By Maya Ramirez
Turkey these days, in particular, is one of the most socially and politically polarized societies in the world. The secular versus the religious conservatives being the most contemporary and most pertinent division in Turkey. In addition to severe polarization, in 2018 NGO Freedom House downgraded the Turkish democracy from “partially free” to “unfree” for the first time since 1983 (Freedom 2018).
Jennifer McCoy et al. discuss in “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics, and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities” her definition of polarization: the process whereby the normal multiplicity of differences in a society increasingly align along a single dimension and people increasingly perceive and describe politics and society in terms of “us” vs “them.”
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, The Justice and Development Party (AK party) regime has won every election during the fourteen years it has been in power, accumulating power and making positive transformations, but it has not necessarily contributed to any conspicuous rise to the society’s overall wellbeing. A socio-historical analysis of polarization in Turkish politics from 1950 to 2016 found that Turkish politics “is embedded through military interventions, the top down institutional structure, the rising of identity politics and the disappearance of political centers.” When the AKP came to power in 2004, Turkey’s legacy of a stable regime—which had successfully implemented modernization policies and saw the transition of Turkish governance to a multiparty, partial democracy but it had also halted the full implementation of full democracy during the twentieth century. Strong states– like how Turkey was– can obstruct democratization. Democratic reforms were necessary for Turkey to establish a transparent and accountable system and to solidify the state-religion relationship. Elected governments prior to AKP had failed to push through such reforms because, for example, they had been too weak in regards to their support base, a strong media, and institutions like the military and the judiciary. Their successors, the AKP, gathered sufficient power and stability to make wide-ranging changes.
Even if not all, the vast majority of citizens in Turkey now think along partisan lines on virtually everything, and it’s these predisposed ideological differences that are exacerbating old and new tensions in the Turkish population. One issue, specifically, that is intertwined with the conflicting ideologies of the Turkish population is the issue of President Erdogan’s proposal to rid the Turkish government of its parliamentary ways for a more presidential system instead. A societal study conducted in 2015 found that 73% of participants stated that they do not want to engage with anyone whose political stance and views greatly differ from their own. The research was conducted as part of a project of the Corporate Social Responsibility Association of Turkey between Dec. 3 and Dec. 10, 2015, with face-to-face interviews with 1,024 participants (Hürriyet). If the situation with extreme polarization remains stagnant or worsens, it can only be seen that these lines in the sand may grow deeper.