Transatlantic Take

Polarization Paves the Way for Populism and Majoritarianism in Turkey

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ANKARA — Polarization in Turkey is eroding the platform for a pluralistic democracy and paving the way for populist and majoritarian politics, as well as exposing the country to propaganda and manipulation by adversaries who use hybrid w

ANKARA — Polarization in Turkey is eroding the platform for a pluralistic democracy and paving the way for populist and majoritarian politics, as well as exposing the country to propaganda and manipulation by adversaries who use hybrid warfare techniques to distance Turkey from the West.

Today, Turkish citizens increasingly live in echo-chambers where their view is amplified and the opposite view is non-existent. Citizens then become affected by a spiral of silence as they refrain from discussing sensitive issues in environments where there are people with the opposite view.

Respondents to a recent survey,[1] conducted by the İstanbul Bilgi University with support from GMF’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, identified dimensions of  polarization in Turkey as social distance, perceived moral superiority, and political intolerance toward the political constituencies they feel most distant from, their political other. Respondents demonstrated an unwillingness to socially interact with their political other, attributed only negative adjectives to them, and said that their political rights should be limited. Moreover, the survey found that these dimensions of polarization are correlated in the Turkish context.

Polarization is not unique to Turkey. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Narendra Modi in India, Shinzo Abe in Japan, and Donald Trump in the United States all extensively exploit societal cleavages and have political rhetoric based on scapegoating, discriminating, and “othering.”[2] Likewise, polarization in Turkey is not unique to this current period in time. The roots of polarization in Turkey arguably go back to the foundation of the Republic in 1923 — which resulted in top-down Westernization and even to the first Westernization efforts in the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century. Today polarization has become a significant threat for social cohesion, pluralistic democracy, and national security in Turkey.

Social cohesion is important for promoting trust and creating an inclusive society with upward mobility opportunities for everyone and giving individuals in the society a sense of belonging despite their differences. As the successor of a fallen multinational empire, Turkey’s diverse and traumatized society poses a challenge to social cohesion. Polarization makes it even more difficult to build bridges within the Turkish society.

Polarization also erodes the platform for pluralistic democracy and paves the way for populist and majoritarian politics. The survey showed that individuals in the Turkish society live in echo-chambers in which existing views are amplified and other voices are shut-off. A majority of respondents in the survey said that they discuss sensitive issues only with family members and close friends and not with others; and that they usually agree with family members and friends on political issues. In such an environment, a politician can fence a sufficiently large part of the voters, who do not wish to interact with others, who feel morally superior to others and who accept the violation of political rights of others paving the way for populism and majoritarianism. Something that is happening today in Turkey.

In the Turkish context, polarization is a threat for not only social cohesion and pluralistic democracy, but also for national security. First, polarization makes it very difficult to resolve violent conflicts through peaceful means. This was one of the main challenges the Turkish government had during Kurdish Peace Process in 2013–2015. Second, polarization creates an opportunity which terrorist organizations base their strategies on. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has designed its terrorist attacks to capitalize on the existing divides between Turks and Kurds and to deepen those divides. Similarly, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has chosen its targets in Turkey to capitalize on the divides between conservatives and seculars and Turks and Kurds.

The Turkish society is not divided on every issue. 87 percent of the respondents believe that “European States want to disintegrate Turkey as they have disintegrated the Ottoman Empire,” and 54 percent believe that the United States is Turkey’s biggest security threat. While they are exceptions to polarization in Turkey, these islands of agreement are also opportunities which Turkey’s adversaries can exploit through propaganda and manipulation to draw a wedge between Turkey and its Western allies. Something that I believe is also happening today.

Polarization in Turkey is widespread and deep-rooted — and a problem that will not just go away by itself. It can only be mitigated if politicians recognize it as a problem for Turkish democracy rather than as an opportunity for closing their ranks and fencing their supporters in the short run. Only then can independent media and civil society be expected build bridges across society and build social capital. And only then can Turkey be at peace with itself and the world.

Further Reading: Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey

[2] Turkey, Divided We Stand, Emre Erdoğan, On Turkey Series, April 12, 2016