Populism, Identity, and the Market

by Ayşe Buğra, Boğaziçi University, Turkey

Since the 1990s, populism has been a widely used term to designate a new type of non-liberal ideology that characterizes certain political parties and their leaders in a wide variety of countries. A moral claim to exclusive representation – where the legitimacy of all opposition can be denied – appears as one of the core characteristics of populism and forms the basis of the disturbing observation that a democratically elected government can present a threat to democracy. However, the threat in question might not be clearly discernible in the discourse and political orientation of a populist party when it first comes to power; the characteristics generally attributed to populist politics often take shape in a dynamic process of gradual deviations from the norms and institutions of representative democracy. It might therefore be suggested that the nature of populism is better understood by approaching it as a process rather than as an ideology with a set of given features.

The process of right-wing populism in Turkey

When the AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in Turkey in 2002, “conservative democracy” was the term its leaders used to describe its ideological position in an attempt to dismiss concerns about its Islamist past. The founders of the party had indeed had their political formation within the Islamist National Outlook Movement, and most of them had held important positions in the coalition government led by the RP (Welfare Party) which was shut down in 1997 for its anti-secularist orientation. Nevertheless, the AKP leaders’ claims that the party had left its Islamist position behind sounded convincing to many people in the country and abroad. The expressions of commitment to a market-oriented economic strategy were also reassuring for those who were ready to accept the AKP as a normal right-wing party.

Today, the AKP and its leader Erdoğan appear as a prominent example in debates on the populist threat to democracy. This change of perception is related less to the surfacing of a hidden Islamist agenda than to the unfolding of an already present tendency to polarize society. This tendency was initially formed as a defensive argument against what was presented as an opposition consisting of authoritarian secularist forces alien to the cultural universe of the country and hostile to a government elected by its majority.

The AKP, like the RP in the 1990s, has drawn amply on the language of the politics of recognition to insist on the disadvantaged position of the country’s Muslim majority under the secular Republican rule. This was indeed a case of populist victors acting like victims and presenting the majority as a mistreated minority, as Jan-Werner Müller put it in his book What is Populism?. However, in the prevailing environment of the period, where identity politics was widely embraced across the divide between left- and right-wing politics, some also interpreted this element of the AKP’s discourse as a democratic call for the recognition of cultural difference against the contested universalism of the secularist position. Moreover, the AKP’s approach to identity politics also extended to ethnic minorities, with promises to recognize and respect their hitherto denied cultural differences, at least at the level of discourse. For a while, this helped the party to enjoy the support of different segments of the population including left-liberal intellectuals and some Kurdish citizens.

It was only more than a decade after the formation of the first AKP government that it became possible to discern the problems inherent in the party’s approach to group difference. While the recognition of cultural difference was presented as a central dimension of justice, the question of just representation was indexed to the legitimate monopoly of the elected party or its leader over the political representation of all groups.

The use of identity politics by the right

In light of the recent political developments in Turkey, a question raised by Sheri Berman becomes relevant: “Why does identity politics benefits the right more than the left?” As Eric Hobsbawm already warned in 1996 in an article published in The New Left Review, nationalism is the only form of identity politics that is based on a common appeal to the majority of citizens and “the Right, especially the Right in power, has always claimed to monopolize this.” In the case of the AKP, the successful use of the language of identity politics has eventually unfolded into a form of nationalism where the opposition parties are presented as a threat to the national interest. This could be found illustrated, for instance, in the election campaign speeches before the general elections of 2015.

Along with the discursive change from the affirmation of cultural difference to a nationalistic language, there were also important institutional changes introduced successively after the three referendums held in 2007, 2010, and 2017. In fact, the case of Turkey shows how our age of populism is also an age of referendums. The current rise of populism and the globally observed salience of referendums as a form of political decision-making could both be interpreted as a reflection of a widespread popular discontent with representative democracy. As such, they both foster similar concerns in liberal circles about a form of popular sovereignty unconstrained by a system of checks and balances. In Turkey, the referendums have indeed played a significant role in the gradual elimination of the bureaucratic and legal constraints on the executive and, ultimately, in the establishment of a presidential system where the elected president has immense decision-making powers.

Interestingly, the insertion of the country into the global market economy has remained an important factor limiting the use of absolute decision-making power by the elected ruler. The recent currency crisis in Turkey has shown how the violation of the rule of law and disregard for the autonomy of the central bank led to the erosion of investor confidence and caused serious harm to the economy. Since it is now becoming clear that the crisis cannot be managed simply through repeated references to the forces conspiring against the country, authoritarian populist politicians might have to acknowledge that their rule can conflict with the smooth functioning of a market economy. What kind of changes we can then expect in the realm of politics and economic policy is still uncertain.

Direct all correspondence to Ayşe Buğra < bugray@boun.edu.tr>

Turkey, Volume 9, Issue 1

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