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 the presidential one, which has been approved in a close referendum in April 2017. 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 the parliament in the same ballot box. Reasons of this unforeseen decision are disputable and its consequences are uncertain.
One of the most widespread definitions of populism today is 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”. 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 also see a preference for social media that we have observed in other countries. Populists prefer social media, since it allows them to communicate with the masses directly and to bypass “dishonest media”, as for example Trump stated. However, the definition of “dishonest media” strongly differs from case to case, as we will see. Populists have highlighted that on social media, messages cannot be altered, 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 on social media easily, creating viral messages that a 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 is composed of the centre-left Kemalists CHP, the newly formed İYİ Party and the ultra-religious SP form the National Alliance. This creates the impression that the 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, excluded of both alliances, that has a very symbolic name: the People’s Democracy Party. Only by 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 dominated 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)
President Erdoğan preserves a strong sense of populist discourse, highlighting a homogeneous group of people the 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” 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”. 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” works 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 ‘terrorist’”. Similarly, opposition parties are demonised by accusations their support to the coup attempt and 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”. Additionally, he is blaming them with respect to their support of terrorism in Turkey. Erdoğan, one of the textbook examples 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 secular-republican elite, Erdoğan always used the populism card and attacked the well-known deficiencies of representative democracy, 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 who 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 wars 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 emphasis that he is not against the religious generation. 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 in his construction of the people, he includes Alevis, Kurds, trade unionists, students, 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’”. 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 declaring of early elections with the crisis. Lastly, it seems significant to mention that İnce appeals to the concern of the nationalist majority of Turkey in relation to Syrian refugees and financial assistance to refugees, responding to his competitors from the ruling party while they are asking the financial source of his projects.
“We Came Good to Turkey” and “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 perceived 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 the 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. She collects muslins in every demonstration, believing it as a symbol for a “revolution”. Her emphasis on marginalised people derives from their victimhood, who are narrated 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”. We can argue that the “She-Wolf” reproduces “winners and losers” by labelling them as such, comparing the economic conditions of the people 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 the 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 10 % of total votes, supported by the socialist and libertarian segments of society. He comes from a poor family and he is strong defender of the Kurdish political rights. Since he has been accused of “being an administrator of terror organisation”, he is in jail. He is very successful in attracting people’s attention through social media, thanks to his dedicated supporters, such as his kettle and his wife. Since Demirtaş is in the prison, he is not able to appear in public. However, he reinforced his activity and increased visibility through the 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 make appeal to the 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 the 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”. He also breaks 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 suffered from unfair policies and trials, by binding himself and party members’ life story with them.
The new elections in Turkey is displaying 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, emphasizing the power of the people against the establishment, politicians, and institutions, glorifying the role of the people and illustrating their superiority. Erdoğan presents 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 we have seen in Latin America before that 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 the political participation and expression of political ideas, especially the visibility of the opposition is highly eliminated. However, the case of Turkish politics shows that even under the repressive conditions, populism may create an illusion of real competition. (EE/TE/JPT/TK)