Polarization in Turkey is by all means not a new phenomenon. Since the country’s founding in 1923, Turkey has long suffered from deep-seated ethnic, societal, and structural divisions. Therefore, it is not surprising that many would argue that polarization is ingrained into the very fabric of political culture in the country. However, the turn of the century marked by the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his Justice and Development Party (AKP), military intervention, and referendum-like elections has cultivated a substantial shift towards pernicious polarization. As noted by Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, a form of polarization marked by the partitioning of society into two seemingly irreconcilable distrustful camps: “us” Vs “them”. President Erdoğan has utilized Turkey’s societal cleavages and seeming predisposition towards polarization to consolidate power and merge political identity into a social identity. This has inclined Turkish citizens into thinking along partisan lines, as well as incentivizing both political actors and citizens into trading off democratic principles for partisan interests. Does the cause of pernicious polarization lie indeed with President Erdoğan ? More so, is pernicious polarization the crux of a true pluralistic democracy in Turkey?
President Erdoğan’s political strategy has been characterized by a populist discourse, an appeal to nationalism, political Islam, and most notably a policy of polarization. While, Erdoğan’s strategy itself is not idiosyncratic, it his ability to turn Turkey’s social tensions into axes of acute political conflict that is menacing and to a certain extent distinctive (Svolik 2019). The roots of polarization in Turkey stretch back to the Ottoman Empire when it underwent a form of top-down Westernization towards the end of the 17th century, with religious and racial divisions arising between Muslim and non-Muslim. Despite, the significant amount of time that has elapsed Erdoğan has refashioned these religious and class divides through his interpretation of “White Turks” and “Black Turks”. He drew on these severances to present himself as a candidate who could best represent “working and middle-class religious Turks who long had felt marginalized by the country’s Western-leaning elite” (Becatoros 2017). A discourse that combined with Erdoğan’s personalistic and populist form of leadership formed the perfect breeding ground in forming an appealing group identity. A strategy which has successfully worked considering he has been in a position of power for the last fifteen years. Nonetheless, it is futile to say that polarization in Turkey can be directly linked to Erdoğan or to the AKP. However, what the party has succeeded in doing is it has capitalized on Turkey’s “formative rifts” specifically centered on secular vs religious, center vs periphery, and state vs society (Somer 2019). It is Erdoğan’s continued pin-pointing of these differences in his political discourse and his policies which has provoked the turn to pernicious polarization.
It is safe to say that Erdoğan’s leveraging of these differences has garnered an increase in polarization but the true crux of severe pernicious polarization lies with how these cleavages are interpreted. The rational nature of polarization is best noted in Murat’s and McCoy’s piece titled Transformations through Polarizations and Global Threats to Democracy. The authors outline that it is precisely the interpretation and response to these rifts by actors and groups that create the antagonistic “us” vs “them” camps (2019). In this case, Erdoğan has responded in an antagonistic manner by blatantly demonizing his opponents and repressing the media, drawing a clear line between his supporters and all the others. This has only been aggravated after the failed July 2016 Coup D’Etat carried out by members of the Gülen movement. Shortly thereafter, almost “132,000 people were detained, almost 200 media outlets were shut down and over 300 journalists were arrested” ( Işıkara 2018). Identity differences can positively shape a country’s society but under the rule of Erdoğan and the AKP these opposing camps hold the meaning that different is dangerous.
Aside from, the destruction of social cohesion caused by pernicious polarization it furthermore is a threat to upholding a pluralistic democracy and democratic values. As Milan Svolik stated in his article titled Polarization versus Democracy, in sharply “polarized electorates, even voters who value democracy will be willing to sacrifice fair democratic competition for the sake of electing politicians who champion their interests” (2019). The more divided a society is, as is the case in Turkey, the easier it is for actors like Erdoğan to utilize these divisions to secure votes. According to a study carried out in 2015 by the German Marshall Fund, only a mere 29 percent said they would like to be neighbors with a person from an “other party.” If partisan affiliation runs so strongly in Turkey, it is not surprising that voters would sacrifice democratic principles to support their party. Pernicious polarization also dis-incentivizes political and civil actors to speak-out against the backsliding of pluralistic democracy. In the aftermath of the 2016 attempted Coup D’Etat, Erdoğan refused to include dozens of “Gülenists on AKP lists for parliamentary elections” yet “all political parties and the majority of Turkish civil society nevertheless rejected the coup as an assault on Turkey’s democracy” (Kirişci & Sloat 2019). The repressive measures Erdoğan has enacted in the forms of controlling the media have not only created a culture of fear but hindered attempts for opposition parties to garner attention and votes.
Erdoğan’s transition to an exclusionary form of politics has forged the way for pernicious polarization to become imbedded into Turkey’s political and societal spheres, making efforts to uphold and defend democratic values more challenging. The transition of Turkey into a centralized presidential system in 2018 has only bestowed Erdoğan with more power as he holds the role of head of state and government. The future of Turkey upholding a pluralistic democracy looks bleak, with the effects of pernicious polarization lurking in and attacking democracy from the very inside: through its people.
- Akyol, Riada Asimovic. February 8, 2016. “Turkey’s Pervasive Polarisation.”Al Jazeera. https:// www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2016/2/8/turkeys-pervasive-political-and-social-polarisation
- Becatoros, Elena. April 16, 2017. “Turkey’s Erdogan Proves a Popular and Polarizing Figure.” AP NEWS.https://apnews.com/article/a7b2c48abe83460d9d1c28468b08bb16
- Işıkara Alp Kayserilioğlu Max Zirngast, Güney, Alp Kayserilioğlu, and Max Zirngast. January 18, 2018. “Erdoğan and His Opponents.” Jacobin. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/01/turkey-erdogan-akpchp-kurds
- Kirişci, Kemal, and Amanda Sloat. February 2019. “The Rise and Fall of Liberal Democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West.” Democracy and Disorder . Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/ wp-content/uploads/2019/02/FP_20190226_turkey_kirisci_sloat.pdf
- Thomas Carothers, Andrew O’Donohue. October 1, 2019. “How to Understand the Global Spread of Political Polarization.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/ 2019/10/01/how-to-understand-global-spread-of-political-polarization-pub-79893
- Somer, Murat and Jennifer McCoy, 2019. “Transformations through Polarizations and Global Threats to Democracy.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 681: 8-22.
- Svolik, Milan W. 2019. “Polarization versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30(3): 20-32.
- Somer, Murat. January 2019. “Turkey: The Slippery Slope from Reformist to Revolutionary Polarization and Democratic Breakdown.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681, no. 1: 42–61. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0002716218818056.