHCR Education Officer, noted that this initiative was a direct response to the requests of teachers. In 2015, the peak of the migration crisis, educators contacted the UNHCR for help tackling classroom discussions about why people are crossing the Mediterranean. Today, conversations on migration are still highly politicised and frequently misinformed, which makes education and open discussions on this topic vital.

GeorgHobmeier

COMTOG Interview with Georg Hobmeier on ‘Path Out’

Georg Hobmeier is Path Out’s lead designer. Path Out is an example of a successful game that employs its format to express the consequences of conflict effectively. The autobiographical adventure game recounts the story of a young Syrian man’s life before the war when the war started and how he had to flee his home country in the wake of the Syrian uprising and civil war. The game was created by Vienna-based production company, Causa Creations, in collaboration with its refugee protagonist, (now called) Jack Gutmann. The game’s playful yet honest tone has been very well received by players and critics alike and has even been adapted into a teaching aid by the UNHCR for lessons on refugees and migration.