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The Dilemma of Anti-Populism

Even if opposition parties can unite against an incumbent strongman, it is much more difficult to change the parameters of politics and frame an election accordingly. Yet, in countries like Hungary, Israel, and Turkey, that is what a heterogeneous opposition coalition must do to have any chance of winning.

PRINCETON – Following a year of halting negotiations, six of Turkey’s opposition parties have finally united behind a single presidential candidate in the election this May, with the hope of ending Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly autocratic and repressive two-decade rule. This month, the so-called Table of Six converged on Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic and secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), after having sidelined younger, more charismatic contenders such as the CHP mayor of Istanbul, who had recaptured the city from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party in 2019.

When an authoritarian populist regime is rigging the democratic game, it is common sense that opposition parties must combine forces to stand any chance of winning elections. But such unity, while necessary, is not sufficient for success; in fact, the hardest part comes after the decision to unite.

Opposition parties that unite to remove a particular leader or party – especially “a populist strongman” – must place that imperative above their other programmatic commitments. After all, populist leaders have a proven track record of undermining democracy, and there is every reason to believe they will do even more damage if re-elected.