What differentiates Erdoğan from Europe’s populist leaders?
Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the ascent of populist–nationalist leaders to power in Hungary and Poland has prompted panic among liberals and democrats in Europe. The rise of populism narrative has even been fueled by recent elections in the Netherlands and Germany.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to be a trendsetter - especially for Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who are following in the footsteps of the Turkish president in terms of dissolving the separation of powers and seeking to reduce judicial and media independence. However, there are certain differences between Erdoğan and Europe’s populist–nationalist leaders.
Today, the European public tends to see an authoritarian leader when they think of Erdoğan, forgetting that he once enjoyed huge popularity among European leaders as a “democrat” introducing reforms to improve his country’s democracy.
Indeed, Erdoğan did not win the first elections that carried him to office with a populist–nationalist narrative. The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was an alternative to the mainstream parties, but Erdoğan never posed as anti–establishment (although it was later discovered that he would destroy the establishment in order to himself become the establishment).
At first, he did not particularly scare the elites or the liberal democrats, in contrast to those current European leaders who blame the “elites” and the “system.” On the contrary, Erdoğan once secured the support of the elites and the liberals, appealing to them with a pro-EU and pro-democracy agenda.
The motto that secured him consecutive electoral victories was his party’s pledge to fight three concepts starting with the letter “Y” in Turkish: Corruption, poverty, bans. Some might find it hard to believe today, but once upon a time - in line with its pledge to struggle against bans - AK Party governments introduced a number of democratic reforms that led to improvements in areas like freedom of expression and minority rights. Today, by contrast, not a day goes by without a new ban being introduced.
What’s more, in contrast to the left-wing populists in Greece, for instance, Erdoğan totally endorsed and continued the IMF economic program that was introduced in Turkey only shortly before he came to power. He was praised for not endorsing “populist economic policies” ahead of the elections as the AK Party governments remained loyal to a tight fiscal policy. (In contrast, today no discipline remains in public spending, particularly as Turkey has been in a constant cycle of elections).
The World Bank praised Turkey for taking millions out of poverty. With reforms introduced in the education system a quantitative improvement was registered (with increased enrollment in schools, including among girls, and with the physical condition of schools improved). The health system was another priority area, consolidating the appraisal level of the AK Party. And with high growth rates approaching 10 percent throughout the second half of the 2000s, millions in Turkey felt a positive change in their lives.
Populist–nationalist leaders need enemies, inside and outside. They pander to a people’s fears. But remember the Turkish government’s “zero problem with neighbors” policy? Recall how Erdoğan once initiated a solution process for the Kurdish problem, bashing the nationalists for their stance against the Kurds?
Populist–nationalist leaders in Europe like Orban and Kaczynski have played to fears and discontent felt toward mainstream politics in their countries. Their opponents say they came to office by spreading lies. But are the politics of fear and lies sufficient for populist–nationalist leaders to win consecutive elections? Will they be able to perform in government, making people feel positive changes?
In the recent period, Erdoğan has been doing the exact opposite of what he did after he initially entered office, reaching a nirvana of populist nationalism. Will creating enemies and playing to the fears and emotions of people secure him another decade of consecutive electoral success?