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Sat. May 25, 2024
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Erdogan’s Populism: A Contradictory Case
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When you think of a populist politician, what comes to mind? Most likely, someone that “talks for the people,” is aggressive in their words, invokes a sense of nationalism, patriotism (or both) in their discourse to further gather support, and that may use democratic means to rebrand their country as they see fit. One of the most famous strategies for populist politicians is to portray a sense of danger from the outside, especially the immigrant/refugee population, one that is solely there – in a populist’s mind – to infect their nation from within. What if I told you, however, that Erdogan, one of the biggest names in populism nowadays, not only denies such a narrative but embraces immigration? Would you believe me?

Contemporary populism is based on five key concepts. The first is anti-elitism. Populist leaders are proficient at presenting themselves as part of the “people,” which tend to be from the middle to lower class. Many populists have relied on, for example, taking pictures wearing “simple” clothes, eating “simple” foods, and – in essence – doing what stereotypically the “people” do. The second is creating an “us vs. them” mentality. One crucial distinction between populism and other political phenomena is that populists portray their society as facing an imminent threat – real or imagined. And for them, the only way to protect their society is to become a group (us) and fight against whatever might invade their society (them). The third, is the simplification of issues. When looking at populists, specifically from the West, we see individuals simplifying complex problems, making them digestible for the general population. The use of straightforward language and memorable slogans also play a huge part here. The fourth is patriotism, which sometimes can be very difficult to differentiate from nationalism. Fifth, which some consider to be a significant characteristic of populism, is a charismatic leader. In populism, charisma is essential to get the point across, especially when it can strengthen personal and emotional connections the “people” have with their leader. With charisma, a populist leader transcends into a new role, not of a politician, but of a shepherd, guiding their flock to wherever they want. They also morph into their savior, almost achieving religious significance.

Apart from being a hard-core populist, Erdogan’s stance on the Syrian refugees conflicts with what one might expect. Instead of pushing them away, Erdogan makes it seem that he has a religious responsibility to them. In a study that examined 615 speeches from Erdogan from 2012 to 2021, the authors uncovered that Erdogan heavily relies on the “Ottomanist/Islamist imagination of Turkish history” to justify his position on immigration and refugees. For example, Erdogan has publicly explained that Allah is rewarding Turkey with the influx of Syrian refugees. Not only that, but the Turkish President considers them as his “brothers,” urging the Turkish population to remember that Mohammed was a refugee whom the people of Medina sheltered. In his eyes, they now assume the role of those who protected Mohammed. As per his attempt at tying Turkish and Syrian history, Erdogan explained that their people have been connected “with bonds forged over centuries” in a brotherhood of more than 1000 years.

Erdogan is, then, an interesting case that challenges our understanding and expectations of populist leaders. By examining the behavior of the Turkish president and taking notes of his particularities, Erdogan becomes an intriguing case that deviates from what we would expect of a populist politician. As seen, instead of criticizing the Syrian refugees, Erdogan saw them as an opportunity to further his agenda, interpreting them as a blessing from Allah, one that mimics the behavior of those who previously sheltered Muhammed. This, however, presents us with an interesting question: how can we merge Erdogan’s approach to the refugees with our expectations of populist leaders, and how does this impact our understanding of the topic?

Iuri M. Piovezan is a graduate student at Villanova University studying Political Science. He has also received a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies from Temple University in 2022.

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