A Turkish Playbook for Fighting Populism

While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursues a fear-based strategy of polarization, Turkey’s opposition parties are maintaining a strong alliance and a positive message. If they win next year’s national elections, democratic forces seeking to unseat populist autocrats elsewhere will certainly register how they did it.

İSTANBUL – As Turkey prepares for national elections in 2023, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is losing ground because of the unfolding economic crisis and opposition parties’ effective strategies. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has become a model of populist authoritarianism in the past decade. But six opposition parties recently forged an opposition alliance bound together by a shared democratization agenda. Their efforts deserve to be added to a growing playbook of tactics for competing against autocratic populists.

Over the years, Erdoğan has channeled raw majoritarianism into authoritarian governance. He positioned himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the country’s sole representative, dismissed the legitimacy of all opposition groups, and imprisoned some of their members. Using its parliamentary majority and referenda, the AKP deepened Turkey’s political and social polarization while consolidating control over the executive.

The party’s power grab culminated in 2018, when Erdoğan engineered the transformation of Turkey’s parliamentary system into a hyper-presidential system devoid of checks and balances. By abolishing the office of prime minister, rendering the parliament dysfunctional, and transferring key powers to the president, Erdoğan subordinated the opposition’s ability to organize and mobilize voters to arbitrary one-man rule.

But, despite the government’s efforts to intimidate, silence, divide, exclude, and criminalize its opponents, Turkey remains democratically resilient. Recent polls indicate that growing support for opposition parties poses a major threat to Erdoğan, the AKP, and its current coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The opposition, it seems clear, has learned from its past mistakes.

Like democratic forces that have ousted populist incumbents elsewhere, Turkey’s opposition has recognized the importance of unity. In the country’s 2018 national elections, the opposition parties cooperated to win parliamentary seats but fielded their own presidential candidates against Erdoğan. Unsurprisingly, it was a losing strategy.

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