Professor Emre Erdogan: Turkish Opposition Must Adeptly Harness Power of ‘Good Populism’

Professor Emre Erdogan, Head of the Department of International Relations at Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey.

Stating that populism’s appeal has not significantly diminished in Turkey despite the opposition’s recent win in local elections, Professor Emre Erdogan underscores the fact that even leading politicians within the opposition, such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, exhibit certain populist characteristics. “Imamoglu’s use of populist rhetoric suggests that populism continues to hold sway in Turkish politics,” argues Professor Erdogan, urging the opposition in Turkey to adeptly harness the power of “good populism” to achieve success in upcoming elections.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Emre Erdogan, Head of the Department of International Relations at Bilgi University, Istanbul, sheds light on the enduring allure of populism in Turkey despite recent opposition victories in local elections. In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Erdogan emphasizes the continued presence of populist characteristics even among leading opposition figures like Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. He argues that Imamoglu’s use of populist rhetoric underscores the persistent influence of populism in Turkish politics and urges the opposition to adeptly harness the power of “good populism” to secure success in upcoming elections.

Professor Erdogan delves into strategic discussions surrounding populism, noting the advantages it affords in electoral contests and its role as a feedback mechanism within Turkey’s political landscape. He highlights the historical context of populism‘s rise, tracing its roots to the failures of the classical parliamentary system and the subsequent alienation of the populace. Despite criticisms of populism‘s negative consequences, Professor Erdogan asserts its necessity for system improvement, advocating for its skillful utilization by the opposition.

Examining the intersection of populism and authoritarianism, Professor Erdogan elucidates the unique characteristics of Turkey’s political regime, marked by a concentration of power and a lack of autonomous institutions. He underscores the pivotal role of fear in shaping populist discourse, particularly evident in the rhetoric of the ruling AKP to mobilize support and maintain its grip on power. Reflecting on recent election results, Professor Erdogan suggests that while populism‘s appeal persists, strategic alliances and shifts in voter preferences offer hope for potential change in Turkey’s political trajectory.

Moreover, Professor Erdogan offers a cautious prognosis on the future of Turkish politics, acknowledging the complexity of upcoming elections and the global resurgence of populism. While populist right-wing movements may continue to thrive, he remains skeptical of any immediate shift away from populism in the current political climate. 

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Emre Erdogan with some edits.

Authoritarianism Is Deeply Ingrained in the Fabric of the Turkish Republic

How would you characterize the historical evolution of populism and authoritarian politics in Turkey, particularly focusing on key milestones and major factors contributing to their rise? 

Emre Erdogan: First, let’s clarify the distinction between authoritarianism and populism, a crucial aspect of Turkey’s political history. Populism, akin to many other contexts, traces its roots back to the early 20th century in Turkey. Inspired by the Narodnik Movement, a group of intellectuals emphasized the significance of the people, who were pivotal in the founding of the Republic. One might recall Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s renowned assertion that "the peasant is the master of the country." During this period, there were significant debates regarding opening up the country to peasants, marking the zenith of corporatism in Turkey.

From 1935 onward, Turkey transitioned to a robust corporatist regime, wherein people were represented through various cooperative groups, including labor and peasants. Populism, akin to one of the six foundational pillars of the Republican People’s Party (RPP/CHP), emerged, albeit within a predominantly Jacobin party structure. The CHP, established by bureaucrats and the military, exhibited strong elitist tendencies. Thus, while the party rhetorically championed the importance of the people, it wasn’t a quintessential populist entity.

The rise of the Democrat Party (DP) after 1946 marked a shift. Comprised of leading politicians from the CHP, DP focused on the peasantry and rural areas, gradually adopting a more populist stance throughout the 1950s. However, it too retained elitist elements, transitioning from liberalism to right-wing conservatism. This trajectory continued with subsequent parties such as the Justice Party (AP) under Süleyman Demirel, followed by the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP) in the 1980s and 1990s. These right-leaning parties emphasized the importance of the periphery, conservative values, and peasantry, though not all embraced full-fledged populism.

