The Erdogan era lives on, as does the power of populism

For Erdogan, and for many leaders around the world, populism is not an ideology. It's rather a robust political strategy.

Ramisa Rob

Ramisa Rob

The Daily Star


Erdogan's supporters, who refer to him as 'Superdogan,' celebrated on the streets with unbridled euphoria. PHOTO: AFP

May 31, 2023

DHAKA – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkiye’s so-called modern Sultan, emerged victorious in the most nail-biting test to his 20-year rule. Turkiye – once a staunchly secular Muslim nation – braces for another five years of virtual one-man rule with creeping Islamisation, unorthodox economic policies, and an “independent” yet disruptive foreign policy.

“Erdogan is the inventor of nativist, populist politics globally, and his defeat would mean something globally,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute. Now that he’s not going anywhere, the question pressing on our minds is: what does Erdogan’s win mean for global democracy – or, contradictorily, populism?

Erdogan, declaring victory from his residence in Istanbul, sang, “We have opened the door of Turkiye’s century without compromising our democracy, development and our objectives.” The anthem is deception at its finest. Yet, it works. His supporters, who refer to him as “Superdogan,” celebrated on the streets with unbridled euphoria.

It is well-known that democracy in Turkiye – once a beacon of democratic liberalism in the East – largely backslid in the last decade.

In 2013, when people took to the streets calling for Erdogan’s resignation, amid a sprawling corruption scandal, the government led a brutal crackdown, imprisoning dissenters. And let’s not forget the bloody 2016 failed military coup, where more than 250 people were killed and the aftermath of which saw the Erdogan government targeting 50,000 people – soldiers, police, judges, civil servants and teachers – in purge. Then, in 2017, Erdogan subsumed the role of the prime minister into that of the president through a referendum, and has since monopolised the political arena using state institutions for political gains.

Despite all the vile things he’s done, Erdogan scored win after win like a wizard. A deep dive into his tenure reveals rather bloodthirsty politics, but people consume the surface he puts out: that he’s all for Turkiye and the oppressed and whatnot. The majority of people forget that this man, who talks about saving people all the time, does so living in the largest presidential residence in the world: a palace with 1,100 rooms, which costs $615 million of public money.

It cannot be denied that the 69-year-old is a clever politician. He perfected the art of autocracy where his missteps – such as lowering interest rates to bring down inflation – are deafened out by the nationalist song of making Turkiye great again, flirting with the controversial history of the Ottoman era. For Erdogan, and for many leaders around the world, populism is not an ideology. It’s rather a robust political strategy, wherein leaders actively leverage common people’s inclination to feel more charged by nationalist narratives and rhetoric over policies and performance.

And Erdogan has unmatched competence in harnessing the populist political strategy. Not unfamiliar to us in Bangladesh, Turkiye’s leader used his development projects – which physically transformed the nation – to pull the rug over systemic corruption, its effect on the economy, and alarming macroeconomic indicators. He had his supporters smitten with shiny new things: the making of the biggest airport in the world, highways, universities, schools, bridges, mosques, shopping centres, transit lines, tunnels, ports, the $1.5 billion Kanal Istanbul in the works (which will turn Istanbul’s European side into an island), and so on.

He showed off Turkiye’s rising military prowess, such as the development of drones; his foreign adventures, and misadventures, legitimised Turkiye as a global force, even if a contentious one. He has alienated Turkiye from its Nato partners and imperilled the alliance’s defence, most prominently by purchasing Russian S-400 missile defence systems. Those bold moves have been welcomed by his supporters. A 40-year-old owner of a stagnating barbershop in Istanbul told Foreign Policy, “This is the future I want to give my sons: A country standing strong and independently on the world stage. A safe place.”

His re-election campaign withstood troubling times for the Turkish economy: rampant inflation, a deepening cost-of-living crunch, and intensifying poverty. Turkiye’s response to the earthquake, which killed 50,000 lives, also highlighted the negligence of the government and was perceived by pollsters to reflect the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back.

Yet, the majority of Turkish people, in a polarised nation, saw no better option than their strongman. The Table of Six and the uncharismatic Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was never going to stand, because Erdogan’s hold over the nation – in the judiciary, the media narrative, and so on – makes it difficult to launch an effective opposition. It’s also another indicator of his dexterous autocratic strategies, and the same dynamic is seen elsewhere in the world.

Erdogan’s win is a learning lesson for us to shift our thinking. It disparages the notion long held by analysts and journalists: that freedom of speech, rule of law, and a flourishing economy are essential to win the hearts of the people. It’s common to think that when those features are threatened, especially the economy, the people’s will turns away from the office-holder. We perceive they want to break free from the shackles of the leaders responsible for the damage. But in this unstable global climate, that purview, though logical, is rather black and white.

Politicians like Erdogan – in Russia, India, China, Israel, and the far-right parts of the West – are mangling history to capitalise on their self-interests, and people support them. (For example, Putin’s support has not faltered even after the Ukraine war that’s hit the Russian economy, as people still long for that past glory that shattered from the break-up of the Soviet Union.) Erdogan has ever-so-successfully played to the historical prestige of Turkiye to cultivate popularity; his nationalist narrative, which often includes bashing the Western global hegemony, nurtures national nostalgia of Turkiye’s early global dominance.

Post his election win, calls are being made in the Western media for Erdogan to pivot his policies. But “when autocrats face an unstable domestic context, they double down on repression,” says Gonul Tol, the author of Erdogan War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria. Erdogan has long held a self-conscious neo-Ottomanism dream, posing himself to be a modern version of Sultan Selim, who expanded the Turkish empire from a strong regional power to a gargantuan empire with an exclusionary vision of power. It is unrealistic to think he’d shift. If anything, he’ll be more desperate to bring that dream to life, the act of which will continue to shake the edifice of democracy and whatever is left of it.

Ramisa Rob is a journalist at The Daily Star.

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