As the snap elections of June 24th approach, the populist tune in Turkish politics becomes the remarkable characteristic of the electoral campaign. In a country, used as the textbook example for populism or competitive authoritarianism, the competition between the long ruling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his competitors became the scene of presentation of almost every populist cliché and phrases of the populist performance. In December 2016, the government and its new supporter, the ultra-nationalist MHP, pushed for a constitutional amendment to transform the political system of the country to a presidential one, which has been approved in a close referendum in April 2017.
On June 24th Turkey holds presidential elections. Emre Erdoğan, Tuğçe Erçetin and Jan Philipp Thomeczek analysed the campaigns of the most prominent candidates and conclude that all of them invoke a strong populist rhetoric to win popular support.
How the populist Zeitgeist controls the Turkish electoral campaign 2018
Emre Erdoğan was born in Istanbul in 1971. He graduated from the Galatasaray Lisesi and from the Political Sciences Department of Boğaziçi University, where he also completed his MA and PhD. He has been working in the public opinion and marketing research sector since 1996 and became one of the founders of the Infakto RW (2003). He is expert on quantitative techniques, sampling, and political methodology and the author of numerous papers about foreign policy and public opinion, political participation, volunteerism, and social capital. He has conducted various research projects on Europeanisation and European perceptions of Turkey, othering and empathy, polarisation, populism, and seasonal agricultural workers. Currently, he is an associate professor teaching social statistics and research method course at Istanbul Bilgi University, maintaining his position as the co-head of the department.
Tuğçe Erçetin was born in İstanbul in 1988. She is fourth year PhD student. She received her Masters degrees in Political Science from University of Essex with a thesis examining the perceptions of Armenian minorities in Turkey. Also, she completed her second Masters degree in International Relations department, focusing on ordinary people and their nationalist poems during the Cold War period. She completed her undergraduate studies in the same department at Kadir Has University, completing with high honor award. She was also a research assistant for a TUBITAK-funded project in relation to Othering and Empathy. Currently, she is working as a project assistant in Istanbul Bilgi University and maintain her research fellow position at PS- Europe.
Jan Philipp Thomeczek is a PhD candidate at NRW School of Governance and former scholarship holder of the Mercator foundation. In his research, he is primarily focused on electoral studies, party systems and the analysis of populism. He currently works as a project manager for various voter studies and voting advice applications at the Dutch company Kieskompas BV.
As the snap elections of June 24th approach, the populist tune in Turkish politics becomes the remarkable characteristic of the electoral campaign. In a country, used as the textbook example for populism or competitive authoritarianism, the competition between the long ruling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his competitors became the scene of presentation of almost every populist cliché and phrases of the populist performance. In December 2016, the government and its new supporter, the ultra-nationalist MHP, pushed for a constitutional amendment to transform the political system of the country to a presidential one, which has been approved in a close referendum in April 2017 (Bilgin/Erdoğan 2018). Although the presidential election was scheduled for 2019, the government, exploiting the advantages of the newly adopted constitutional amendments, pushed for simultaneous elections, in which voters will vote for the president and parliament in the same ballot box. The reasons for this unforeseen decision are disputable and its consequences are uncertain (Erdoğan 2018).
One of the most widespread definitions of populism today is formulated by Cas Mudde who sees it as a “thin ideology that considers society to be essentially divided between two antagonistic and homogeneous groups, the pure people and the corrupt elite, and wants politics to reflect the general will of the people” (Mudde 2004, 543). The populist theme is reaching its peak during the current political campaigns, and this time, Erdoğan is not the sole player in the game. Almost all of his opponents are equally “good populists”. In the electoral campaigns, we recognise a preference for social media that we have observed in other countries as well (Engesser et al. 2017). Populists prefer social media, since it allows them to communicate with the masses directly and to bypass “dishonest media”, as for example Trump stated1. However, the definition of “dishonest media” strongly differs from case to case, as we will see. Populists have highlighted that messages cannot be altered on social media, which is important for them since they feel misunderstood by mainstream media. Shortly, there is no filter on social media, whereas journalistic gatekeepers represent the filters of mass media. As a consequence, populists can provoke easily on social media, creating viral messages that are shared among like-minded users.
The biggest electoral alliance, formed by Erdoğan’s AKP and the MHP, is called “People’s Alliance”, a direct reference to the supremacy of the people, a common theme of populist rhetoric. The second alliance, the so called National Alliance is composed of the centre-left Kemalists CHP, the newly formed İYİ Party and the ultra-religious SP. This creates the impression that competition between the two alliances is also a competition between the people and the nation, which is a typical presentation of major populist concepts. Apart from these associations, there is also the Kurdish party, which is excluded of both alliances and has a very symbolic name: The People’s Democracy Party. Only listing these names already gives an idea how the populist tune dominates the electoral campaign.
How do Turkey’s political leaders use populism as a discursive strategy during the electoral campaigns of Turkey? As the election day approaches, commonalities of candidates’ rhetoric show how the populist memeplex dominates the political scene. Despite some unbridgeable divides in political positions as reflections of societal cleavages – secular vs. religious sections, Turkish vs. Kurdish people – all these leaders are using their own kind of populist rhetoric.