The true emergence of populism in Turkey materialized with the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). While some scholars draw parallels between the AKP and the earlier Democrat Party due to their representation of peripheral values and religiosity, the AKP stands as a distinct conservative entity. Under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, the AKP introduced a novel perspective on populism in Turkey.

In summary, various political parties in Turkey have emphasized the significance of the people, but true populism as we recognize it today became evident with the rise of the AKP.

What about authoritarianism? Over the past century, Turkey has grappled with authoritarian rule. Particularly in the early years of the Republic, free and fair elections were absent, alongside restrictions on freedom of speech and press, especially post-1924. While a brief experiment with multi-party politics occurred in 1930s, it fell short of democracy. The transition to multi-party politics in 1946, without constitutional amendments, marked a significant shift, yet the ruling CHP retained power for two decades under the same constitution.

The Democrat Party initially opposed this authoritarian trend but eventually succumbed to its own authoritarian tendencies, contributing to the turmoil culminating in the 1960 coup. The period between 1960 and 1980 witnessed fleeting liberalization, though even in 1965, political leaders expressed reservations about the constitution’s liberal nature. Suleyman Demirel, a prominent figure, found the constitution too lenient. Subsequent changes in 1971 saw decreased tolerance toward extremist and radical leftist movements.

The 1980 military coup ushered in a period of authoritarian rule, though a transition to democratic governance occurred three years later, the military retained influence. The post-modern coup of 1997 further restricted liberties, extending beyond religious and speech freedoms. Throughout the 1990s, escalating tensions surrounding the Kurdish issue saw heightened state of intolerance towards Kurdish and separatist movements, stifling freedom of expression.

Authoritarian policies are deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Turkish Republic. Despite periodic calls for freedom and liberalization, each decade often witnesses a regression towards greater authoritarianism. Various factors contribute to this natural inclination towards authoritarianism, perpetuating a cycle of authoritarian tendencies in Turkey.

Some Turkish people engage in discussion with Suleyman Demirel, the leader of the Justice Party (AP), during a political meeting on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey in the 1960s. Photo: Shutterstock.

What is the nature of populism in Turkey? How could you define the major characteristics of populism in the country? Does it belong to only one flank of the politics or is it much more widespread?  In what ways have populist and authoritarian tendencies intersected or diverged in Turkey’s political landscape over the years, and what have been the implications for governance and societal dynamics? 

Emre Erdogan: There is no consensus on the definition of populism, with various interpretations existing. Our definition heavily revolves around the creation of an "us versus them" narrative. When politicians employ such rhetoric, they often resort to forms of discrimination or othering. Populist leaders typically cast the populace as "us" and identify other groups as "them." These groups can include elites such as bankers, industrialists, bureaucrats, and even the judiciary or foreign powers, along with organizations like the Illuminati or international bodies. Subsequently, populist leaders position themselves as the true representatives of the people. At times, they go as far as presenting themselves as the embodiment of the people, declaring, "I am the people," rather than simply stating they represent the people. This distinction is crucial in understanding populism.

From this perspective, the anti-establishment rhetoric emerged notably with Suleyman Demirel’s approaches. Demirel, a member of the elite class, held an engineering degree, excelled as a bureaucrat, and obtained a master’s degree in the US. Transitioning into politics, he sought to supplant all Democrat leaders following the 1960 military intervention. Presenting himself as the offspring of peasants, he adopted the moniker "Çoban Sülü" or "Shepherd Sülü," reconstructing his image as a successful peasant. Despite his qualifications and English proficiency, his rhetoric positioned him as a champion of the common people against the elites. These elites primarily comprised westernized or modernized bureaucrats, and Demirel was particularly critical of the judiciary, which, under the 1961 Constitution, enjoyed significant independence, thus constraining governmental powers. Additionally, he opposed planning and autonomous agencies, typical populist targets. However, notably, Demirel did not antagonize big business; rather, he collaborated with it. The relationship between Demirel and the military is intricate; though he initially opposed the military, his stance evolved over time, particularly after 1970. This complexity warrants further scholarly investigation. While Demirel adopted a populist tone, his collaborations with big business and the military suggest a nuanced political strategy.

