Beyond Populism: From Scholarship to Politics in "New" Turkey

HEPPster Dr Halil Gurhanli recently defended his doctoral thesis, entitled Beyond Populism: From Scholarship to Politics in "New" Turkey. Below he shares his thoughts on both the thesis and the process.

You can read Halil's thesis here. He is pictured post-defence with his supervisor, Dr Emilia Palonen.

What is your thesis about?
My dissertation is about the politico-discursive transformation that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey has gone through from its formation and coming to power in 2001-02, all the way to the end of its third term in office in 2015. It is also about the changing ways in which the party has been described in political science literature and in public discourse during the same period.

What were your key findings?
I believe my research makes three key points. On the first level, contrary to the mainstream wisdom of both academic and non-academic accounts on contemporary Turkish politics, it shows that the story of the AKP is not one of “Muslim democrats turning into populists”, but of “populists turning into radical-right nativists.” Crucially, this point becomes immediately apparent when we stop using populism as a pejorative that signifies little more than anti-democracy and radical-right politics. The conceptual clarity offered by a post-foundational understanding of populism enables my research to instead trace the transformation of the key terms of populist and non-populist discourses, such as the people, elite, nation, traitor, leader, etc.

Secondly, the dissertation accounts for the reasons behind that mistaken common-sensical wisdom by uncovering an almost symbiotic relationship between mainstream observers of Turkey and the AKP’s ideologues. Having understood the country rather crudely on the basis of a distance between the bureaucratic centre and the Islamist periphery, mainstream wisdom begrudgingly considers the struggle between authoritarian state and populist opposition as the constitutive axis of Turkish politics and laments the supposed fact that it is stuck in a vicious cycle of populist governments punctuated by military coups. I have noticed that what unites the predominant accounts, in this sense, is a post-political longing for a saviour that would overcome, rather than repeat, this constitutive centre-periphery antagonism and establish a truly liberal-democratic political order without antagonisms. The AKP ideologues, in turn, formulated the so-called conservative democratic identity of their party as a remedy precisely calibrated to satisfy that longing. Insofar as the party assigned itself the task of curing the exact same problem it diagnosed, mainstream analysts laid their complete support behind it, and, naturally, could not possibly associate it with a term as “vile” as populism. It was only in the aftermath of Gezi when Erdogan [read Halil's book chapter on Erdoganists and their enemies in Turkey here] undeniably abandoned this commitment to post-politics and instead adopted a nativist and authoritarian discourse that he became populist par excellence.

Finally, despite making extensive use of the Laclaudian theory of populism, my utilisation of it in the case of Turkish politics has revealed a significant shortcoming to this framework. There is a tendency in Laclaudian theory to categorise “political” as such only insofar as it refers to democratising endeavours. Having rendered populist reason synonymous with a political one, Laclau assigns populism an essentially emancipatory mission. The right-ward trajectory of a once populist actor like the AKP stands witness to the fact that it is empirically possible for populism to take non-emancipatory forms and descend into an extreme form of anti-democracy.

What is polarisation, as defined in your doctoral thesis?
As far as my own work is concerned, I tend to see it as a political dynamic that collapses an otherwise infinite number of social differences—be it economic, identitarian, moral, etc.—down to two mutually exclusive political subjectivities with respect to their articulation through a given singularity. During my research, I came across a very telling example of this in a news article about a Turkish couple, who fought over their diagonally opposed feelings for Erdogan. Not only did they divorce because of that but also the husband filed a criminal complaint about his wife, who ended up being sentenced for insulting the president! I believe the moral of this depressing story is that not even love or family can stand in the way of polarisation when it reaches such an extreme point. Several surveys conducted in Turkey over the last few years have shed light on worrying dimensions of this. About three-quarters of the Turkish population do not want supporters of the party they find most distanced from their own as neighbours, and refuse to even do business with them or let their children play with one another. Similarly, another piece of research found that four out of five people in Turkey can not only correctly identify someone’s party identification by simply looking at their picture but also accurately guess what their position would be on contentious political questions like the headscarf issue or Kurdish problem. When a polity is polarised between two diagonally opposite camps as much as it is in contemporary Turkey, those subjectivities get reified and reproduced constantly through a wide array of signifiers that constitute the disparate ways in which one looks and behaves, effectively dividing the “society” into two.

Did your topic change during the writing process?
Significantly, and in a peculiar way. When I was initially in the process of formulating my research question almost a decade ago, despite being in power for quite some time the AKP was still a novel political force both in Turkish and in Middle-Eastern politics, seemingly posing a challenge to the prevalent way of making politics on the axis of Islamism-Secularism, East-West, etc. I personally had an inkling of what the party’s “conservative democratic” self-branding that was being championed and promoted by scholars in Turkey and the West as a liberal-democratic “model” all over the region could be missing. To me, behind the façade of its zealously liberal, free-market oriented, pro-EU politics, the AKP seemed like a traditional populist party claiming to represent the down-trodden, excluded “people” against an illegitimately powerful elite. Thus, contrary to mainstream observers of Turkish politics, I set out to examine the party from a perspective of populist politics—which, as a student of the Essex school, has always been a neutral, rather than a necessarily negative and anti-democratic, concept for me.

Then in 2012 the infamous jytky happened in Finland! The landslide victory of populist Perussuomalaiset (PS) was a watershed moment for those of us studying populism from a non-mainstream perspective in Finland, for it signified much more than a mere bigoted, fear-mongering, right-wing backlash it was made out to be in academic and public discourse. It was, in Mouffe’s terms, a return of the political in the post-2008 crisis after years of consensual governance that implemented far-reaching, deeply contested economic and social reforms as non-political, necessary, or even inevitable measures, in a non-democratic and depoliticising way in line with the TINA (there is no alternative) doctrine.

