In this interview we focus on a populist party from Turkey: the İYİ Party, or the ‘Good Party‘. In just three years from its foundation it started shaping Turkish politics relying on a classic populist approach. Who is the party’s leader Meral Akşener? Why do they call her she-wolf, sister, and Hayme Ana? With Tuğçe Erçetin and Emre Erdoğan we talk about populism and nationalism in Turkey, the future of Turkish democracy under President Erdoğan, and analyse how the leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) modified their populist rhetoric in the last years.
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POP) There is a limited number of studies on female populist leadership, but you went precisely in this direction with your analysis of Meral Akşener, the General Chair of the İYİ Party (the Good Party) in Turkey. Before we see her use of populist rhetoric and driving ideology, can you tell us who is Meral Akşener?
Tuğçe Erçetin) I think that this question is quite significant in order to describe Akşener’s position within Turkish politics. For many years, she has been representing the right and her commitment to nationalist values is well-known. Although the Good Party is newly formed, we cannot depict Akşener as an “outsider”. She had an ascendancy and role in the presidency of the women’s branch of the True Path Party, active until 2007; she became the first female Minister of the Interior before becoming a deputy for the Nationalist Action Party in 2007. She served for three consecutive terms until 2015. During her ministry, crucial political incidents occurred (such as the trial about February 28th, the “post-modern” coup of 1997 when the Turkish military forced out a democratically elected government), and the army leader threatened her, stating: “she should not blab around, she can be sat on a stake”. Akşener responded aggresively to this kind of messages: when in 2018 a group —including some individuals from her former party (NAP)— protested in front of her house, she responded shouting: “let’s come and hit, come come”. Here, I’m trying to emphasize that her aggressive and powerful reactions help to define her political performance. Before the 2018 Presidential elections, Akşener formed the Good Party, becoming chair and candidate, claiming an “alternative role” and promising to bring “goodness” to the country: “the good people win”.
POP) Akşener is called by the names she-wolf (Asena), Hayme Ana (grandmother of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire), and “Sister Meral”. Clearly, she wants to be perceived as “the candidate of the people”. How does she use populism in her communication, and how does populism shape her vision of society? Which are the ‘enemies’ of the people? And in whose name does she claim to speak?
TE) Populism studies indicate two type of approaches to gender. On the one hand, there are studies that examine how right-wing populist leaders use hostile language against women and feminist groups. On the other hand, generally Europe-oriented cases investigate how female populist leaders reflect populist themes. In Akşener’s case, the role of family and women’s role is a significant component of her populist discourse and performance. Also, we should highlight that Akşener is not a pioneer of populism in Turkey: a general, pre-existing “zeitgeist” enabled her to include core contents and repertoire of populism. This is also observable for Akşener’s electoral speeches in 2018. She established close ties with the people, often using family references: she defines herself “sister” or “mother” of the people. During the campaign for the presidential election, she was announced on stage as follows: “the candidate of the people. She cares us as our mother… She is someone from our home. She is one among us”. To strengthen her people-centrist messages, her narrative relies on the construction of “one among us” through family references.
Her performance is quintessentially populist. For instance, she collected muslin cloth from women at her electoral rallies in order to symbolize “unity and peace” with the people. She is not offering social policies for women or insisting on women rights; however, she collects muslins that she promised to keep and exhibit in her presidential office if elected. About her attempts to create a link with the crowd, we can also give one more example in terms of her performative repertoire. During one of her electoral rallies she stopped talking when she heard the ezan (the call to prayer); meanwhile, she collected people’s grievances from the crowd, listening, leaning and then repeating them to others. This resembles the performative strategy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz and his television program, called “Aló Presidente”, because of its way of generating an interaction with citizens.
Crucially, she constructs a division between the people and elites: the people are “farmers, youth, unemployed, students, retired people, and natives”, economically marginalized groups that she wants to dignify, allowing her to speak on behalf of “unemployed citizens”. To strengthen her people-centrist position, she positioned herself with the people and proposed two economic policies, called “citizen salary” and “Solidarity Fund of Turkey”, that distinguished her from the establishment. She introduced a very clear and antagonistic division between “the children of ministers and the children of the nation”: her “enemies” are actors of the establishment in the first place. Akşener criticizes the government while glorifying “the noble people”, and bases her discourse on people’s victimhood while blaming the ruling party and its representatives for the emergence and rise of the Gülen movement and the 2016 failed coup. Overall, she frames people-centrism and anti-elitism through economic issues and nativism that construct the classic “us Vs them” division in her speeches. She differentiates between “losers and winners” in terms of welfare, highlighting the politicians’ privileges and their luxurious life-style that clashes with the disadvantaged conditions of ordinary people.
POP) In Turkey, populism and nativism are not just widespread: they are mainstream positions. How did Meral Akşener manage to differentiate her populist message from, for example, the message of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and many other politicians who crowd that particular sector of the political arena?
Emre Erdoğan) Our research shows that the gatekeeper of Turkish nationalism, the Nationalist Action Party (NAP) and its leader has a very different rhetoric compared to the İYİ Party. The nationalism of the far right Grey Wolves, associated to the NAP, had always been based on the total control of the state over citizens and the Grey Wolves positioned themselves as the guardians of the state. In this classic approach, the state has a paternalistic relationship with the people —intended as nation— and this nation is ethnically homogenous and intolerant to ethnic diversity. Based on the traumas of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Independence war, the Grey Wolves perceive the minorities as potential traitors or collaborators with the Western powers and present Turkishness as a concept from which ethnic or cultural differences have to be erased. The NAP leadership doesn’t have any categorical antagonism against the ethnic minorities (or others) as they don’t ask the recognition of their differences. This approach is very different from the nativism of populist parties or the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the İYİ Party. It is possible to say that the Grey Wolves are more tolerant to ethnic minorities compared to the opposition block. The rhetoric of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is somewhat different than the nationalism of the NAP as its Islamist background always puts the communitarianism of Islam behind the restrictiveness of national identity. For many years now, the AKP leadership opposed Islam’s tolerance to the rigidity of Turkish nationalism. Although this rherotic heavily changed during last five years, the AKP’s standing on nationalism is still soft compared to the NAP.
