Friday, November 28, 2014
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Erdoğan and the Paradox of Populism

VIENNA – The triumph of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey’s first direct presidential election is no surprise. Erdoğan is popular, and, as Prime Minister since 2003, he has been riding a wave of economic success. But he is also a populist, who has steadily tightened his grip on the state and the media, demonizing all critics (including former allies such as the expatriate cleric Fethullah Gülen) in the process.

As with other populist leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, reconciling Erdoğan’s electoral promises and his performance in office is a puzzle. Such figures start out attacking their opponents’ corruption and accuse them of hijacking the state for a self-serving political establishment that excludes the interests of ordinary people. Yet, when in power, they end up behaving exactly the same, treating the state as their or their party’s property and engaging in, or at least condoning, corruption.

Usually, this apparent hypocrisy does not hurt populists’ electoral prospects, as Erdoğan’s success has just dramatically demonstrated. Why?

Contrary to much conventional wisdom, populism is not defined by a particular electoral constituency – such as the lower middle class – or by simplistic policies pandering to the masses, as liberal observers often argue. Rather, populism is a thoroughly moralized conception of politics, and a populist is a politician who claims that he or she – and only he or she – truly represents the people, thus relegating all political opponents to the role of iniquitous pretenders.

Behind this claim stands the further assumption that the people have one common will that genuinely aims at the common good, and that the people’s authentic leader – such as Erdoğan, who campaigned under the slogan “National Will, National Power” – can identify and implement it. Populists, then, are not only anti-elitist; they are necessarily anti-pluralist and hence anti-liberal. Their politics is always polarizing, splitting the actual citizenry into a pure, moral people and the immoral others – whom Erdoğan has often simply called “traitors.”

In the eyes of the populist, there cannot be anything like a legitimate opposition. Whoever is against the leader is automatically against the people. And, according to this logic, whoever is against the people cannot truly belong to the people.

This explains Erdoğan’s accusation that the protesters in Gezi Park last summer, who demonstrated against his government’s plans to erect a shopping center, were not proper Turks at all. And it explains his astonishing pronouncement earlier this year when he accepted his Justice and Development Party’s nomination to be its presidential candidate: “We are the people. Who are you?”

It is often said that populists cannot govern, or will be exposed as incompetent, when elected to office. According to this view, populist parties are essentially protest parties, and protest cannot govern, because it is impossible to protest against oneself.

But things are not that simple. Populists typically adopt a governing style that mirrors the very accusations that they leveled against the previous political establishment. They grab whatever power they can, disable checks and balances, fill all state offices with cronies, and reward their supporters (and only their supporters) with benefits in exchange for their loyalty – what political scientists call “mass clientelism.” Austrian arch-populist Jörg Haider, for example, would literally hand out €100 ($134) bills to “his people” on the street.

Of course, all parties seek to take care of their constituencies first. What is peculiar about populist politicians is that they can do so openly and with a clean conscience. After all, if only their supporters are really “the people,” everyone else is undeserving.

In the same vein, populist parties tend to colonize the state with alacrity. If only one party truly represents the people, why should the state not become the instrument of the people? And when populists have an opportunity to write a new constitution, why should they not ride roughshod over any opposition, which, by definition, must comprise the enemies of the people (who often are accused of being foreign agents)?

This explains why populist governments’ clientelism and corruption do not erode their leaders’ core support among the electorate. Such practices are perceived as serving a moral “us” at the expense of the immoral or foreign “them.”

Thus, liberals’ belief that they have only to expose the populists’ corruption to discredit them is a vain hope. They also have to show that for the vast majority of citizens, clientilism yields no benefits, and that a lack of democratic accountability, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and erosion of the rule of law will in the long run hurt the people – all of them.