Thus, I could not resist the temptation to radically (and, in hindsight, foolishly) expand my otherwise straightforward, single case study research into a comparative one between the AKP in Turkey and the PS in Finland. Though I still think that those cases together constitute a fascinating contrast—a robust examination of which would shed a unique light onto the populist phenomenon—luckily my supervisor Emilia Palonen talked some sense into me after a few papers and a few years or so to roll back into a more manageable framework. So I dropped the comparative dimension and, instead, focused more intensely on the conceptual ambivalence surrounding the Laclaudian theory of populism and its implications in the Turkish case. This latest turn, finally, resulted in me undertaking a much more theoretically and empirically comprehensive examination of populism in contemporary Turkish politics.

Why did you set out writing it?
As a researcher of populism focusing on Turkish politics, it was an interminable source of annoyance for me to come across the same, common-sensical and pejorative use of the term “populism” in almost all accounts of the AKP. What nearly all of those analyses written by academics, pundits, and journalists alike shared, I found, was a negative correlation between the author’s approval of AKP and the frequency in which they would use populism while describing the party. That is to say, the more sympathetic they were towards the AKP, the less likely it was for them to call it populist. During the so-called “golden” early years of the AKP government, many would even go out of their way to state how non-populist the party and its leadership were! However, as the party has descended deeper into authoritarianism and a personalised regime has been consolidated around the leading figure of Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the years, populism made a huge comeback not just in the media but also in academic literature.

This was an immensely curious thing for me because, as I briefly mentioned before, to me populism does not inherently correspond to a negative phenomenon but is simply a way of constructing the people as the rightful subject of democratic politics that is locked in an antagonistic relation with what is perceived as an illegitimately powerful elite. As I saw it, this was largely in line with how the AKP conducted itself through its first decade in office—i.e., claiming to be the voice of the voiceless peripheral majority whose interests and values were belittled and ignored by an ultra-secular, etatist elite at the bureaucratic centre. Since the dawn of party’s third term in office in 2011, however, this people vs. elite polarity that used to form the backbone of its early populist discourse gave way to a run-of-the-mill nativist/nationalist and authoritarian one whereby the people were substituted with the Turkish nation, and the elite with criminal traitors, whose transgressions in the form of political opposition were to be severely punished. The world came to see this new phase of the AKP politics only a few years after in the 2013 Gezi protests, when the Erdogan government’s brutal suppression of peaceful masses made international headlines. And it was only in this later authoritarian phase that the term “populism” came truly into circulation in describing the party and its leader.

So it was deeply puzzling for me to see such a general consensus being formed in the soaring literature on Turkish politics: why was the party not defined as populist when I thought it was, and started to be labelled as such when I thought it was not any more? Thus I embarked upon a two-fold mission to, first, trace the AKP’s ideological transformation, and, then, account for reasons behind the formation of that curious academic consensus.

Was it difficult to write about Turkey in this period; if so, how did you resolve the challenge?
The pace with which the AKP in particular and Turkish politics in general have been transforming for the last several years posed the most formidable challenge for the development of a comprehensive account. Indeed, it is a common joke among seasoned observers of Turkish politics that in order to be able to analyse it, one has to take a break from Turkey! A constant flood of major developments and crises (including cross-border military interventions, corruption scandals, domestic armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, failed coup attempts, economic crises and so on), each of which could easily topple any Finnish government, tends to create an overbearing sense of exhaustion due to over-politicisation on a daily basis. Not having the luxury to ignore it to maintain my sanity—as many ordinary citizens of Turkey tend to do—I have instead been subjecting myself to a rather disorienting task of finding some semblance of consistency, an underlying logic, within what seems to be a thoroughly chaotic and contradictory series of political developments. I don’t know if I succeeded in resolving this challenge, but, nevertheless, I decided to “stop” at some point and ignore ceaseless news of even the most major political developments in order to be able to focus on and properly identify the AKP government’s overall politico-discursive transformation. This was not an easy decision to make at the beginning, but the longer I managed to keep my resolve, the clearer it became that almost all of those supposedly “major” or “critical” developments (e.g., the 2016 failed coup attempt or formal transition into presidential regime in 2018) were not in conflict with but rather perfectly in line with the transformation trends identified in my research.

If given a chance, would like to do something different with your work?
The comparative dimension I mentioned above still remains very much a burning question in me. The nativist radical-right wing’s takeover of the PS from its previous populist leadership appears to rhyme with the discursive trajectory of the AKP in Turkey, and it would be immensely interesting to investigate similarities and differences between those seemingly disparate cases.

What was your experience of the defence and how did it differ due to COVID-19 restrictions?
My defence was a so-called “hybrid” one in which only the opponent remotely participated, and the custos as well as members of public were physically present. Nevertheless, it really was a disorienting experience to stand in a large auditorium and present my research primarily for the attention of someone who was not physically in the room, while at the same time trying to devote enough attention to the audience sitting a few metres away. Luckily, there were no technical glitches so at least we could communicate with the opponent without any problems. Also, my opponent, Dr Paul Levin from Stockholm University, was very patient and kind in the way that he handled the pace of the defence proceedings, which left enough room for me to be able to clarify certain points. Overall, it was a more pleasant experience than I expected, I guess.

Thank you to Halil for taking part in this discussion!