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.