TE) Nativist rhetoric is part of Akşener’s discourse as well. Akşener appeals to nativist reactions against Syrian refugees in Turkey, insisting on the vitctimization of native people and producing fear over perceived threat and uncertainties. In this sense, it is not surprising that an economic transformation involving a transfer of expenditures from Syrians to Turkish people was one of her promises, mobilizing her constituency over fear and anger against the Syrians. Anti-elitism and nativism are used in combination, since Akşener accused the ruling party of being responsible for the flow of refugees.
POP) Not only Turkey is a country characterized by many types of populist discourses, but it also represented a sort of perfect setting for a natural experiment in June 2015 when, since the government could not be formed within 45 days, the elections were repeated a second time in November. The leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), modified their populist rhetoric between the two elections. How?
EE) In 2015 there have been elections on June 7th and again on November 1st and as you say a coalition government could not be formed due to the lack of will by the Nationalist Action Party: negotiations with the AKP and the pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were declined, while the negotiations for a coalition government between the AKP and the Republican People’s Party failed. In the November elections the AKP’s populist tone changed. That period was characterised by painful attacks, clashes, terrorist attacks, military operations in Syria, bombings, and regional state of emergency. We all know that crises or “critical moments” feed populist discourses, and in that context the AKP could present itself as “the real savior” among “culprits”. In a very established Turkish fashion of personalized politics, where political leaders bypass their political parties, President Erdoğan often referred to “the will of the people”. The homogeneous group of the people was defined with the following adjectives: loyal, Muslim, believer, patriot, victim, religious, honourable, native, heroes, Anatolian, respectful for the Turkish flag, altruistic…
The excluded groups, the “others”, on the other hand, included opposition political parties, opposition media groups/journalists, academics, Gezi protestors, and Western/European countries. Also during the referendum campaign in 2017, the no-block was framed with “darkness, terrorism, divisiveness” while the yes-block was represented as the source of “change, stability, development, and security”. This change demonstrates contextual impact in constructing the classic “us-them” division in populist discourses.
The opposition parties were blamed for their incapability to form a government, insisting on concepts such as insecurity and instability that relied at the same time on elements of people-centrism and anti-elitism. Especially, the pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party was blamed for terrorism, bombings, and chaos, whereas the social-democratic Republican People’s Party was mainly criticized for being an obstacle to religious values and life-style. In general, opposition parties, academics and media were associated with terror and blamed for the situation of instability and insecurity. Past experiences have resonated with today’s uncertainties through collective memory; today’s opposition, which represented the establishment before the AKP, is represented as a threat to traditional values by the AKP. Relying on victimization and fear created through blaming narratives, the AKP managed to strengthen its own image as “savior” of the nation in the people’s interest, appealing to emotions and moral superiority to justify the division between “the good and the evil”.
POP) Now a conclusive, general question: why do you think populism is so successful in Turkey? What are your expectations for a post-Erdogan political scenario?
EE) Turkey became a textbook example of populism, especially the Eastern type of populism, due to the continuous electoral victories of Erdoğan and his party. Erdoğan in particular, and political Islam in general, were the outsider/other of the Kemalist political regime and victims of discriminatory policies for many years. This collective grievance, coupled with the failure of the centrist parties brought him an important political victory in 2002. For almost 20 years Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been winning many elections and referenda, controlling the government at national and local level. The political economy of the country created a new class of winners and a new elite; however Erdoğan is still using a populist rhetoric based on a very powerful “us Vs them” distinction and putting almost everyone on the “other” side of the people. This rhetoric is accepted and reproduced by the party leadership, the government and the media. By creating a media system controlled by the state and using “trolls” through social media the Justice and Development Party created a large echo chamber for its supporters in which they are totally isolated from the facts presented by the opposition. Erdoğan opened economic and political avenues for the AKP sympathizers but they still consider themselves as the culturally excluded “real people”, confronting the over-Westernized elite of the country. This revanchist psychology has been supported by the rhetoric of Erdoğan, the government-controlled media and social media trolls, and this victimization forms the key for any policy failure from the fight against the COVID-19 to the economic crises.
As a result of the polarized political space in the country and the Turkish-style-presidentialism, it is not possible to change the direction of the country through deliberation and compromise. The change will be possible only through the takeover of the power through elections, as observed in the US case. However, it is unknown how to win against Erdoğan, without replicating his populist rhetoric or style.
That’s the Turkish dilemma.
Tuğçe Erçetin has a BA degree in International Relations from Kadir Has University and MA degrees in Political Science at Essex University and in International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. She completed her PhD in Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University. She works as post-doc researcher at Istanbul Bilgi University Center for Migration Research, and gives part-time lectures at the same university. She has been researcher in different research projects on othering, civil society and volunteerism, Syrian refugees and social entrepreneurship, and populism. Her current research interests include comparative politics, populism, political psychology, identity, migration, Turkish politics, and nationalism.
Prof. Emre Erdoğan is the Head of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. With a doctoral degree in Political Science from Boğaziçi University, he has served as researcher and senior consultant in various projects in academia and civil society. His research focuses on political participation, foreign policy and public opinion, child and youth well-being, methodology and statistics. He extensively studies and publishes about youth in Turkey, integration of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey, othering, polarization and populism.