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Erdogan is all too easily labelled a populist. But the reasons for his popularity are more complicated.
Mevlut, the protagonist of Orhan Pamuk’s novel A Strangeness in My Mind (2014), is a man who walks the streets of Istanbul at night selling boza, a fermented wheat drink that is popular in Turkey. One night he is summoned to an apartment in a wealthy and cosmopolitan neighborhood. As he enters he is greeted by the smell of raki and the sound of laughter from men and women partying together. Mevlut hides out in the kitchen at first. He feels “poor and out of place” as he pours out cups of boza in the kitchen. Eventually he is summoned to the living room, where the guests confront him with a question:
“Are you a religious man?”
Mevlut knew by now that this question carried political connotations in the wealthier households. The Islamist party, which was supported mainly by the poor, had won the municipal elections three days ago. Mevlut, too, had voted for its candidate—who had unexpectedly been elected mayor of Istanbul—because he was religious and had gone to the Piyale Pasa school in Kasimpasa, which Mevlut’s daughters were now attending.
The mayor that Mevlut votes for is presumably none other than a fictionalized version of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s president, who was born and raised in Kasimpasa, first became mayor of Istanbul in 1994 in a landslide victory. Pamuk’s protagonist represents an archetypal Erdogan supporter: a religious and working-class migrant to Istanbul who remains “attached to his traditions.” He votes for the mayor because he feels a certain affinity to the candidate’s background. And it is precisely this background—of being from Kasimpasa—that would earn Erdogan a great deal of support through his political career.
There are many ways to explain Erdogan’s popularity, but one reason stands out. The Turkish president has cast himself as the protector of the oppressed against the oppressors.
Erdogan has come a long way since his days as Istanbul’s mayor. In 2001 he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has won every general election since then. After more than a decade of serving as prime minister, Erdogan assumed the office of president of Turkey in 2014. There are many ways to explain Erdogan’s popularity amongst the Turkish people. It could be attributed to the country’s economic success under his governance. It could also be argued that his popularity is the direct result of the sense of victimhood shared by his conservative supporters. But there is also a charismatic, even heroic, reason for his rise to power: as leader of Turkey, Erdogan has cast himself as the protector of the oppressed against the oppressors.
The Turkish president is frequently labeled a populist by the international media. But populism is a term that is applied too generously and hastily to the point of losing all meaning. Instead, this essay points to specific political conditions in Turkey that lie behind the label of populism and that led to Erdogan’s rise. After all, populisms are endemic to their political environments: they arise in different forms and in response to different demands and demographics. This essay attempts to complicate the received wisdom on Erdogan.
• • •
It might seem cynical to begin writing about a political leader by gesturing to his class identity, but the importance of Erdogan’s past as the child of a poor and conservative family cannot be denied. He has used this very identity to gain an enormous following composed of people who see him as their savior against Turkish elites and Western imperialism. To his voters, Erdogan is first and foremost Kasimpasali, the man from Kasimpasa.
Kasimpasalilik, or being Kasimpasali, is an idiom popularized by none other than Erdogan. In the past it merely denoted a district in Istanbul distinctive for housing a working-class community in close proximity to wealthier neighborhoods. While Kasimpasa is not a slum, it has the disadvantage of looking like one when thrown into sharp relief by its neighboring districts. It is a shadow at the edge of the lights of city life. With Erdogan, Kasimpasalilik started to become an umbrella term for not only an economic and geographical reality, but also a lifestyle, an identity. For his followers this meant being closer to “the people,” a virtue they believed to be lacking in the political and intellectual elite of the country.
In the meantime, those who did not support Erdogan saw his mannerisms and language as foul and hooligan-like. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this quickly became the greatest dividing line between the left and the right in the country. The main opposition, the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP) or the Republican People’s Party, was consolidating its support base with the very people that Erdogan’s supporters considered to be the real oppressors. As AK Party leader, Erdogan took advantage of the situation. To build his own support base, he turned to smaller towns and cities that had been left behind by Turkey’s first attempts at industrialization in the 1920s and 1930s.
It might seem cynical to begin writing about a political leader by gesturing to his class identity, but the importance of Erdogan’s past as the child of a poor and conservative family cannot be denied.
By the end of the twentieth century, the divide between Turkey’s rural and urban populations had sharpened drastically as a result of this industrialization. The significant economic development of western coastal cities such as Istanbul and Izmir was in sharp contrast to the largely neglected small towns and cities in the Anatolian steppe. The existence of more job opportunities, more universities, and a lively urban culture resulted in a migration trend from rural Anatolia to major cities, especially Istanbul. Subsequently, Turkey’s cities became microcosms of an ideological divide.
Erdogan was perhaps the first politician to tap into a community that had thus far been dismissed in political discourse. This demographic was made of people like Pamuk’s Mevlut, migrants from Anatolian villages to Istanbul. Erdogan’s personal background struck a chord with his supporters. His childhood was their childhood. To them, Erdogan was first and foremost the offspring of a conservative working class family. He was born in a house with a heating stove. He played football and got told off for wasting his time. His father ordered him to stop chasing meaningless dreams and find purpose. The simplest answer to the question of why voters support Erdogan does not lie in the economic success he brought to the country or the roads he built, it lies in the fact that he looks like them, talks like them, and thinks like them. He is, to them, the very picture of normal.
