Doctoral thesis: Erdoğan is no longer a populist, which is a turn for the worse

The image of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, underwent a major change in 2013 when he suppressed a series of demonstrations. Once promoted as the Nelson Mandela of Turkey, Erdoğan was turned into its New Sultan almost overnight, followed by accusations of populism.

According to a new doctoral thesis, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party AKP has consistently been populist right from the beginning. The mainstream media and researchers started calling the AKP populist only after its radical right-wing authoritarian and nativist tendencies were exposed.

“In other words, the AKP succeeded in combining in its politics an epistemological context with political branding, which is precisely the reason why so many were at first unable to see the populist dimension of the AKP,” says doctoral researcher Halil Gürhanli from the University of Helsinki.

The doctoral thesis posits that many people were even passionately defending Turkey’s "new harbinger of liberal democracy".

“Furthermore, the AKP managed to elevate itself as a party of conservative democracy, opposed to populism and capable of overcoming the supposedly constitutive antagonism between Kemalists and Islamists in Turkish politics,” Gürhanli says.

The doctoral thesis, which is to be examined at the University of Helsinki, discusses the roots of the mainstream narrative in Turkey, including the question of how the Erdoğan government was able to transform from proponents of democracy into supporters of populism overnight.

Populist parties can turn authoritarian

The study demonstrates that the change of the AKP’s discourse from populism into nativist right-wing radicalism has been further consolidated. Populist parties are able to assume non-emancipatory forms and even descend into authoritarianism.

“As Erdoğan’s case shows, populist discourses can reach a point where social differences collapse into a singular political identity, whose creation relies to a significant degree on the name of the political leader.”

According to the doctoral thesis, such discourses are in Turkey’s case defined more by the terms ‘nativist/nationalist’ and ‘autocratic’ than ‘populist’.

“This is why it would actually be more analytically correct to call the AKP a radical right-wing party, rather than a populist one,” Gürhanli states.

The threat of authoritarianism

At the moment, Turkey is deadlocked in a conflict between Erdoğanists and anti-Erdoğanists.

“This situation leaves very little room for the people to stand up and talk about politics,” Gürhanli notes.

Even though the recent collapse of democracy in Turkey is largely a result of the AKP-led government turning towards the radical right instead of populism, the study shows that the ideological change of Erdoğan’s government is evidence of the threat of authoritarianism lurking behind populist politics.

“Alongside Turkey, the extreme cases of the contemporary United States, Hungary and Venezuela are proof that populist politicians can make room for the establishment of the cult of the strongman leader by polarising society through zero-sum games,” Gürhanli says.


Halil Gürhanli, MA, defended his doctoral thesis entitled ‘Beyond Populism: From Scholarship to Politics in “New” Turkey’ on 10 September 2020.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.

Contact details of the doctoral candidate:
Halil Gürhanli
Phone: +358 40 136 3693