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Revolution in Slow Motion: Politics of Resentment, Empowerment and Identity in Turkey

ARTICLES - 24 January 2022

Populism as a political movement receives a great deal of attention in politics and political science. The phenomenon is also linked to two developments of which it is both cause and consequence: democratic backsliding and its offshoot, electoral authoritarianism. 

Whether populist movements are a democratic revolt against systems that no longer function properly, or are inherently autocratic is a key part of the debate. The record so far shows that populist movements emerge from the cracks of a democratic system in which the elites have lost ground and mass discontent has been mobilized. They are likely to be more successful in societies where there is either a potential or deepening cultural polarization. Once in power, they almost invariably veer towards some sort of authoritarianism. Populist leaders usually do so by exacerbating the polarizing cleavages, inflaming cultural resentments and relying on identifying "others" within society that are not part of the "righteous" nation. Control of the media, the judiciary and institutions of the state are the primary instruments of that quest.

For Jan-Werner Müller, the author of What is Populism, populists are not just anti-elite but more importantly anti-pluralist. Therefore, the movement is inherently anti-democratic because it is exclusionary and nullifies the will, aspirations, goals and sentiments of the wider citizenry that are not included in the populist definition of the "nation".  Müller also notes that "populism in power commits the very political sins of which it accuses elites: excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing… Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity."

This summation pretty much encapsulates the trajectory of Turkey’s backsliding democracy, the transformation of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from an aspiring mass political party to an exclusionary populist one, and the rise of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the "Reis" (the chief) of the political order. Turkey and its leader are often cited in the literature on populism as an exemplary case. All the measures necessary for the success and consolidation of populist movements, by means fair and foul that lead to the formation of an illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarian system, have been registered in the Turkish experiment.  In a way, Turkey is one of the authors of the handbook on populist government and electoral authoritarianism. 

Turkey’s transformation

The populists are not just a competing elite. Once they are in power, they move to displace the old elite, change the power structure. If they have an ideological orientation that supplements the rhetoric of populism, they try to build a hegemonic narrative around it, to make this the exclusive language of legitimacy for power. 

In nearly nineteen and a half years of AKP [...] rule, Turkey has undergone a revolutionary transformation in slow motion.

I would suggest that in nearly nineteen and a half years of AKP/Erdoğan rule, Turkey has undergone a revolutionary transformation in slow motion, even if the leader has failed to establish a totalizing ideological hegemony. If one takes the simplest working definition of revolution, it consists of the change in the social basis of political power.

In Turkey, the social basis of political power changed: the old elites have either been replaced (except for big business, some members of which had indeed been co-opted and others forced to keep quiet) or lost their autonomous source of power vis-a-vis the party-state; the schools from which the new elites are recruited have shifted; the educational system and national identity began to significantly reflect a Sunni Muslim bias; a new set of religious cultural and social references and practices is being imposed upon a rapidly secularizing society; the directorate of religious affairs has replaced the general staff as the principal source of ideological narrative and legitimation.

AKP has come to power after the instability and traumatic events of the 1990s thoroughly exhausted the legitimacy of the existing ruling elite. This included the military, whose self-ascribed role as the ultimate arbiter in politics was severely damaged when it ousted a civilian government led by an Islamist party in a so-called "post-modern" coup in 1997. In 2001 the country suffered its deepest economic crisis until then. At the time a young, dynamic population mobilized behind the goal of joining the European Union and sought fundamental change. In the 2002 elections, the AKP, as a spinoff from Turkey’s Islamist movement representing its younger "reformist" wing, won 34.3% of the vote with a promise of change, inclusivity and EU membership. In the same election, the Young Party, founded only three months before the elections by a businessman who ran entirely on a populist/nationalist platform, received 7.2%, mainly from the disenchanted youth. As a result, the traditional center-right parties failed to pass the electoral threshold.

An IMF program and EU accession roadmap in the ready, and enjoying an overwhelming Parliamentary majority, the AKP unleashed the pent-up energies of Turkish businesses, drew record amounts of FDI and lifted many of the restrictions on rights and liberties enshrined in the Turkish constitution and laws. All the while, it gradually demilitarized the polity. The EU accession process was a big help in loosening the tutelage of the military over Turkish politics.

The EU accession process was a big help in loosening the tutelage of the military over Turkish politics. 

As such, the first seven years of AKP in power were a period of growth, increasing prosperity and civilianization cum democratization. The irony was that the AKP itself, the democratizing force of politics, was not democratic or liberal in its constitutive ideology. In retrospect it was a quasi-ideological party that pragmatically used a favorable conjecture to consolidate its power. Unabashedly pro-business and interested in creating its own economic elites and a new middle class, the AKP developed a vast network of patronage in the business community without ignoring the needs of the urban poor. In the words of Demiralp and Balta "through its partisan redistribution of resources to both the urban poor and capital, the AKP has created a winning cross-class coalition and a community bonded around mutual interests" and identified by religious affiliation and outward demonstration of religiosity.