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    1. Commentedzina ciceklic

      Islam je u moralnoj krizi, koja prijeti slomu Islama, Frankenštajn Islama je Turska sa Tayyip Erdoganom, Saudijskom Arabijom i svim arapskim monarhijama

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Jan-Werner Müller takes a look at Recep Tayyip Erdogan's success and "the paradox of populism". Last Sunday Erdogan won "Turkey’s first direct presidential election". It was no coincidence and he left nothing to chance. His strategy of the winner- take-all with popular support worked. This has much his popularity to thank for and he capitalised on it, by having the constitution amended in 2007, so that Turkey's voters and not the parliament should elect the president.
      In the West the word "populism" is a dirty word. To be a knee-jerk populist is to be mistrusted by an enlightened public and one marks oneself down as an outsider in mainstream politics. When people think of populist leaders, they have Viktor Orban and Hugo Chavez in mind. Erodan's supporters say his political ideas and activities are intended to represent ordinary people's needs and wishes. They have benefited from Turkey's economic growth, which has made the country a manufacturing and export powerhouse. Moreover they can be religious and women can wear headscarves, without fearing discrimination.
      His electoral promises are very much the reverse of JF Kennedy's famous inaugural speech in 1961 - "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country". Erdogan's interpretation would be: "Ask not what your people can do for you - ask what you can do for your people", provided that the people are loyal to you and let you do what you want.
      Unfortunately he has polarised the country by brooking no dissent. In his eyes those who reject his anti-democratic populism and authoritarianism are not his "people" - they are "traitors". At the end of the day the politics he practises is not "populism" but "elitism'' based on "clintelism". He and his cronies form a small group of officials and politicians, who control the country's economy and believe they know better than the people. His paternalism was well on display, when he told his people that alcohol wasn't good for them and that women should have more children.
      Erdogan's victory means Turkey will shift from a parliamentary to a strong presidential model. Perhaps the Russian form of presidency may appeal more to him than a French one. This will allow him to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy at a time when the region is in turmoil. In his speech after the election he vowed to build a "New Turkey", that would serve everybody - nobody should be seen as "undeserving", even those, who didn't vote for him. Yet it may just be lip-service. He has in mind to consolidate all the executive power in his hands. It takes time for his voters to realise that the "erosion of the rule of law will in the long run hurt the people – all of them".

        CommentedEdphil Kenneth

        Von Hettlingen..your comment lent more sophistication to Mr. Jan-Werner Müller's piece..Thank you.

    3. CommentedKoca Ahmet

      Dear Mr Mueller, thank you for this article. We AKP supporters really appreciate it not because we agree but because your article was written with a respectable quality, academic approach. The notions you borrow such as 'colonization' have been beyond the level of AKP critics, well, rather 'swearers' indeed. However, I am sorry to say that, the article makes an impression that you, actually, don't know Turkey, especially its past and especially recent past i.e. last 80 years. I will not eleborate all of the shortcomings, however, your last sentence would be a good starting point for anybody to realize how Turkish people with AKP achieved improvement, while their way was full of thorns. Thank you for your labour and look forward to looking your quality criticisms.

    4. CommentedOscar Owen

      This is "Hamlet without the Prince" --yet again among Western scholars. Erdoğan is above all else a Muslim politician fighting to create his own version of a Sheria-compliant political system. If you don't understand that, you are blind. "Nation" for him means the Sunni community across the globa, i.e. the umma. Unity and uniformity mean compliance with the will of God. Anyone who is against him is against God and religion and by definition has no rights or legitimacy. Demonstrators, opposition politicians, Western political leaders -- they're all the same and they're all equally despicable. It is truly pathetic that after 12 years of AKP rule, Western scholars like a Professor of Politics at Princeton spew out political science jargon about 'elites' but miss the central reality of what is going on in Turkey. (If you doubt me, read his speech and those of Islamic clergy supporting him.)

    5. CommentedNuri Delen

      Erdogan is not populist. His economy, treasury, trade ministers were all capable hard working intelligent people. Erdogan's success is not in what he says and how he says it. That is where people like this author makes the mistake. Numbers don't lie. His success is in his leadership of many competent people around him. World is full of people with brains. What is lacking is decently intelligent people with big hearts as we saw in recent Gaza episode. Turks with their unwavering eyes sees that in him.

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I think the biggest danger of populist political movement is that it unites people against something else, usually against a common enemy.

      And since this is the main driver of the "unity", such notion has to be sustained, strengthened continuously.
      And as such it can easily turn into nationalism, fascism.

      We have plenty of previous and more recent examples in history, and today this movement, not only in Turkey, gains strength again.

      And while such direction is always dangerous and can lead to wars, internal strife, in today's global and integral system where our survival depends on mutually complementing cooperation, this "we against them", "we are better than them" populism, nationalism, protectionism, spells global disaster.

      And in an integral system, where any input comes back to the source as a boomerang with multiple force, those initiating the negative policies are hurt at the end most.

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