In addition, another notable figure, Necmettin Erbakan, emerged as a prominent traditionalist. A professor and engineer of considerable intellect, Erbakan positioned himself as a genuine representative of the "people." He garnered support from small businesses and religious segments of society who felt marginalized by the government. Erbakan epitomized the populist ethos, emphasizing the significance of the people and espousing anti-Western values. He vehemently opposed the capitalist worldview, big business, and the military, criticizing them extensively. Despite his criticisms, he found widespread support among many segments of society. Both Demirel and Erbakan enjoyed prolonged success, remaining influential figures without clear successors.

An Environment Conducive to Authoritarianism Always Exists in Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, during a visit to Anatolia in the 1930s. Photo: Shutterstock.

How would you characterize the current regime in Turkey, and what roles do institutions like the military, judiciary, media etc. play in either moderating or intensifying populist and authoritarian tendencies in the country?

Emre Erdogan: The most important characteristics of this regime are, first, concentration of power, something important to remember, and the lack of autonomous institutions. Firstly, we have a presidential regime, and it’s a very strong one. Presidential regimes are known for their separation of powers characteristic. However, in Turkey, we don’t have separation of powers. The President controls the Parliament because he’s the head of the majority party. Meanwhile, the Parliament is almost powerless and doesn’t have the power to effectively control the government. The President has direct control over the judiciary through the government, as the Minister of Justice is very active in the judiciary. Since 2000, we have seen a weakening of autonomous institutions such as the finance regulation institutions or the central bank, all of which are now under the direct control of the president. Parliament is powerless.

What about the media? Turkish media has always been polarized, as we know. Currently, we still observe a polarized media landscape, but one faction dominates significantly. This segment of the media is supported by the government, with access to government funds, and owned by conglomerates with various business ties, some of which are construction companies dependent on the government. Approximately two-thirds of the Turkish media rely on government support. Meanwhile, a smaller portion of the media is also dependent, lacking autonomous income and relying on support from opposition leaders for survival. There are no independent and autonomous media outlets. Traditional journalism, including printed media, is essentially defunct in Turkey. Additionally, social media exhibits polarization, although it tends to be slightly more balanced due to the relatively stronger presence of the opposition. Nonetheless, it remains polarized, lacking a middle ground.

Furthermore, there is a lack of autonomous civil society in Turkey. Historically, civil society has not wielded significant power in the country. As I mentioned at the outset of the interview, Turkey operated as a corporatist state for many years, which discouraged the development of autonomous civil society organizations. The emergence of civil society in Turkey began in the 1990s, but it has always been weak. What does this weakness entail? It means that these organizations were reliant on external resources, which could originate from European funds or the government. This dependency has led to the rise of government-organized NGOs, known as GONGOs, where bureaucrats are involved in organizing NGOs—an unusual scenario that undermines their independence. Additionally, the bourgeoisie in Turkey has historically been dependent on the state and lacks autonomy. Leading institutions such as TÜSIAD or TOBB have had to align themselves with the state. Although they may attempt to criticize the state on occasion, they often end up conforming to its stance in the long run.

Do you see the pattern? There’s a significant concentration of power in Turkey. We lack a clear separation of powers. The fourth estate, the media, is highly polarized and subject to both indirect and direct state control. Moreover, our civil society is weak, and the bourgeoisie is not strong enough to serve as a check on the government or the state. This creates a fertile environment for authoritarianism in Turkey. Additionally, it’s essential to consider that Turkish political culture tends towards authoritarianism. Turkey is a patriarchal society, and we perpetuate this patriarchal structure daily.

Erdogan Exploits Collective Traumas to Manipulate Fear

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

In one of your articles which analyzes campaign speeches of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) elites, you emphasize the role of fear in populism, particularly through the construction of ‘us-vs-them’ group differentiation. Can you elaborate on how fear is strategically utilized in AKP discourse to mobilize support and shape voter perceptions? 

