Populism for breakfast: How hyper-partisanship captured all aspects of Turkish society


6 Jan. 2021


By Julius M. Rogenhofer 


This article was first publised by the Cambridge Globalist, the original article can be found here.

Like most newlyweds, married life introduced me to curious rituals, many of which now shape my family’s daily struggles with the all-encompassing pandemic. One ritual I particularly cherish are the hearty Turkish breakfasts my wife and I prepare every Sunday. In addition to mounting a considerable upgrade from rye bread and Nutella, these breakfasts helped me understand the deep political partisanship in my wife’s country of birth. Let me explain.

Our story is set in the Schaerbeek municipality of Brussels, where we found a temporary home as we frantically write-up our dissertations and cast ourselves into an uncertain academic job market. Schaerbeek is known for relentlessly bad traffic, a few beautiful parks and is probably the closest one gets to rural Anatolia within a major European city. During the 1950s guestworker era a large portion of Emirdag, a Turkish mountain-side town of about 20,000 people, was uprooted and replanted in Belgium. Emirdag's arrival introduced Brussels to its signature Köfte (meatballs), lively Pide parlours (Turkish pizza) and Turkey’s own brand of hyper-partisan politics. In the last decade, this partisanship inspired – among many in Schaerbeek  – an unwavering loyalty to Turkey’s antidemocratic populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Here loud music, Turkish flags, car convoys and sporadic fireworks accompanied Erdogan’s capture of absolute power in Turkey’s 2017 constitutional referendum. Belgian Turks overwhelmingly backed a power-grab that, in Turkey, coincided with state of emergency legislation, arrests of political opponents and allegations of voter fraud.

None of this crossed my mind last Saturday as I finished-up the evening shopping at Candan, our local Turkish supermarket. My thoughts were with two family friends recently hospitalised due to COVID-19 and the apparent carelessness of my fellow shoppers. Seemingly unbeknownst to them, Brussels had turned into a notorious red-zone for infections. The next morning my wife struggled to conceal her surprise at what I had purchased. In addition to flatbread, olives and soft cheese I picked up a sesame spread that resembles a sweet variant of Tahini.

“Why Torku?” she asked pointing to the label on the clear glass jar. “That’s Erdogan’s brand.” Like many outspoken academics, my wife was rendered stateless by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime and forced to seek refuge in Europe. The discussion that ensued shed light on just how deep partisanship runs in Turkey, a country in which (semi) competitive elections take place but the rule of law and non-partisan safeguards on democracy have been eroded. These deep societal divisions have, for decades, been the principal defect of Turkey’s democracy and the launchpad for Erdoğan’s authoritarian takeover.

Imagine a country where you can reliably predict a person’s political leanings from the brand of jam they use, the way they tie their Hijab or which television series they watch. Imagine a president grooming his own football club, Basaksehir, which plays in the AKP’s colours, is sponsored by his allies and is led by a former AKP-official linked to Erdogan by marriage. Besiktas, a rival club, was a central actor in organising and supporting the 2013 anti-government protests at Taksim Gezi park. Though football executives have since learned to toe the government’s line, loyalty to Besiktas is still viewed by many as a sign of resistance to Erdoğan regime.

In isolation some of this political tribalism has parallels in Europe. Many European football clubs are openly political. Fans of Glasgow Celtic brandished Palestinian flags to protest the occupation of the West Bank. Hamburg’s FC St. Pauli is proudly anti-fascist and anti-racist. In Northern Ireland, playing Gaelic football might identify you as a nationalist, while support for Rangers FC might reveal your support for the unionist cause. Europeans’ clothing can seem political – just think of the emotional debates concerning the use of Islamic head-coverings in public life. Similarly, consumption decisions can constitute a form of symbolic politics, a means of signalling one’s concern with the environment or opposition to testing cosmetics on animals. Yet, few would presume that they knew your politics from a brief glance at your shopping cart.

Not so in Turkey. Teachers and students at schools run by the movement around Fetullah Gülen, the exiled religious and educational leader whom Erdoğan blames for the July 2016 coup attempt, were branded “terrorists” by government supporters. Working for-, holding shares in-, or owning a bank account with Banka Asya was enough to trigger arrests and persecution. Nearly 1,000 companies worth up to USD 11 billion were seized in the aftermath of the coup-attempt, for their alleged links to Gülen. Their employees were often fired and replaced by AKP-loyalists. Before its near eradication by Erdogan, the Gülen movement operated akin to a parallel society, which spanned educational institutions, newspapers, television channels and private corporations and allowed supporters to prosper with only limited contact to the remainder of Turkey. Yet, social polarisation is much deeper than the infighting within the “religious camp”.

