Turkey’s populist politics

Demirtas with his family. During the campaign for
Turkey’s first popularly elected ‘Head of the Republic’, we wrote a piece
declaring the winner to be “populism”. Turkey will have
parliamentary elections tomorrow on June 7 and here is an update on what has
changed under this heading since last August.

We would argue that if a
change is under way, it is Turkey’s transformation into a fully-fledged
populist political system.

Though there is no
consensus on the definition of populism, a widely accepted one is proposed by
Cas Mudde “as an ideology
that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and
antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which
argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general of the

Populism is something
more than any simple “people oriented” narrative, it is a chameleon phenomenon
that tends to take the shape of the cup it is poured into, ranging from far
left to far right in the political spectrum. The literature indicates that
popular frustration with the status quo is one of the causes leading to a
flourishing populism to flourish. In Turkey, we would argue that particular
domestic reasons contribute to popular disenchantment. On the one hand,
Turkey’s leadership argues that a systemic change is required for the further
development of Turkey, and they mobilize all the political power they possess
for strengthening the executive in this task. On the other hand, the erosion of
the independence and strength of state institutions and fusion of executive,
legislative and judicial powers into the ruling political party’s hands cause more
popular disenchantment among the opposition.

Discontent with the
current state of politics is a sentiment expressed by both the government and
opposition. But, in order to overcome the objectionable  ‘status quo’, whose vision of future will

If this is the key
political query, than it should come as no surprise that in the run-up towards
these elections Turkey’s political scene has been engulfed by “us and them”
narratives – casting the “pure and good” in a war against the “corrupt and
evil” over who is to represent the general will of the people.

Demirtas at a meeting.Against this populist
backdrop, charismatic leaders emit highly charged speech acts, choreographed to
rally the emotions of their supporters to extremes, oozing with demeaning prose
to demonize rival politicians and parties as “barriers to be got rid of” for
the people’s will to triumph. This is seen as the only viable form of politics.

Polemics about such
non-issues as the degree of religiosity of one leader as compared to other, and
casual name tags like, “liar”, “thief”, “infidel”, “murderer” are fired off
from one party rally podium to another.  Intense political polarization is
artfully manufactured by the leaders’ wars of words with their own charisma as

Officially the “Head of
Republic”, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, elected in August 2014 by attracting 52% of
the votes has to be “independent”, unaffiliated with political parties.
However, his desire to transform the political system of Turkey to a fully
presidential one has pushed him into having an excessively active role in the
campaign for his “former” party Justice and Development (AKP).

Erdoğan’s desire for a
presidential system is well-known
since the 2000s and he also openly
set it as his target in the August elections. Prime Minister Ahmet
Davutoğlu backs the system change on his own parallel campaign trail, and AKP
has put forward its “Presidential System” promise as a top priority, alongside
a new constitution in its 2015 Election
Declaration. The AKP and Erdoğan argue that the “people’s will” will
be best served by a strong leader’s presidency, to fend off the whims and
manipulations of internal and external enemies, and the elitist minority’s
oligarchic interests that act as the collective stumbling blocks to the Turkish
people’s proper representation and power.

But, an unlikely
beneficiary of the last summer’s elections; Selahattin Demirtaş (co-leader of
the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), one of the three candidates,
presents an alternative “us and them” rhetoric.  HDP was previously the
only opposition party AKP engaged with, even if reluctantly, for the Peace
Process to resolve the Kurdish Question. But, HDP’s distress with the stalemate
in the Peace Process coupled with Demirtaş’s individual decision to emerge as a
game changer has led to a  vanguard campaign
specifically against Erdoğan, AKP and the Presidential system. This is Demirtaş’
moment to shine. It is interesting that the female co-leader of HDP, Figen
Yüksekdağ, does not receive even a fraction of the media affection devoted to
Demirtaş, despite the fact that the HDP has created a unique platform for
co-leadership in all the positions of its party. This is the result of various
factors: the ideology of the jailed PKK (armed pro-Kurdish organization) leader
Abdullah Öcalan, eager to propagate the “liberation of women”; the prevalence
of the human rights movement among politically repressed Kurds; and the
European Union and Commission supporting “Europeanization”- and effect inter alias

But, in stark contrast
to the past progress of the HDP and its much more staunchly pro-Kurdish
precursor parties, which were closed down either due to court indictments or
party decisions – Demirtaş’s charismatic stance receives unmatched media
attention. He is much praised by political commentators, and even compared by
them affectionately to Turkey’s most popular comedian Cem Yılmaz, for being “loved and
liked”- as well as being branded as a “Kurdish
pop-star of politics”.

Erdogan with a young supporter.In the public psyche,
there seem to be two superheroes: Demirtaş and Erdoğan. Demirtaş’s fans call
him lovingly by the nickname “Selocan”; and for their part, he is the “most
handsome, charismatic, humane and just leader”. Alternatively, Erdoğan’s
supporters have the nickname “Tall Man” and “The Master”; and in their view, he
is the “most handsome, charismatic, humane and just leader”. 

Erdoğan has long been
known for his speech acts, bewitching masses with lofty, emotional and
domineering rhetoric. Erdoğan has also another oratorical strength, frequently
claiming that “without the will of Allah, no one can succeed“, not
without the implication that his success as leader has a higher purpose. Demirtaş
is also devout; according to him, “One person can
both be a believer of Allah, and can be a leftist, high up to Allah”.
But, spiritualism aside, Erdoğan’s signature speech act is reciting poems;
whereas Demirtaş excites his crowds by singing.  Erdoğan argues that he is no Sultan, but a humble servant
of the people; Demirtaş claims to be the Robin Hood
“taking” from the rich to give to the poor.

These charismatic
leaders base their campaigns on a clear demarcation line between “Us” and
“Them”; AKP’s campaign slogan is “They Talk, We
Act”, whereas HDP’s is “WE!”.
Both “we”s are the “people”; vaguely defined as masses with one clear and
shared identity -“ordinary folk oppressed by the elite”. 

Meanwhile, two other
main parties are without the same claim to leadership charisma. The Republican
People’s Party (CHP) launched its economic platform promising
increasing the minimum wage, decreasing price of fuel oil and doubling social
aid given to poor families. The other opposition party, the
Nationalist Action Party (MHP) also included an increase in
minimum wage, elimination of taxes on fuel and fertilizers and granting job
security to public sector workers. Their leaders and rhetoric
capture much less media attention and do not come anywhere near dominating the
agenda as much as the Erdoğan-Demirtaş saga.

But the government has
its own “charisma problem”in the shape of Prime Minister Davutoğlu who is criticized
by the opposition for his lack of stardust qualities in comparison to Erdoğan.
By way of riposte, Davutoğlu
criticizes parties other than the AKP, together with their leaders, as
precisely being too “populist”.  Turkey’s Finance Minister
Mehmet Şimşek has jumped on the same bandwagon, claiming that the “end result of
populism is bankruptcy”.

Erdogan in a meeting.The truth is that populism
is the name of the political game in Turkey, and crafted by none other than
Erdoğan himself in his long quest to create a “people’s presidency”. “The End”
for any populist system in Turkey is likely to come only when these same
“people” have had enough of leadership stardom and charisma. But that seems a
dim prospect, some years ahead, and certainly beyond tomorrow’s

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