WPTPN: Lessons from Turkey: Populist Nationalism and the Threat to Democracy

30 November 2016, 0900 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Gizem Zencirci, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College. Her research interests include political Islam, neoliberalism and social policy, and Middle East politics. 

The rise of the AK Party in Turkey and its consolidation of power is a case with generalizable lessons about the rise of populist nationalism elsewhere.

Before and after the U.S. election, many commentators noted potential similarities between Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration and a potential presidency of Donald Trump: both have a strongman personality, both deeply dislike being criticized by the opposition and the press, and both present themselves as the real saviors of their “people”.

Less discussed than Erdogan’s style of leadership are some key authoritarian characteristics of populist nationalism in Turkey. When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the AKP and president of Turkey since 2014, presented himself as a moderate politician who sought to combine economic liberalism with Islamic populism. However, despite AKP’s initial pro-democracy and pro-globalization outlook, politics in Turkey—a country once considered as the model of Muslim democracy—took an increasingly authoritarian turn. This has been punctuated in recent years with violent crackdowns towards the Gezi park protestors, Kurdish groups, and most recently against political opponents following last summer’s failed coup.

Looking back, we can see that Erdogan’s brand of populist nationalism has paved the way for authoritarianism in a number of ways.

  • First, Islamic populism reconfigured the boundaries of national identity, and played a crucial role in the political movement. Since its inception, the AKP has advocated for reinvigorating Turkey’s Ottoman-Islamic roots and constructed a vision of indigenous cultural identity based on Muslim nationalism, thereby departing from earlier articulations of Turkish national identity as secular and Western. During early to mid 2000s, the AKP even portrayed the Ottoman Empire as a model of multicultural tolerance that, if revived, would foster national unity in present day Turkey. Such pluralist articulations of Ottoman multiculturalism, however, have recently been replaced with a form of Islamic nationalism that excludes and even prosecutes anyone who does not fit into a narrow understanding of Turkishness. For example, the Turkish state has knowingly exacerbated the Kurdish conflict and turned a blind eye to violent attacks committed by far-right activists.
  • These exclusionary characteristics of populist nationalism in Turkey resemble similar developments elsewhere. The rise of nativism (or white nationalism) across Europe and the USA has been accompanied by public displays of xenophobic racism and a proliferation of anti-immigrant sentiments. What distinguishes the Turkish case, however, is the fact that the AKP has generally welcomed Syrian refugees with open arms. Yet pro-immigrant government policy has not translated into recognizing the cultural, ethnic and religious diversity of the population. The lack of recognition towards minority rights is related to the fact that populist nationalism rarely endorses a civic notion of cultural identity, thereby creating a tendency towards authoritarianism.
  • Another way in which the Turkish case resembles populist nationalism elsewhere has to do with AKP’s anti-establishment and anti-elitist stance. Since 2002, the AKP has represented voters from the Anatolian heartland including agricultural masses, religious groups, and the urban poor who felt excluded and repressed by Westernized urban elites. But, although the AKP uses the language of “the people” to legitimize its political rule, actually the party is largely supported by the Islamic bourgeoisie who, when compared to the rest of the population, enjoy certain class-based, ethnic and religious privileges. The strict boundaries drawn between “the people” and “the elite” create and exacerbate a polarized political climate. As a result, Turkish citizens increasingly feel like they must pick a side. Such polarization is troublesome because it leads to the erosion of societal trust, a key component of any democratic polity.
  • A distinguishing feature of the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote is the emphasis upon nationalist, inward-looking economic policies that appear to reject global free trade in the name of protecting low-wage laborers. The Turkish case seems to belong to an earlier kind of “neoliberal populism” that embraces economic globalization instead of rejecting it. But, all of these movements still have something in common: they are able to simultaneously appeal to winners and losers of globalization who, at least theoretically, are supposed to have opposing economic interests. The future of these populist movements, thus, will largely depend on whether they are able to sustain these cross-class coalitions. For example, in the case of Turkey, public-private partnerships fund a variety of social services that play a crucial role in maintaining cross-class coalitions. Whether similar post-neoliberal social programs will develop elsewhere remains to be seen, but it is certain that new populist movements have to find an innovative method of redistributing economic favors if they want to remain in power.

But, what is most concerning about the Turkish case is that it demonstrates the slow erosion of democracy as a result of electoral “winning.” For Erdogan, winning in free elections entitles him to redesign the political system and the Constitution without being accountable to other political groups. The ability of Erdogan to redesign Turkey’s political institutions, especially his quest to adopt a presidential system, is made possible by his electoral popularity. Such a majoritarian notion of democracy has led to a political climate where the government disregards criticism and dismisses the demands of protestors as irrelevant. Especially since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP has turned against liberals, Kurds, and has most recently accused members of the Gulen movement for organizing the July 2016 failed coup attempt. Such incapacity to engage with the opposition stems from a dichotomous perception of the world as if it is divided into winners and losers.  In this view, anyone who criticizes the government is considered an enemy of the state.

Whether or not populist nationalism will have a similar de-democratizing effect in other countries remains to be seen. The Turkish case shows that such a turn towards authoritarianism is indeed possible, and invites us to consider the worldwide democratic implications of the current wave of populist nationalism.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.