Home > News > And the winner of Turkey's presidential election is… populism
226 views 7 min 0 Comment

And the winner of Turkey's presidential election is… populism

- August 8, 2014

Joshua Tucker: Continuing our series of Election Reports, the following is a guest post from political scientists Sezin Öney (Bilkent University) and Emre Erdoğan (Istanbul Bilgi University).

The motto of Turkey´s Aug. 10 presidential elections is “People electing the President.” In 2008, the political crisis over the previous parliament’s failure to elect a president led to a series of constitutional amendments. The referendum for approving these amendments created a hybrid system. While the parliament remained in control of the legislative process, and the cabinet in control of the executive, the presidency gained political weight in symbolic terms as it was transformed into a post to be filled by direct election.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose party Justice and Development (AKP) has ruled Turkey since 2002, contends that he will be easily win the presidency with more than 50 percent of the first round votes.  Polls suggest that Erdoğan is closely (or according to some others, not so closely) leading Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the candidate of the two main opposition parties, the center-left People’s Republican Party (CHP) and the nationalist People’s Action Party (MHP). The third candidate is Selahattin Demirtaş, initially nominated by the fourth and nominally smallest party of the parliament, People’s Democracy Party (HDP), which is predominantly representative of the Kurdish minority.
As far as the legal framework is concerned, the presidency still has limited executive and legislative powers “on paper,” but the perceptions concerning the post have been altered.

Turning around political scientist Adam Przeworski’s well-known reference to “democracy” as the “only game in town,” populism has become the “only game” in Turkey’s presidential elections. In a way, the competition seems to be between competing populisms.

According to political scientist Cas Mudde, populism can be defined as:

a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people

Based on this definition, Turkey’s politics on the eve of presidential elections display symptoms of the “Populist Zeitgeist.” If the sound bites were to be taken away, there would be little else remaining as “political activity.” For example, the presidential candidates and their campaign teams produced almost no new written material except for catchy lines on campaign posters.

Yes, there exists something in ink; but quite invisible in quality. Erdoğan’s campaign Web site (with the address the Turkish version of “nation’s man.com”) boasts an 88-page vision-strategy, full of promises for “democratic, prosperous and pioneering Turkey.” Erdoğan points to his past performance in infrastructure, education and health issues as a clue for his future performance as the president. And as the strongest candidate, he explicitly states in speeches that he intends to opt for a systemic change; going for a fully presidential system, with amplified executive and legislative powers. But, in his vision statement, Erdoğan does not outline what exact steps he will be taking for this aim.

The other candidate who came up with a written manifesto was Demirtaş, who will likely come in third in the elections. He presented a 54-page “New Life Document.” This is a highly visual, marketing-type brochure. Basically, every page is a sentence in bold typography, decorated with Demirtaş’s photographs. The gist of all of these statements might be summarized as “freedom for all.” But, there is no roadmap how to actually realize those “freedoms.”

İhsanoğlu, who is an Islamic philosophy professor and the former Secretary General of the Islamic Conference Organization, stands out in this game. He is the most bookish of all three candidates, yet he did not even attempt to produce any written future vision statement. İhsanoğlu was criticized initially because he does not give the impression of being a “people’s man,” and for being a high-brow “mon cher”. “Mon cher” is how Erdoğan sarcastically refers to diplomats, as they had an alleged affection for French in the Ottoman times.

In Erdoğan’s case, “them” are depicted as “old Turkey,” which includes all his rivals. Similar to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as described by Acemoğlu and Robinson, Erdoğan positions himself as the candidate of the “People” against the candidates of the “State.”  His campaign slogan is very simple: “National Will, National  Power.” “National” refers to more than one cleavage: ˝External enemies of Turkey vs. the People” and  “Elites vs. Ordinary People.”  In this way he is strengthening the divide between “we” and “others,” a typical characteristic of populism.

İhsanoğlu also frequently refers to “us,” the pure, honest and modest “we.” He made less of an issue of “them,” and, at at times was criticized for being soft. But, he does hint at the “corrupt other.”
Demirtaş of the pro-Kurdish movement also is playing backgammon with black and whites.  His “vox populi” are not only Kurds, but all the “suppressed” and “repressed,” ranging from women to LGBT to the Armenian minority.  His statements like “People will become the President, not myself” are hits in social media. In this case, the “other” is Erdoğan, and the CHP-MHP coalition. He accuses the former for being “corrupt to the core,” and the latter for being ultra-nationalist and “counter-Left.”

If you Google the term “people’s candidate” in Turkish, all three pop up with their statements that “they are the one.” If there is a winner in Turkey’s presidential elections, it is populism ahead of anything else.