Does mainstream opposition always pursue a democratic and depolarising strategy to challenge incumbents' authoritarian populism? Bilge Yabancı argues that in Turkey, both the incumbent and opposition parties have exploited the refugee crisis for political gains at the expense of social cohesion and democratic values
Populism is a well-established phenomenon in Turkish politics. It manifests itself in various forms on the left and the right, and in mainstream and fringe politics, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti argue in their inaugural post for this series. While populism has long been part of Turkey's political landscape, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has harnessed populism as a central strategy for maintaining power.
As my research, and the work of colleagues, highlights, since coming to power in 2002, the AKP has gradually deepened its populist message. Initially, the party positioned itself as the voice of the conservative-pious populace. It contrasted itself with the secular political establishment, which it portrayed as being out of touch with ordinary people. Over time, the AKP has expanded the degree of polarisation in Turkish society. It has targeted not only the political establishment but stigmatised ethnic, religious, and gender minorities. It has ostracised political dissenters, and quashed civic opposition based on moral judgments.
Over two decades, the AKP has fuelled polarisation by targeting ethnic, religious and gender minorities
Research on social boundaries shows consistently that this kind of affective polarisation exacerbates divisions and rationalises undemocratic practices. Turkey has now reached a dangerous level of polarisation that has undermined social cohesion and democratic governance, pushing the country towards autocracy. Over the past decade, toxic populist polarisation exalted the electoral, ethnic, religious and gender majorities while marginalising dissenting voices and discouraging socio-political diversity.
To counter this trend, Turkey’s opposition parties must adopt an inclusive and pluralistic approach to divisive issues. Depolarisation should be the first step towards this end, but achieving it will prove a tough challenge.
Turkey currently hosts more refugees than any other country; about 4.8 million registered refugees from various parts of the world. The presence of these refugees has led to new social divisions, which populist politics have been quick to exploit.
Initially, Turkey's government implemented an open-door policy, welcoming refugees based on humanitarian principles and historical ties. But the aim of this policy was to cast refugees as victims. It patronised them as needy people who should count themselves lucky to have escaped from tyranny.
The AKP government still markets Turkey as a benevolent and generous power which acts in Syrian refugees' best moral and religious interests. It places itself in opposition to the ‘immorality’ of rising anti-refugee public opinion in Turkey, represented mainly by opposition voters, and border violence and pushbacks in Europe. This political discourse appeals to some nationalist, Eurosceptic and conservative AKP supporters.
The AKP believes that to deserve inclusion, refugees should accept their dependence on Turkey’s generosity and tolerance
Meanwhile, the AKP gives refugees ‘a chance to be one of us'; to be a part of the ‘virtuous people’. However, the party believes that to deserve inclusion, refugees should acknowledge their dependence on Turkey’s generosity and tolerance. If they fail to display loyalty, the government reminds refugees of their precarious position through random mistreatment and arbitrary deportations.
Thus, the AKP has exploited the refugee population as a political tool. Yet such exploitation is not exclusive to the AKP; opposition parties, too, incite polarisation to attract voters and challenge the government.
The AKP government offers insufficient legal and logistical preparation for settling and integrating refugees. This has led to exploitation, segregation, and social tensions between citizens and refugees. Opposition parties use these tensions, along with the emergence of Arabic as a dominant language in some cities, to stoke anxiety yet further. Opposition parties' public statements and electoral manifestoes pit ‘us, the natives’ against ‘them, the foreigners’.
Many refugees in Turkey are employed in the informal sector. Rather than highlighting labour exploitation, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the largest opposition party with roots in social democracy – frames informal work done by refugees primarily as a burden on the taxpayer. CHP pledges to reallocate funds assigned to refugees for education and healthcare for native citizens. Similarly, the nationalist centre-right Good Party (İYİP) accuses refugees of altering the social fabric of Turkish culture, and has objected to the integration of Syrians.
One key policy proposal central to the coalition of six opposition parties during the 2023 election campaign was a commitment to repatriate refugees. The coalition securitised refugees through its 'borders equal honour' slogan.
In Turkey’s dominant cultural script, honour is associated with traditional gender roles, purity, and virginity. The allegory of the protection of borders as a matter of honour has further entrenched the public perception of refugees as macho, uncouth and uncivilised intruders violating the feminine purity of Turkey. It has also tapped into the widely circulated narrative of refugee men as harassers targeting Turkish women.
Opposition parties even incorporated the Victory Party, an ultra-nationalist anti-immigration party, into their ranks. Since its inception in 2021, this party has disseminated fabricated news about refugees as ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists’. It has also fomented cultural backlash, targeting the young and urban poor, who are affected most deeply by the current economic crisis and soaring inflation.
The exclusionary populism of opposition parties negates their goal to reestablish democracy, rights, justice, and the rule of law, all of which the AKP has systematically undermined. Opposition parties believe that to challenge the AKP’s authoritarian populism, they must heighten social conflict by opening yet another front of populism. Their choice is not driven only by culturalist-identitarian motivations. Anti-refugee public opinion is currently the only cross-partisan, cross-cleavage topic that unites native citizens. Opposition parties thus hope to rally anti-refugee sentiments against the AKP’s pro-refugee stance.
Anti-refugee public opinion is currently the only cross-partisan, cross-cleavage topic that unites native citizens
In future, however, the short-term gains of embittering hostilities will come at a high societal cost. In a bid to retain voters, the AKP has already begun to embrace anti-refugee discourse and policies. Thousands of children born to Syrian parents know no other country than Turkey, yet they now face snowballing stigmatisation and exclusion.
The AKP's policy turn is also bad news for citizens. Turkey already has a history of social rifts and communal violence between various groups. The opposition’s goal should be to bridge these divisions, not to create new ones.
Authoritarian populism cannot be countered by promoting racial or ethnic stigmatisation and conflict. Turkey’s ‘democratic’ opposition is already infected by exclusionary populism. Regrettably, it has yet to discover the path to an egalitarian and inclusive democracy.