Emre Erdogan: It’s crucial to note that from the early days of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has employed this rhetoric, drawing from significant collective traumas in the history of the Turkish Islamist movement. We can look back to events like 1924 or the single-party government of the 1930s, but perhaps the most recent and impactful was the "post-modern coup" of 1998. During this period, Islamist politicians in government faced indirect intervention from the military, resulting in their departure. Subsequently, a repressive political environment was witnessed against the Islamist movement, leaving a profound impact. This trauma has instilled a belief among these individuals that their access to power is precarious, always fearing it will be usurped by the establishment.

They identified themselves as a political movement against the "over-Westernized" establishment—a crucial aspect. This stance stemmed from a significant collective trauma. Through our research, we’ve noted that many conservatives expressed discontent with the practices of this period, often relying on inherited memories from their parents. Erdogan has built his rhetoric on this fundamental premise. They saw themselves as authentic Anatolian people, opposed to the establishment and feeling alienated from Westernized bureaucrats.

An essential aspect is the significant economic crisis of 2001. It devastated the economy, and Erdoğan positioned himself as the representative of the people who suffered from this crisis. He portrayed it as a consequence of bankers’ actions or corrupt politicians, leading to a loss of confidence in political institutions. Erdoğan capitalized on this sentiment. The parliamentary system was in disarray for two years, during which Erdogan consistently utilized a rhetoric asserting, "We are elected by the people, yet we are not in power." He blamed institutions such as the presidency, constitutional court, judiciary, and press for hindering their actions, asserting that they limited their abilities to govern.

In 2008, they experienced the trauma of the constitutional court nearly dismantling the party. This was followed by the Gezi protests, which Erdogan perceived as a precursor to broader challenges. These events occurred amid growing dissatisfaction with the system. Erdogan capitalized on these sentiments, portraying Western powers as advocates of the old Turkey, threatening the Turkish people. He positioned himself as their defender, equating attacks on him with attacks on the people themselves. This fear narrative intensified following terrorist attacks, such as those by ISIS or the PKK, prompting Erdoğan to emphasize the need for unity against external threats.

This rhetoric was consistently employed during the 2017 referendum and the 2019 local elections. It’s noteworthy that Erdogan did not rely on this rhetoric until the final days of the campaign, suggesting a strategic use of this tool. Nevertheless, it remains a potent instrument, allowing Erdogan to rally support by framing attacks against him as attacks against the nation.

Potential Reversal of the Current Political Trajectory

Could you provide a prognosis on the potential trajectory of Turkish politics regarding populist and authoritarian tendencies following last year’s presidential elections and the recent local elections? Moreover, how do you anticipate future electoral dynamics in Turkey will impact the evolution of populist discourse within Turkish politics?

Emre Erdogan: In 1996, there was an article highlighting the inherent challenges of a Presidential system. Governing a diverse country under this system proves to be quite arduous. Unlike a parliamentary system, where power is more distributed, the winner-takes-all nature of the Presidential system concentrates authority in the hands of the victor of the presidential elections. This means that if leaders like Erdoğan and his followers consistently win these elections, their grip on power will only strengthen over time. However, it’s crucial to note that the system also offers the potential for significant change if the opposition manages to secure victory in elections. This dynamic presents a pivotal juncture where the trajectory of the country can shift towards either more authoritarian or pluralistic governance. The outcome hinges on the electorate’s choices and the ability of opposition forces to mobilize support effectively.

Last summer, the opposition missed their chance. What will happen? We thought the game was over. What does that mean? Okay, it was the best performance by the top position holding president. Because they’ve invested in forming coalitions, alliances, addressing needs, nurturing politicians, etc. They investigated; they acted as a bloc. They were successful, very similar to what we see in Brazil or Poland, etc. There was a kind of coalition of alliances, but they failed, and we thought, "Okay, the game is over." They couldn’t form this kind of allies, but after the local elections, there’s a feeling of a possibility to reconstruct that kind of coalition, not similar to the last one, not an institutional one. But a coalition based on the voters’ preferences. People voted strategically, and they voted for their second most preferred candidate, or they voted with negative emotions. They voted against a candidate. That’s why, in many places, the opposition had a majority, around 58-60 percent, something like that. It was very surprising.