In the wake of a referendum for a constitutional amendment in 2010 and an overwhelming victory in the general elections of 2011 (49.7% of the vote), the authoritarian tendencies came fully to the surface. The referendum effectively made the judiciary the extension of the executive. Along with the security services, the judiciary was where AKP’s partners, the insidious Gülen movement, were strategically located. The Gülen movement would later be dubbed FETÖ - Fetullahist Terrorist Organization - because of their role in the coup attempt in 2016. The elections terminated the need for the ruling party to rely on liberal/secular segments of the public for its political plans and its dependence on them for external legitimacy. The ideological dimension of AKP’s political project was thence accentuated. 

It is true that the drift to authoritarianism was partially a function of the way the main opposition party relied on the military and the judiciary to fight its political fights with the AKP. The military too initiated moves to stop the election of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül as President and to secure the closure of the party by the constitutional court. It lost on both counts. Such efforts led Erdoğan to unleash the Gülen movement against the military and allowed it to initiate several spectacular court cases that violated the basic procedural aspects of a fair trial, and in many cases were based on trumped-up charges. The result was the emaciation of the military and its relegation to a more professional, less politically influential institution in Turkey’s politics.

The decade of unending elections and referenda, and a false opening

For the rest of the decade, except for 2012 and 2013, Turkey had one or two elections every year and a referendum to amend the Constitution so that the parliamentary system could be transformed into a sui generis Presidential one. But arguably the most promising development for the evolution of Turkish democracy was the initiation of negotiations with the civilian representatives of the Kurdish movement by the government, at the end of 2012 after the PKK declared a ceasefire. The "Kurdish opening" gave the country a welcome respite from the violence that intermittently plagued it since 1984, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began to stage terrorist attacks against security forces and civilians. There was hope that unlike other times when the search for peace was aborted for one reason or another, this attempt would succeed. For the AKP, this opening was also a way of keeping its share of the Kurdish vote consolidated and gaining substantial advantage in national elections. 

The defining event of 2013 was the mass protests that erupted ostensibly to block the rebuilding of Ottoman era barracks in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, that then spread across the country. 

Along with the ongoing "Kurdish opening", the defining event of 2013 was the mass protests that erupted ostensibly to block the rebuilding of Ottoman era barracks in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, that then spread across the country. This movement, similar to others across the world at the time, did not have a political agenda or leadership, yet it was unique in the history of the Republic for its spontaneity, its lateral democratic organization and openness to dialogue between culturally and politically estranged groups. Erdoğan took this challenge by mostly young, educated urban denizens as a "counter revolutionary" move and vowed to crush it.

He succeeded in keeping its electoral coalition together, as the Kurds did not wish to compromise their own agenda by supporting the Gezi protests. Thus, Erdogan’s AKP won the municipal elections in 2014, despite serious corruption charges against some of his associates and family, brought forward by the Gülenists, who were now seeking Erdoğan’s downfall. 

It was only in the general elections of 2015 that Erdoğan (elected President under a Parliamentary system in 2014 without giving up his control over the AKP) lost his grip on power. His party lost its absolute majority in the Parliament. This was due to the success of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in overcoming the electoral threshold and winning the third largest number of seats in the National Assembly. Already, by firmly opposing a Presidential system that Erdoğan desperately sought in order to fully concentrate power in his own hands, the young and forceful leader of the pro-Kurdish (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, changed the political landscape. He therefore weakened Erdogan’s already shaken resolve in pursuing the Kurdish opening, which was effectively brought to a standstill before the elections. 

HDP’s success and the loss of momentum in the Kurdish opening induced Erdoğan to asphyxiate the process, to drop his alliance with the Kurds and to forge a new one with his former nemesis, the ultranationalist forces. Thus, having decided to change his ruling coalition partners, he made amends with the security elite and ultranationalists, blocked the formation of a government and forced the country to hold a repeat election. Rejecting the verdict of the electorate has never happened since Turkey began holding mostly free and fair elections in 1950. The war against the PKK, which was itself threatened by the success of the civilian wing of the Kurdish national movement, reignited. Under the shadow of rising violence and terrorist incidents, AKP handily won (49.9% of the vote). 

The PKK’s trench warfare met a crushing response from the military and the resulting securitization of all matters ushered in a period of increased repression.

The PKK’s trench warfare met a crushing response from the military and the resulting securitization of all matters ushered in a period of increased repression, that further intensified in the wake of the botched coup of July 2016. 