• • •
It would not be an overstatement to say that Erdogan’s political persona is akin to that of a fictional character. He embodies a fantastic, larger than life quality that is reflected in the many nicknames by which he is known, such as Reis (Chief) and Uzun Adam (Tall Man). These names make clear the contrast between Erdogan and his predecessors. At six feet tall, his height is a very important part of his public image, setting him apart from the much shorter presidents of Turkey’s past. But it does not end there.
The performance of masculinity is intrinsic to Erdogan’s rise to power. Normative patriarchal masculinity is a persistent motif in Turkish cultural production. Turkish Yesilcam movies, for instance, present audiences with macho protagonists whose integrity and charisma are unimpeachable. And while these cinematic heroes come from downtrodden backgrounds, they inevitably triumph. In the case of the infamous “Turkish Star Wars,” the plot revolved around Turkish men winning epic victories against foreign enemies and rescuing damsels in distress while their burly mustaches glistened. In the same mold, Erdogan was the David to the Goliath of the Kemalist Turkish state—a conservative pariah in a secular nation.
Erdogan’s canny use of this identity has benefited him in many ways. While his machismo is maligned by liberals, left-leaning women, and LGBTQ people, it has only helped his reputation with the majority of the Turkish electorate. He has built a conservative female following that other politicians could only dream of. When he ran for president, conservative women attended his rallies in droves. They organized to support him. In viral videos on Youtube, Turkish women exclaimed their desire for him. According to Erdoğan there is only one true way to do politics, and it is the man’s way. “We will give this fight by not tottering through left and right, but walking directly to our aim,” he said at the opening of Ankara’s high-speed train station in 2016. “If we win, we will win like men and if we die, we will die like men. Let Allah give us the chance to fight this fight in a way that is worthy of our martyrs and veterans.”
Erdogan was the David to the Goliath of the Kemalist Turkish state—a conservative pariah in a secular nation.
Erdogan casts himself as of the people, by the people, and for the people. A claim to authenticity is the cornerstone of his persona. He seems genuine, not just because of the way he talks but also because of the way he smiles or even cries. His emotions, as captured by cameras, do not seem like masks. He seems not to filter his thoughts, which makes his political persona seem honest to the millions that follow him.
Indeed, Erdogan is the protector—the father—of Turkish identity, albeit a new one that is opposed to Ataturk’s secular vision. Instead, this identity is closely aligned with the country’s Ottoman past and Islamic heritage. Erdogan is the Kasimpasa to Ataturk’s Pera, the arabesque music to his waltz, the Ak Saray to his Cankaya. It is no surprise then that Erdogan never uses the word “Ataturk” (“Father of the Turks”) when referring to the founder of modern Turkey. Instead he uses the name “Gazi Mustafa Kemal,” thereby undermining Mustafa Kemal’s role as the father of the nation.
• • •
Erdogan’s displays of chauvinism are especially visible in his dealings with foreign countries and institutions. After years of building relationships with European nations, he adopted an offensive strategy at the 2009 Davos World Economic Forum. This strategy has yielded significant political dividends for Erdoğan at home. His criticism of Davos moderator David Ignatius for not giving him as much time to speak as the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, became a memorable moment in Turkish history. His signature phrase “One minute!” has been committed to public memory. The national media called him the “knight that slayed the dragon” and the “lone man that stood up to the bullying of European barbarians.” To no one’s surprise, the Davos “scandal” made Erdoğan even more popular at the polls. Whether or not his reaction at Davos was a calculated one, the positive effect it had on his reputation only encouraged Erdoğan to double down on a confrontational approach to international relations.
This was once more in evidence in 2015, when Erdogan told the New York Times to “know its place.” The newspaper had just published a critical editorial on an election in which, for the first time, the AK Party did not garner enough power to become the sole governing party since its founding. Erdogan said,
“The New York Times comes and talks about me, ‘There is oppression in Erdogan’s Turkey’. What oppression is there? Know your place. Since when are you reaching your tongue out here from the United States? These are used to managing the other side of the world from ten thousand kilometers away. There is no Turkey like that anymore. There is a new Turkey now.”
The very next day Erdogan blamed Reuters for doing the same thing: meddling with Turkey’s internal politics and narrating a version of events that works in favor of what he called “malice centers,” internal and external powers working together against the Turkish republic.
This is perhaps the most successful tactic in modern politics because it is so simple. It casts Western countries as the big bad wolves in contrast with the Turkish people, who in turn are modest, moral, honest, and good. This is perhaps a good example of Occidentalism, demonizing a whole civilization and geography for the sake of one’s own political ambitions.
Erdogan’s chauvinistic attitude to foreign policy, evident in his relations with Europe and the United States, is seen as a courageous stand against Western imperialism.
Erdogan’s role as a paternalistic leader can be seen in both his dealings with domestic and international entities. On the domestic front, his background as a Kasimpasali has helped him garner an enormous amount of popular support from a section of society that was previously underrepresented in Turkish politics. Furthermore, his chauvinistic tone in his relations with European and American institutions portrays him as a leader who is standing up to Western imperialism, earning him respect in the eyes of the Turkish electorate.
In 2007, following a conversation with George W. Bush, Erdogan gave a speech in Turkey:
“At the beginning of our meeting, I told Mr. Bush that “if you’re from Texas, then I am from Kasimpasa.” I told him that Turkey’s patience and endurance was not there anymore. “We have no more tolerance”, I said. I emphasised that the PKK terror had to end. “Barzani, or Turkey? Make a decision,” I said.”
When an audience member asked Erdogan if Bush knew of Kasimpasa. Erdogan’s answer was simple and direct, “He has learned. Now he knows.”
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