Turkey has long been dealing with populism, presenting itself as a perfect case study where scholars can work on how populism and democratic backsliding can go hand in hand. President Erdoğan’s discourse and policies satisfy almost all the features of a checklist for a populist agenda. From the beginning of AKP’s rise, the party claimed to be the voice of the “silent majority” who had been allegedly ignored by elites and excluded from ruling. Although the party initially presented itself as a centrist party, AKP gained extensive support by citizens who fall into the religious conservative part of the historically rooted conservative-secular social cleavage and since then, it has been their policy to respond to the demands of the conservative electorate. Though the party has been successful in responding to its electorate’s conservative demands, it hasn’t been the only thing that kept the party in power for almost two decades.
For a long time, economy was considered to be one of the AKP’s strengths and increasing growth rates along with decreases in unemployment created a fertile environment for the popularity of the party. However, the means that this economic prosperity was provided through turned out to be heavily dependent on patronage and clientelistic relations, which have always been dominant in Turkish political system, but evolved into a different level during the AKP era.
Throughout this time, AKP faced many challenges and successfully managed to mobilize its electorate with polarizing discourse based on creating social and political cleavages. Yet the problem the AKP elite was unable to foresee, is the fact that what gave them this immense power was not sustainable in the long run or at least under normal circumstances. AKP is a party that thrives in crises times, or when it faces challenges from the seculars which enables them to revive the discourse based on their alleged constrained sovereignty. However, the former “silent majority” has now gained voice, the so-called “virtuous” (from the manichean perspective they provide) has prevailed and the ignored has become the ruler. It is actually quite interesting to see that once a populist is successful enough, the leader himself turns into the problem that he challenged and presented himself to be a cure for in the first place. For this reason, once the demands or claims against the old established system are actually fulfilled and settled down, polarization becomes an indispensable tool for the survival of such populist rule. Polarization, on the other hand, became one of the usual suspects of democratic backsliding in recent years. It is argued that polarization decreases the possibility of punishing the incumbent , or in other words, it reduces the audience costs or costs of suppression for the ruling party, because the voters cannot afford to switch votes to punish when they are too polarized. Polarization, indeed, lowered the cost of suppression for AKP government while they engaged in numerous violations of democratic values. Turkey has had its share of high levels of polarization before, however not as a function of populism and not under such a strong neo-patrimonial government. The neo-patrimonial relations that the AKP government established is also an important contributor in consolidation of party’s power and the deepening of the democratic erosion. Nonetheless, as it is the case in the polarizing populist rhetoric, neo-patrimonial structure is not sustainable and destined to consume the system from the inside.
The government is no longer able to respond to its constituency’s economic needs due to bad governance of the economy through neo-patrimonial relations with business elites, and instead have long been using cleavage issues that will polarize the voters. Turkey, with an economic crisis that is intensified in the last 2 years and Turkish lira devaluating quite strongly in the 2020 (lost around 30% of its value against US dollar since the beginning of the year), has become incapable of responding to grievances of the public. As mentioned before, one of the most influential factors that gave AKP such power was its ability to voice the conservative voters’ demands, however, most of those issues no longer exist after 18 years of AKP rule and the issues the party brings forward do not correspond to the reality anymore.
The situation was as clear as light in the turning of Hagia Sophia to a mosque by the government during the summer. Though the issue of Hagia Sophia museum turning into a mosque has been put forward occasionally, it never had a strong appeal in the eyes of the public. Even Erdoğan himself rejected this idea several times before. However, at the height of coronavirus outbreak during the summer, the party brought this issue on the table, trying to create a mobilizing cleavage that would rekindle popularity and hoping to, once again, become the heroes who fulfill the silent majority’s demands. Within a few months, the historical Hagia Sophia was opened as a mosque with an exclusive event of Friday prayer, where elites were invited in but the public prayed outside. Though this issue took part in the media for a few weeks, it failed to achieve the attention that was aimed. As previously mentioned, this was not based on a real grievance that the society “urgently” demanded. At a time of such economic discontent bolstered up even more by the pandemic, an artificial cleavage is doomed to fail. AKP is now facing a hardship in maintaining its position as “saviours” and losing its ability to respond to the actual problems the citizens face today. Secondly, in almost all of the pseudo cleavages that AKP produced before, the opposition leaders usually responded with reactions that reinforced the division that AKP was so successful in addressing. This time, the opposition leaders have finally decided not to react in a way that would rekindle a secular-conservative cleavage, abstained from any provocative statements and expressed the obvious reality that AKP is using this issue for political means.
It is intriguing to observe that the very nature of Erdoğan’s populist style that produced polarization and neo-patrimonialism in Turkey and gave him such power, makes it difficult to sustain the same level of popularity. In a political environment where neo-patrimonial economic structure is hindering a stability in the economy and therefore causing a decrease in the resources allocated to AKP’s electorate, it is very difficult to increase or maintain votes by creating artificial polarizing cleavages and to still perform as the “voice of the people” after such a long time in the seat. From this perspective, an electoral turnover in Turkey seems likely, however, the uncertainty that authoritarianism brings along may always disprove.
 Svolik, Milan W. “Polarization versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30.3 (2019): 20-32.
 Arbatli, Ekim, and Dina Rosenberg. “United We Stand, Divided We Rule: How Political Polarization Erodes Democracy.” Democratization (2020): 1-23.
 Esen, Berk, and Şebnem Gümüşçü. “Why Did Turkish Democracy Collapse? A Political Economy Account of AKP’s Authoritarianism.” Party Politics (2020): 1-17.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.