The failure of the bloody coup attempt, led by the members within the military of AKP’s erstwhile political ally the Gülen movement, enabled Erdoğan and his new allies to institute a state of emergency. Unrestricted by constitutional checks and balances, the government intensified its efforts to suppress all oppositional forces in society, restricted freedoms, purged the judiciary, the academia and the security forces from "subversive" elements and prepared the transition to the Presidential system. The electorate approved the new system by a narrow margin, in a referendum in 2017 that was tainted by irregularities and allegations of foul play. Finally, in 2018, the new system became operational and Tayyip Erdoğan became the all-powerful and unrestrained head of a Presidential system. In nearly full control of the media, the judiciary and his party, which was by now a faint shadow of its former self and steeped in corruption, the consolidation of Erdoğan’s power was almost complete. Having assumed absolute and unrestricted power of action, but beholden to his ultranationalist, anti-Western, anti-Kurdish political allies within and without the state apparatus, Erdoğan continued to antagonize constituencies that did not support him. He vilified them and relentlessly tried to "homogenize an intrinsically heterogenous society through the mobilization of one authentic, ethno-religiously conceived ‘people’". "Terrorism" became the catch-all word to label any and all unwanted political and social activity. 

How the curtain can fall on an era

The seemingly unshakable grip of Erdoğan on Turkey no longer looks so solid. The Presidential system unleashed a harmful process of deinstitutionalization of the Turkish state.

Furthermore, the bureaucracy lost many of its competent members as customary organizational charts, hierarchies and rules, have been all but eroded. All power and decision-making were shifted to the Presidential compound. Lack of accountability, rampant corruption, absence of proper deliberation have led to colossal mismanagement of the economy. Order is maintained via increasing repression and manipulation of the media and judicial censoring of news coverage. The ruling elite appear to have run out of all intellectual energy and are devoid of new ideas and projects that can at least rehabilitate the Turkish economy.

More spectacularly, Erdoğan keeps himself in power with the aid of forces that used to be his implacable enemies. He is beholden to the nationalist.

More spectacularly, Erdoğan keeps himself in power with the aid of forces that used to be his implacable enemies. He is beholden to the nationalist, security oriented and statist forces within the state that are conventionally anti-liberal and have a restricted sense of citizenship rights, rule of law and basic freedoms. In this sense Erdoğan’s revolution has not fully succeeded to subdue a vibrant if despondent population. His "new Turkey" is at best an incomplete revolution and at worst a failed one, as the need to share power with the forces of a "very old" Turkey is all too apparent to stay on top.

The failure is a function of the inadequacies, intellectual void and lack of skills of the ascending elites and their being singularly devoid of any ethical standards or principles, despite continuous allusions to religious precepts and dogmas. This old "new", therefore, is a spent force and maintains itself in power largely because of its control of the media, the judiciary and the security apparatus. But the absence of a viable opposition until lately also played a significant part in the durability of its rule.    

Economic success was imperative for the AKP to consolidate its rule. The opportunities of the earlier years for AKP constituencies to move up the ladder of income and social status are no longer there. The class alliance that was forged at the beginning that served the interests of a business elite and provided for the urban poor is no longer viable. The resources have been exhausted. But it was not just the economic crisis that brought the AKP to power and maintained the loyalty of its clients in business as well as among the urban poor. Accordingly, the departure of the AKP or Erdoğanism will not be solely based on the failures of the economy. 

Just as the AKP responded to the zeitgeist of the country in 2002 and won the trust of a good chunk of the electorate, a winning political strategy would necessitate a believable promise. Popular mobilization, organizational creativity and a firm commitment to alternative principles and values would have to be part of that strategy, given how heavily the scales will be tilted in favor of the incumbents in the upcoming elections. 

The departure of the AKP or Erdoğanism will not be solely based on the failures of the economy. 

Any such program would have to include redistributive policies and reintroduce equality of opportunity as an irreversible goal. Most importantly, the venomous polarizing discourse of the ruling coalition would have to be countered with an inclusive, positive language that inspires hope.  

The opposition is finally pulling itself together even if it is still in dire need of a vision and a strategy to break Erdoğan’s still strong mystique over the population, despite abysmal economic conditions. The success of opposition candidates in Turkey’s metropolitan centers in the 2019 municipal elections give a strong signal that these metropolitan populations are ready for alternative choices. In this context, the loss of Istanbul, the font of urban rents and massive amounts of patronage resources has harmed the Erdogan regime. But more importantly, it has shown what a winning coalition would look like and how a campaign strategy can be forged to avoid falling into the traps of the populist playbook. 

Under the suffocating grip of the authoritarian "new", a new society is emerging and against strong odds it is trying to organize itself in major urban centers. That it is yet to find its political expression is a reality, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Therefore, a break from illiberal democracy/electoral authoritarianism is plausible with the right strategy and a candidate that could gain the trust of an electorate that is undecided about deserting Erdoğan. Such an event would have global ramifications. It will have shown the possibility of success by positive and inclusive mobilization and that democratic principles and institutional arrangements that have been severely damaged under populist assault can be restored. 

 

Copyright: Adem ALTAN / AFP

 

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