“Vote for Honesty, not Lie” (Erdogan)
Just as he did in his previous campaigns (Erçetin/Erdogan 2018), President Erdoğan preserves a strong sense of populist discourse, highlighting a homogeneous group of people which he positions against elites who are seen as “hijackers” of the national will. He valorises “the people” who are defined as victims and heroes of the coup attempt in 2016. Symbolic references enable him to construct a “pureness” and “victimhood” for the homogeneous group that eliminates “the evil”. Erdoğan is aiming for a unification of the ruling party with the people instead of the “destructive and exclusionist” establishment by using phrases like “we will be one, we will be enormous, we will be siblings and we will be Turkey together” (Haberler 2018) very frequently. His anti-elitist expressions reveal his feelings of moral superiority, for example, by stating that “the party made the country secure and liveable for everyone instead of a handful of elite” (Karar 2018). Moreover, religious and political values strengthen his “us vs. them” division, by humiliating others as “atheists”. “Them” who do not share a common sense for “the people”, is pitted against “we”. He also defines internal and external scapegoats in order to provide justifications how “the bad” work against the interests and values of the people, by highlighting their “harmfulness”. Among the internal actors, terror organisations are targeted, which are found responsible of “deceiving young people and turning them into ‘terrorists’”. Similarly, opposition parties are demonised by accusations of their support to the coup attempt and the FETÖ organisation; especially the leader of the Kurdish political party. His antagonistic discourse also excludes Western countries, by calling them “Hans and George” who were scapegoated for “Islamophobia” and “imperialism” (Mynet 2018). Additionally, he is blaming them with respect to their support of terrorism in Turkey. Erdoğan, one of the textbook examples (Müller 2016) of a populist leader just like Putin, Orban and Trump, is the natural candidate of his own party. Positioning himself as the embodiment of the people and its will against the long rule of the secular-republican elite, Erdoğan always played the populism card and attacked the well-known deficiencies of representative democracy, namely alienating citizens from the political life and failing to ensure political and economic stability.
“I will be the President of Everyone” (İnce)
Muharrem İnce is one of the nomenclature of the CHP and is known for his opposition to the leadership of his party. Since this nomination was surprising, he represents the underdog in this election. He is gifted with extraordinary rhetorical skills and has strong political ambitions. Originally from a peasant family – his sister wears a headscarf -, he presents himself as a self-made, ordinary man – a theme repeatedly used by Erdoğan during the last twenty years. In a nutshell, he seems to be a modified version of Erdoğan for the republican secular electorate. Inclusive appeals of İnce to conservative people began by making references to criticism towards him; therefore, he emphasises that he is not against the religious generation. For example, he always makes a break when a call to prayer starts during his demonstration. İnce legitimises his inclusive approach through a badge, covered by the Turkish flag instead of CHP’s, determining that his construction of the people includes Alevis, Kurds, trade unionists, students and leftists. Currently, he compares himself to Erdoğan to reflect anti-elitism, stating “I am the black one of the country, Erdoğan is the ‘white Turk’” (Cumhuriyet 2018). He prefers to state that he is one among the people, preferring an “ordinary life-style”. Consequently, he targets the presidential palace and describes himself as a “son of the people, drinking normal black tea rather than [more expensive] white tea”. To illustrate his complaints against the establishment he points the “4 Ys”: Corruption (Yozlaşma), Poverty (Yoksulluk), Prohibitions (Yasaklar), and Lies (Yalanlar). At this point, he claims that he will be one of the alternatives during the economic crisis, blaming the ruling party and associating the early elections with the crisis. Lastly, it seems significant to mention that İnce appeals to the concern of the nationalist majority of Turkey about Syrian refugees and financial assistance to refugees, responding to his competitors from the ruling party while they are questioning the financial source of his projects.
“Good People Win” (Akşener)
Meral Akşener, called the “She-Wolf”, is the candidate of the newly formed IYI Party. She was Minister of Interior for a short period of time before becoming one of the prominent politicians of the Turkish nationalist movement. She declared her nomination for the presidency the day she decided to establish her own party and perceives herself as the best candidate against Erdoğan, assuming that she could attract (former) AKP voters. She is not as colourful as İnce, but she is talented in repeating nationalist clichés and religious rhetoric, two important components of “populism à la Turca”. Akşener always appeals to the power of women first, then to the youth and men in a society (Hürriyet 2018). She collects muslins2 in every demonstration, believing it to be a symbol for a “revolution”. Her emphasis on marginalised people derives from their victimhood, who are constructed as “unemployed, tax payer, despaired youth” that are pitted against “people who enjoy tax bonuses, ministers and their families who have luxury automobiles and the president who travels with many escorts” (Yeniçağ 2018). We can argue that the “She-Wolf” reproduces “winners and losers” by labelling them as such, comparing the economic conditions of the population and the elites that conceives recalcitrance of the country in terms of the interests and conditions of the people. Furthermore, she blames politicians and their policies regarding to Syrian refugees that is appealing to nativist concerns within society.