There’s indeed such a probability, but we have four years until the next elections. Early elections aren’t possible due to the Constitution; it’s a challenging situation. However, we can consider that the opposition might succeed in mobilizing the majority of people to vote for their candidate. They can bring this issue to the forefront of their agenda. That’s why we can say, "Okay, there’s always hope from that perspective." There’s a possibility that the trajectory can be reversed.

Populism Serves as a Feedback Mechanism

Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) addresses his supporters during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey on April 21, 2019. Photo: Kemal Aslan.

How would you characterize the local election results held on Sunday in terms of entrenched populism constructed by AKP in Turkey? Can we say that populism has lost some steam after the elections?

Emre Erdogan: While the results may directly indicate a loss for the AKP, a closer examination of the aggregate numbers reveals that the AKP, Refah Party, conservative Party, and MHP have maintained their relative strength compared to the last election. The bloc’s power remains largely unchanged. However, when considering the status of populism, it appears that its appeal has not significantly diminished. Leading politicians within the opposition, such as Ekrem Imamoglu, exhibit certain populist characteristics. İmamoğlu does not shy away from employing populist rhetoric or embracing populist ideas. He positions himself as a representative of the ordinary people, emphasizing phrases like "we worked as 16 million people did," referring to the population of Istanbul. He frames issues in terms of "we the people" versus the government, presenting himself as aligned with the interests of the populace. Thus, İmamoğlu’s use of populist rhetoric suggests that populism continues to hold sway in Turkish politics.

Moreover, there are various strategic discussions underway, with some advocating for the approach of "when dealing with populists, act as a populist." The rationale behind this perspective is that in the presence of a populist figure, adopting a similar style may prove advantageous. Winning elections without embracing populism is often deemed challenging, as populists tend to enjoy certain advantages in this regard. Additionally, it’s crucial to acknowledge that populism serves as a feedback mechanism, often emerging in response to perceived failures within the classical parliamentary system.

Turkey’s political landscape is not characterized by participatory democracy; even during the peak of the parliamentary system, true participatory elements were lacking. Party leaders exerted tight control over Parliament, effectively dictating proceedings and appointing members at their discretion. This system fostered a sense of alienation among the populace, ultimately paving the way for the rise of populism as a counterforce. Thus, the argument follows that without replacing this outdated and flawed system with a more robust alternative, electoral success may remain elusive.

From a perspective that I disagree with, the current presidential system is perceived as being closer to the people compared to the previous parliamentary system. This is why there is advocacy for presidentialism. Under the current system, the president is elected in two rounds, providing a more direct link between the leader and the populace. In contrast, in a parliamentary system, directly electing the Prime Minister is not feasible. While there are exceptions, such as Israel where direct election of the Prime Minister is possible, the overall system remains complex. Historically, people have felt alienated from politics, and populism serves as a means to re-engage the populace with political issues. The prevalent sense of alienation underscores the need for approaches that attract attention and foster a stronger connection between the people and the political process.

From a normative standpoint, the necessity of populism becomes apparent. Despite its associated negative consequences, as advocated by Margaret Canovan, populism serves as a vital feedback mechanism for system improvement. It provides a channel for addressing issues and engaging with the populace. Therefore, there’s a clear imperative for populism. Personally, I believe that for the opposition to achieve success in upcoming elections, they must adeptly harness the power of good populism.

Do you agree with CHP mayor Ekrem Imamoglu’s prognosis that the local election results will signal an end to authoritarianism not only in Turkey but also globally?

Emre Erdogan: I’m not sure about the future trajectory, especially considering the numerous upcoming elections, including the European Parliament elections and those in the United States. However, I anticipate that the populist political right may fare well in the EP election, and there’s a possibility that Donald Trump could secure the presidency once again. These potential outcomes may be driven by various factors, including ongoing crises such as economic instability, immigration issues, inflation, and the conflict in Ukraine. In times of uncertainty, populists often capitalize on manipulating people’s emotions and reactions to these challenges. Given this context, I see little objective basis for a resurgence of non-populism in the current political climate.

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