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Religious populism in Turkey

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Isa Eraslan | 2 March 2020

AKP (Justice and Development Party) receives most of its support from workers, farmers, homemakers, and unemployed people. In the last 17 years, around 22.000 workers died in work-related accidents. Emergency executive orders have prohibited workers’ rights to strike and protest, and police used strong measures against them in many incidents. Big construction projects and government policies profoundly affected the farmers and Turkey has lost most of its arable lands and forests during the last 17 years of AKP rule. Women murders and beating incidents also greatly increased in the last decade. The unemployment rates are more than 14% and it is increasing day by day. Still, AKP can get the most support from the groups it crushes most. How does AKP preserve the mass support for the regime in any circumstance? How did they achieve to sustain a high level of support after the Soma incident where 301 miners died in a terrible accident and become the first party in the elections? How did they achieve to become the first party in Turkey after the 17-25 November corruption probe? How is Erdoğan still the most popular leader in Turkey despite the terrible economy? The answer is a combination of populism and religion.

Turkey has experienced a significant deterioration in political rights and civil liberties over the AKP’s time in office. Freedom House has revised the nation’s “freedom status” from “partly free” down to “not free” in 2018, citing “a deeply flawed constitutional referendum that centralized power in the presidency, the mass replacement of elected mayors with government appointees, arbitrary prosecutions of rights activists and other perceived enemies of the state, and continued purges of state employees”. This aptly characterizes the nature of the authoritarian traits taken on by the AKP. In the early years, the democratic reforms and the EU membership process has created a wave of excitement for both the Turkish scholars and Western academia. The Muslim World was also watching the “AKP miracle” cautiously. Some scholars even suggested that AKP is going to be like the Turkish equivalent of Christian democrats in the West. Erdoğan had the chance to falsify the argument that “Islam was not compatible with democracy” but he did not.

Turkey has been an electoral democracy, a hybrid regime, and a Muslim majority country with an oppressive secular background which makes Turkey a unique case for research. Since 1950, even though there have been coup d’ états and transition periods in the intervening decades, Turkey has always been a democracy with military interventions and serious human rights violations. The elections have been free and fair until 2014 and the media has been partly free until 2011. For the first time in the history of the republic, not the military but a political party has derailed democracy. While destroying the institutions and turning the country into an autocracy, AKP managed to become the first party in all the elections throughout the 17 years in power. Because of the oppressive nature of Turkish secularism, the conservative people have perceived the secular elites as a threat. AKP has used this fear and achieved to stay in power for 17 years.

It is hard to define populism. The concept relies heavily on an “us vs them” distinction as well as hate directed toward elites and mechanisms for wealth distribution. A new political elite emerges through elections, plebiscites, and referendums in order to redistribute power and money. The common point in all the definitions of populism is the struggle between the elites versus the other. Different contexts produce unique forms of populism. Populism envisions an anti-establishment worldview and a majoritarian approach to democracy. A charismatic leader builds his path to power over an antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite. An anti-establishment hero often reverses the rules of the game, ostensibly under the auspices of defending the rights of the poor and the oppressed. The populist hero is portrayed without flaws, or stains in his past or at least a hero who has the media power to whitewash his faults along the way.

Turkish type religious populism opens a vast space for maneuver for the politicians. After 17 years in power AKP circles have become the new elite with great wealth and top state positions. Typically, as the new elites who rule the country, they are expected to abandon anti-elitist discourse gradually, but on the contrary, the dose of populism is increasing day by day. How is this even possible? Populism is supposed to be all about redistribution and anger for the wealthy and politically influential. Erdoğan is using populism more and more, and it is still working. Since an anti-elitist discourse would not work alone, the AKP elites have used religious populism to keep their electorate motivated. By using religious populism, they have been able to turn challenges to their power such as Gezi protests, 17/25 December corruption probe and 15 July Coup attempt into opportunities.

In this alternative universe, whatever happens, is a plot which is organized by the West to stop the rise of “New Turkey”, and the opposition is just a puppet of the West. The electorate is motivated to unify against the West and their “puppets” inside. Everything is all about unifying against a new type of “crusade”. The suffering is the price to pay to make Turkey “the leader of the Muslim world” again. This Neo-Ottomanism and revival of Turkey as the protector of the Muslim world keeps the electorate motivated, with 40 % of the population supporting the AKP.

The AKP’s religious populism has reached out to the masses, especially with Erdoğan’s speeches, media power and writings of influential party ideologues but that’s a discussion for another blog post.


Isa Eraslan, PhD, is a guest researcher at Gothenburg University, School of Global Studies. He is working on critical military studies, civil-military relations, populism and diaspora.


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