Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul on July 27, 2019 against Turkish government's refugee policies. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir.

The populist zeitgeist in Turkey: A Cornelian dilemma ahead

Increasingly, Turkey is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment because of a rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties and regardless of political or ideological roots, people have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility.

By Fatih Karakus*

Turkey, hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world with around 4 million, is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a result of the last decade’s rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political party leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties across the spectrum. However, the parties differ in their target groups. 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced that he will make sure that Syrian refugees will be repatriated if his party wins elections. In a more critical tone, the CHP mayor of Bolu municipality, Tanju Ozcan, declared that they will charge non-Turkish citizens ten times higher than ordinary residents to encourage them to leave their city, stating that “this hospitage has lingered too long.” 

In a similar vein, the leader of far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli also voiced his concerns over the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees, arguing for “safely sending back” all the refugees. Another nationalist party, the Iyi (Good) Party, also defends anti-immigrant policies. Its leader Meral Aksener promised to send 4 million refugees back to their countries if she was elected. 

However, none of these parties has defended repatriation as fervently as the leader of the newly established Zafer (Victory) Party, ex-academic Umit Ozdag. He incited violence against refugees (including recent Afghan immigrants) in both open and subtle ways. To this end, he even posted a photo of a corner store run by an Afghan refugee which resulted in the owner changing the store’s name to avoid potential attacks. As an example of a textbook definition of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ozdag alleged once that Syrian refugees will be instrumentalized in the upcoming civil war. Zafer Party, through its ideology, rhetoric, and activities, resembles Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD(Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) Party and France’s RN (Rassemblement national – National Rally).   

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also kept a populist agenda but used a more religious tone. While its partner MHP and the opposition parties (except for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party – HDP) maintain similar stances on immigration policies, AKP’s populism has targeted non-Muslims, including Turkish citizens such as Armenians, Jews, etc. Erdogan, on many occasions, has also instrumentalized Syrian refugees against the European Union (EU) by threatening to open the borders to Europe. In many cases, Erdogan proved that his stance on immigration is not an indication of humanitarian concerns, but a practical one.

At this point, we should note that citizens from each voter base, regardless of political or ideological roots, have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility. As far as the economic and employment-related anti-immigrant sentiments are concerned, there are studies supporting the claims of increased unemployment that is associated with increased immigrant flow in Turkey (Isiksal et al., 2020; Ceritoglu et al., 2017). When it comes to cultural incompatibility, Turkish citizens are perpetuating a widespread argument, which is also the case for the West (Huntington, 1996; Mondon & Winter, 2020) and accepted as “cultural racism” by many (Fanon, 1967; Bonilla-Silva, 2014), a subtle replacement of biological racism (Parker, 2018). Cultural incompatibility is especially raised against the Afghan refugees who fled from the Taliban regime and voiced mostly by secular and Kemalist circles based on their fears of Islamic extremism. 

Again, we should note here that while criticizing Europe and the United States for Islamophobia and Xenophobia, Turkey is no better in its approach towards immigration and foreign nationals. Greece’s recent pushbacks and violence against refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, have been criticized by all political parties including the ruling AKP and its opposition. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian refugees are being forced to sign “Voluntary Return Forms” by Turkish officials. 

Based on the economic variables, current figures of refugees hosted, potential for other waves of immigration within and across the regions, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments among voters, we may project a similar agenda between major political parties during the upcoming presidential election campaigns. Even Erdogan’s AKP may change its tone towards refugees as well as Europe. As implied in the title, Turkish voters will probably have to choose between similar options that will all lead to problematic results in immigration policy. What makes it even worse is the lack of institutional and economic leverage that can benefit refugees as they struggle against the rising anger about their very existence in Turkey. The looming tension and pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment are causing refugees to be on tenterhooks. Policy makers and practitioners in the field should be hypervigilant about waves of immigrants at Turkish borders on the chance that Turkey decides to send them back to their home countries. 


 

 (*) Fatih Karakus is a doctoral student at the Criminology Program, the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. He is researching the impacts of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric on the sense of belonging and integration of Muslim newcomer communities and the ways to build resilience. Previously, Karakus worked for the Turkish National Police Istanbul State Security Department as the Chief of Social Movements Bureau and Political Parties Bureau. He also served as the Chief of Bureaus at Immigration (Foreigners) Division at Diyarbakir Police Department and directed the in-take procedures of Syrian Refugees fleeing from ISIS threat.


 

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of

racial inequality in America. (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ceritoglu, E.; Yunculer, H. B. G.; Torun, H. & Tumen, S. (2017). “The impact of Syrian refugees on natives’ labor market outcomes in Turkey: Evidence from a quasi-experimental design.” IZA Journal of Labor Policy. 6(5), 1-28. 

Fanon, F. (1967). Toward the African revolution. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Isiksal, H., Isiksal, A. Z., Apeji, Y. (2020). “The impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish labor market.” International Journal of Operations Management. 1(1), 27-34.

Mondon, A., & Winter, A. (2020). Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream.Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Parker, C. S. (2018). “The radical right in the United States of America.” In: J. Rydgren (Ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (pp.738-769). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.

Conclusion

As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”


 

References

Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2565

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyhttps://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-failure-to-renounce-nationalist-past-support/31122014.html(accessed on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracyhttps://www.opendemocracy.net/en/vladimir-putin-and-rural-roots-of-authoritarian-populism-in-russia/ (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiyskiy-populizm-politicheskaya-realnost-ili-perspektiva/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta https://journal.fi/mediaviestinta/article/view/83377.

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/18498 (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429437205-12