Avowedly secular Turks, the prime constituency of the republican CHP party, operate in a different public sphere to Erdoğan’s “people”. Since the fall of the multicultural and decentralised Ottoman Caliphate and the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1924, the regime around Mustafa Kemal sought to reshape Turkish society around an exclusive identity combining nationalism, laicism and modernisation. Kurds became “mountain Turks” and were denied a separate identity. Visible manifestations of religious practice such as daily prayers or the Hijab were banned from government buildings, educational institutions and professional life. The Kemalist reforms nurtured westernised ideals and a consumer culture that clashed with the Islamic identities of large swathes of Turkey’s population.

Since the 1980s an Islamic counter-culture became increasingly visible, whether through religiously compliant foods, veiling fashion or Islamic women’s magazines. Yet, such change was never without institutional push-back. After Turkey’s silent military coup in 1997, in which the army forced the resignation of Islamist leaning Prime Minister Erbakan, secularists launched a crackdown on organisation associated with the Islamist movement. The Ülker biscuit conglomerate, which for years supplied the Turkish military, was barred from army tenders.

Following the AKP’s ascent to power, the roles were reversed – it was Erdogan’s turn to propagate an exclusive Islamist Turkish identity. Despite firm resistance from the laicist establishment, religious symbols proliferated as did government funding for Islamic Imam-Hatip schools and promises to raise “pious generations”. While seculars were for decades the dominant social, cultural and economic elite, this status is increasingly challenged by a new elite of AKP-loyalists. Kurds, seculars and ultra-nationalists share deep-seated grievances against the regime. Yet, a history of animosity and tribalism prevents these groups from uniting against the status quo. A 2018 survey by Istanbul’s Bilgi University evidences this debilitating polarisation: Supporters of each major political party felt morally superior to supporters of ideologically distant political parties. 79% of participants did not want their daughter to marry supporters of such parties, 74% do not want to engage in business with them. Controversy about whether Hagia Sophia is a mosque or a museum and whether Turkey’s national drink is raki (an alcoholic beverage) or ayran (a non-alcoholic yogurt drink) disclose how polarisation continues today.

What does this long history of hyper-partisanship tell us about Turkey’s democracy and its capture by antidemocratic populist forces? Decades of social and political marginalisation have nurtured resentment among Erdogan’s key constituency (rural and recently urbanised lower and middle classes, especially in central Anatolia) and paved the way for the AKP’s exclusive definition of the people around conservative values, visible manifestations of religion and cult-like devotion to Erdogan.

Those outside this definition of the “people” are socially and economically disenfranchised through exclusion from the bureaucracy, public sector and government tenders. Critical news media is silenced by arrests and a culture of fear. Political opponents, especially from the Kurdish HDP party are imprisoned, often on spurious charges. The courts have lost much of their constraining power. What remains is a shadow of democracy, where the political playing field is skewed in favour of Erdogan and his loyalists. Despite widespread corruption, severe economic mismanagement and skyrocketing inflation, Erdogan continues to have mass appeal. Yet, almost 18 years into his tenure as either president or prime minister, large sections of society including seculars, religious minorities and devout Muslims who remain opposed to Erdogan feel effectively disenfranchised. Turkey’s democracy no longer represents them.

My thoughts drift to the American election unfolding as I write. It is striking how pronounced many parallels between Turkey and the United States have become. Don’t MAGA hat-wearing rifle owners live in a different world to mask-wearing, oat-milk drinking MSNBC viewers? Of course, this binary is an oversimplification – as is the suggestion that there is singular archetype Trump or Erdoğan voter. Both countries have very different histories and underwent dissimilar processes of nation-building. Yet, there is more than a negligible risk that the deep social polarisation, which fermented in Turkey throughout its modern history, is becoming a blueprint for the United States. Both Erdogan and Trump are masters at weaponising existing societal divisions. As ardent Trump supporters continue to cast doubt on a decisive election result, the Republican leadership risks following the AKP’s path of putting partisan victories above democratic norms. If these parallels hold up, believers in democracy are right to feel afraid.