It’s been one week since Ekrem Imamoglu was voted into office as mayor of Istanbul in an election rerun, and the significance of his landslide victory is more profound than has been widely understood. The lead candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has given hope not only to the hundreds of thousands of Istanbulites who flooded the streets with fanfare and joy and the millions of other Turks, including myself, watching from afar. Imamoglu’s victory also offers the outlines of a cure for other countries suffering from the same political toxin that has been eating Turkish democracy from within: populism.
In his book What is Populism?, the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has a simple but helpful definition of the phenomenon. Populism comes from the Latin word populus, or “people,” he notes, and populist leaders claim to represent “the people,” yet with a crucial caveat: “Only some of the people are really the people.” Others are corrupt elites and soulless degenerates, at best, or traitors within “the people” who serve illegitimate interests and dark schemes.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has perfected this populist narrative in the past six years, after the more mild and pragmatic tone that had marked his earlier period in power. He has claimed to be making Turkey great and Muslim again after a century in the secular wilderness. And since he is accomplishing something so great, all the evil powers that run the world—the CIA, the Mossad, George Soros, various other supposed Zionists, and a mysterious “Mastermind” who amalgamates all that—must be cooking up conspiracies to topple Erdogan, and all patriotic Turks must thus line up behind him. Those who don’t are portrayed as trying to weaken, destabilize, and subdue the glorious new Turkey.
The mayoral election in Istanbul offers the emotional template for defeating authoritarian leaders elsewhere in the world.
It is within the contours of this narrative that Erdogan has dubbed the coalition of opposition parties as “zillet ittifaki,” or “the alliance of abasement,” who are “trying to divide our country.” His ministers routinely condemned the opposition as being in bed with “terrorists.” The pro-Erdogan media has run countless numbers of headlines, stories, op-eds, and talk shows that condemned all opposition parties to have formed a “alliance of treason” or an “alliance of crusaders.”
More dramatically, the judiciary, whose independence has been gradually eroded by the executive, adopted this narrative and acted on it. The term “Mastermind”—the imagined conspiratorial world center—appeared in legal indictments. Under such a partisan judiciary, anti-government protests that must be lawful in a real democracy, such as the Gezi Park protests of 2013, were criminalized as a coup attempt. (The civil society activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala has been in jail since October 2017 for allegedly organizing these protests, and he is just one of the thousands of political prisoners in Turkey’s jails.)
This grim scene in Turkey shows how far populism can go, especially in countries with weak institutions, deep divisions, and an illiberal political culture. That may be why in fragile democracies that are similar to Turkey in these aspects—such as Hungary and Poland—populism also made worrying inroads. In the United States, whose liberal institutions and traditions are strong, populism, luckily, remains only rhetorical. In other words, when Trump condemns critical media as “the enemy of the people,” prosecutors do not begin writing indictments based on that definition. Nevertheless, one would be only wise to be cautious.
Here is a key point: Imamoglu defeated populism by winning some of the voters who used to support Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
First, with his very own persona, Imamoglu bridged the long-standing secular-versus-religious divide that has been the most fundamental fault line in Turkish politics for about a century—a bit reminiscent of the gap between America’s liberal coasts versus the heartland and the Bible Belt. The seculars, who had the upper hand throughout the 20th century, have alienated the conservatives with their illiberal laïcité, or French secularism, whose implications included bans on the Arabic call for prayer and the Islamic headscarves. And the CHP, the party that has traditionally spearheaded this rigid secularism, became the conservatives’ bête noire.
But Imamoglu came out not as your typical CHP politician. To begin with, his surname literally means, “son of imam.” He is a religious believer, and a serious one: After the mosque massacres this March in Christchurch, New Zealand, he went to a mosque and read aloud a whole chapter of the Quran to honor the victims—a most unusual act for a CHP politician. His wife doesn’t wear a headscarf, but his mother does. And when the wife of his rival, Semiha Yildirim, was ridiculed by secularist trolls for her austere look, it was his own wife, Dilek Imamoglu, who spoke out for her, saying, “In her, I see my own mother, my sister.” In return, Yildirim thanked Dilek.
All such messages helped Imamoglu break the image of the high-nosed secularist who looks down upon the religious unwashed. There may be a lesson here for U.S. liberals and progressives, some of whom also have tendency to look down upon the people of red-state America as hopeless racists, “deplorables,” or the freaks of “God and guns.”
Imamoglu was also wise to disarm Erdogan’s game, which is polarization, by refusing to be a part of it. First, he didn’t fall into the mistake of mirroring the hate propaganda pumped by the other side. Instead of condemning the governing party for high treason and threating it with revenge if he came to power—as some in the Turkish opposition have long been doing—Imamoglu said he wanted to work with the government in harmony if he became the mayor of Istanbul. His election slogan was a message of hope: “Everything will be just fine.” While heading to his victory speech, he warned his supporters: “We will not offend anyone, we will not break anybody’s heart.”With this “radical love,” as a recent Atlantic article put it well, Imamoglu was able win some voters who would culturally be closer to Erdogan but who have become fed up with him.
There may be another lesson here for American liberals: If they want to beat Trump, the right strategy may be not mimicking the combative rhetoric one sees in the far-right, but rather using a rhetoric of moderation and civility. The right strategy, also, is not going too far left in an intraparty competition for ideological purity, but, quite the contrary, claiming the lost center.
What will happen now in Turkey? Imamoglu must prove that he can run Istanbul well, to consolidate his newfound popularity. We can expect that the central government will not be very friendly to this goal, as one can see in the immediate AKP attempts to clip the powers of elected mayors.
Meanwhile, there will be another challenge to Erdogan: Some of the most important people who built the early success of the AKP—former President Abdullah Gul and former economy czar Ali Babacan—will soon launch a new party, marking the biggest rift in the conservative camp in the past two decades. It will be a party that will “prioritise economic reforms and seek to mend ties with the European Union and NATO,” according to a report from the Ahval news site. This is, to make another U.S. analogy, Turkey’s own version of Never Trumpers finally getting their act together.
It is probable that Erdogan will try to curb these new forces in Turkish politics as much as he can. But his efforts may prove counterproductive, as was the case with the renewed elections in Istanbul. And with an increasingly gloomy economy at home, Erdogan may well lose the next general elections—in 2023, if not before.
So, the Turkish experiment with extreme populism is likely continue in the next few years, but not forever. And we now have a sense of how it can come to an end—not through populism’s own poison of radical hate, but rather through radical love.