Transatlantic Take

The Importance of Mitigating Polarization in Turkey

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Polarization is unique neither to Turkey nor to the current period.

Polarization is unique neither to Turkey nor to the current period. The United States, where polarization was one of the drivers of voter behavior in the recent elections, is a textbook example for affective polarization. Brazil, Hungary, India, Japan, Poland, and Russia are just a few examples in different parts of the world where polarization is an important political factor. The roots of polarization in Turkey arguably go back to the foundation of the republic in 1923—which resulted in top-down Westernization—or even to the first Westernization efforts in the Ottoman empire in the late 18th century. However, as a result of developments such as increasing inequality as well as its visibility, undermining of separation of powers, consolidation of power, erosion of judicial independence, collapse of mainstream media, and the divisive nature of social media, polarization is increasingly becoming a significant threat for social cohesion, pluralistic democracy, and social peace in Turkey.

As was highlighted by the recent Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey 2020 Survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United and İstanbul Bilgi University Migration Research Center, affective polarization in Turkey is not only deep-rooted but also widespread, and no political party constituency is immune from its effects. Supporters of all major parties have polarized attitudes toward their “political other.”

The survey, conducted through face-to-face interviews with 4,000 respondents, highlighted that Turkey scores high in all three dimensions of affective polarization—social distance, moral superiority, and political intolerance. Respondents demonstrated an unwillingness to socially interact with their political other, attributed only negative adjectives to them, and said that their political rights could be limited. 

The survey also demonstrated that Turkish citizens live in echo-chambers in which existing views are reconfirmed and other voices are shut out. A majority of respondents said that they discuss sensitive issues with only family members and close friends with whom they largely agree and not with others. Supporters of different political parties receive information from separate sources, which they find impartial while they find the sources that their political others prefer to be partial. The echo-chambers and spirals of silence observed in Turkey are not only the results of polarization; they also exacerbate the situation as lack of communication among polarized groups leads to further strengthening of their prejudices against each other.

Polarization in Turkey also leads to stark differences among supporters of different political parties on most issues, ranging from the state of the economy to the education system. Wide gaps exist among supporters of the governing bloc and supporters of the opposition parties not only in terms of opinions on issues but also of emotions felt toward political developments.

Affective polarization is eroding the basis for a pluralistic democracy and paving the way for populist and majoritarian politics in Turkey, as well as exposing the country to internally and externally driven disinformation campaigns. Moreover, as citizens are divided on almost all issues, skepticism toward other countries, particularly those that are among Turkey’s treaty allies, is one of the few islands of agreement. This toxifies relations with Europe and the United States. Therefore, the mitigation of polarization would contribute not only to democratization in Turkey, but also to restrengthening ties to Europe and the United States.

Polarization in Turkey is widespread and deep-rooted—and it will not just go away by itself. There are two alternative approaches to mitigating it. The top-down approach would require the government to strengthen the separation of powers, democratic checks and balances, and judicial independence, making politics no longer a “winner takes it all” game. It would also help if the government implemented policies that would strengthen social security, provide high-quality public education for all citizens, and visibly decrease social inequality. However, these may be bridges that are too far.

The bottom-up approach would require the mobilization of civil society and citizen activists to raise awareness of polarization, intervene at the individual level through trainings on polarizing attitudes and how to avoid those, and create platforms for interaction as well as opportunities for cooperation and needed engagement among polarized groups across Turkey. This effort is within the reach of civil society if it is equipped with the right strategies, tools, and resources. The German Marshall Fund of the United States and İstanbul Bilgi University, with financial support from the Swedish International Development Agency, have begun implementing the Strategies and Tools for Mitigating Polarization in Turkey Project as a modest contribution to these bottom-up efforts, but more can be done to impact this trend. It is critical that Turkey look inward and outward with partners, who are experienced or responding to similar challenges, to mitigate polarization, as it will be well worth it to invest time and resources to address the deepening divides that plague societies globally.