“It Changes with You” (Demirtaş)
Selahattin Demirtaş, currently in jail, was the candidate of the Kurdish political movement in the previous presidential elections and attracted about ten percent of all votes, supported by the socialist and libertarian segments of society. He comes from a poor family and he is a strong defender of the Kurdish political rights. Since he has been accused of “establishing a terrorist organization”, “spreading terror group propaganda” and “praising crimes and criminals” (Toksabay 2017),he is in jail. He is very successful in attracting people’s attention through social media, thanks to his dedicated supporters, such as his kettle3 and his wife. Since Demirtaş is in prison, he is not able to appear in public. However, he reinforced his activity and increased visibility through social media, joining for the hashtag campaign “T A M A M” (Okay) on Twitter – roughly translated as “enough” (with Erdoğan’s rule). His message-oriented jokes provide solidarity and appeal to people directly. In addition, he used his right to make a phone call in order to communicate with the masses. His speech highlighted that he represents all parts of Turkey, presenting an inclusive approach and being with ordinary people: “I may be in the prison; however, Demirtaş is in the fields, mines, classes, streets, constructions, strikes and resistances now. Demirtaş is those who were fired from their jobs, are unemployed or poor. He is young, a woman, a child, Turkish, Kurdish, Circassian, Pomak, Bosnian, Alevi, Sunni; and he is necessarily hopeful and enthusiastic” (Ahval 2018). He also breaks with the paternalistic stereotype of a Sunni in his marriage, explaining how he irons and cleans the house. In general, Demirtaş targets the mainstream / controlled media, complaining about the invisibility of his campaign and candidates. He focuses on marginalised and victimised people who suffer from unfair policies and trials, by binding himself and party members’ life story with them.
The election campaigns in Turkey are displaying a strong populist rhetoric that is invoked by all major candidates in order to win popular support. We observed that these four political leaders’ electoral campaigns rely on populist language, emphasising the power of the people against the establishment, politicians, and institutions, glorifying the role of the people and illustrating their superiority. Erdoğan presents a more homogeneous group, inducing an exclusionary perspective and demonising “others” who do not share common backgrounds and experiences. Therefore, Erdoğan uses all populist themes, containing “the people versus the elite”, anti-establishment resentments, us-vs.-them distinctions and scapegoating. The candidates of the opposition propose an inclusionary approach that we have seen in Latin America before (Mudde/Rovira Kaltwasser 2013). Their approach also portrays the dynamics of Turkey, criticising the deeply divided and polarised society. Finally, we need to remember that these elections are held under the state of emergency, restricting political participation and the expression of political ideas, especially the visibility of the opposition is highly eliminated. However, the case of Turkish politics shows that even under repressive conditions, populism may create an illusion of real competition.
Ahval (2018): İşte Demirtaş’ın ilk miting konuşması. URL: https://ahvalnews6.com/tr/selahattin-demirtas/iste-demirtasin-ilk-miting-konusmasi.Accessed: 15 June 2018.
Bilgin, Hasret Dikici / Erdoğan, Emre (2018): Obscurities of a Referendum Foretold: The 2017 Constitutional Amendments in Turkey, in: Review of Middle East Studies, 52(1), 29-42.
Cumhuriyet (2018): İnce: Erdoğan Beyaz Türk, ben Türkiye’nin zencisiyim. URL: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/993799/ince__Erdogan_Beyaz_Turk__ben_Turkiye_nin_zencisiyim.html. Accessed 15 June 2018.
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Toksabay, Ece (2017). Pro-Kurdish opposition leader’s trial opens in Turkey, Reuters.com, URL: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-demirtas/pro-kurdish-opposition-leaders-trial-opens-in-turkey-idUSKBN1E112B.Accessed 22 June 2018.
Yeniçağ (2018): Meral Akşener: Bugün de biz ‚dur yolcu‘ diyeceğiz!. URL: http://www.yenicaggazetesi.com.tr/meral-aksener-bugun-de-biz-dur-yolcu-diyecegiz-194034h.htm. Accesse 14 June 2018.
Erdoğan, Emre / Erçetin, Tuğçe / Thomeczek, Jan Philipp (2018): How the populist Zeitgeistcontrols the Turkish electoral campaign 2018, Essay, Erschienen auf: regierungsforschung.de. Online Verfügbar: http://regierungsforschung.de/how-the-populist-zeitgeist-controls-the-turkish-electoral-campaign-2018/
- An example of an occasion of Trump talking about social media as a possibility to bypass dishonest media is at his inaugural ball, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0sPidpwYCA [↩]
- Muslins towels are traditionally used by Turkish women for cheese production. [↩]
- Erdoğan was criticising Demirtaş’s posts on Twitter, saying “we even took his kettle” to determine it is not possible to send tweets. Therefore, Demirtaş always make references to his “kettle” in the prison (e.g. Demirtaş 2018). [↩]