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Turkey, Populism and Manipulated Anger

Prof. Salih Hosoglu*

The events we are currently experiencing are closely related to the global populist wave. In the case of Turkey, while some are using this wave to climb the ladder of power, it seems that the same individuals have successfully portrayed the Hizmet Movement as an enemy to the masses. How did this happen? How did we arrive here within the complex web of societal relations? What did we miss? What can be done? I will attempt to examine these questions in a few articles.

In recent years, the rise of populist politicians in different regions has emerged as a significant problem and a vital threat to democracies. According to the Turkish Language Institute, populism means “populist,” “a tendency to exalt the people and things related to the people.” However, while populist movements used to be generally left-leaning, nowadays both left and right-wing populist movements (mostly right-wing) are prevalent. Examples of these include Putin in Russia and Chavez in Venezuela. The case of Trump in the United States has not yet been concluded; he continues to shake the world’s largest economy with scandalous developments. Similar successful or unsuccessful examples abound everywhere, and this trend appears likely to continue to shake the whole world for a long time.

How did this populist trend come to threaten all democracies? What caused it to have such a significant impact, especially on the lower-income segments of societies? Many social scientists offer interpretations and explanations for this. The most plausible approach to explaining it is that over time, the lower-income and less educated masses accumulated anger against the more educated and elite upper class, which populist politicians skillfully exploit. In Turkey, this translates to the disqualification of parties based on military and civilian bureaucracy and the wealthy secularist elite, especially due to economic crises, allowing the AK Party, which came to power in 2002, to gradually dominate the country (or it used to, now it’s more of a one-man rule).

The part of this issue that concerns us is more complex and frankly somewhat ironic. In Turkey, the process was not as straightforward and one-dimensional as in other countries. The attitude towards the most important part of the social movement that emerged on behalf of the oppressed and attempted to partially repair social inequality (the AK Party) and its leader (Erdoğan), which had undermined the bureaucratic and economic hegemony of elites dating back to pre-Republic times and caused its internal collapse, evolved from moderate rhetoric and actions in the beginning to a more radical and populist stance after about a decade in power.

This development, which we found quite surprising, was actually a practice many populist leaders had engaged in before, but we were unaware of it. The masses generally do not pay attention to such things. It was a well-known secret that populist leaders achieved relative success in the early years of their rule, improved the country’s economy, and then brought their countries into serious trouble on the populist path they entered, sometimes leading them into wars and chaos. In this final stage, all populist leaders claimed that foreign powers (sometimes both internal and external powers together) were targeting them, and they sought support from the “less educated but more insightful” segments of society, support that they almost always received.

Up to this point, what I have described is a common trajectory known to those who follow the subject, something that is happening all over the world. There are those like Trump who fell from power at the end of their first term because they could not erode their country’s institutions enough, those who skillfully continued to hold onto power, and even those like Chavez who continued their systems after their deaths. What I find ironic in our case is not so different from other examples, but the absurdity in our case lies in the distortion in the relationship between the populist leader and the mass he claims to protect. In Turkey, the attitude towards the Hizmet Movement is at the heart of this contradiction. The Hizmet Movement was among the supporters of this government at the beginning. In the real populist period, it was declared the number one enemy and subjected to persecution. While doing all this, the government received support from the elites who were (and still are) actually its enemies. The support of the elites was crucial in the military and civilian bureaucracy, but it was never sufficient on its own. Without the definitive support of the long-oppressed masses, this process could not have been sustained. And these masses did not hesitate to regard these people who emerged from their own ranks as enemies.

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This is where our ironic situation begins. The long period of decline in the Ottoman Empire and the centuries of defeats have left serious traumas in the collective memory. Nowadays, some people come forward and promise the public a grand exit with grand words, claiming that they have lifted the country with some illusions, and convince them with ridiculous displays. On one hand, they go door-to-door begging for money while claiming that we are now a powerful state in the world, stroking the bruised pride of the nation. Half of the society (the exact number is unknown, trust has been lost in everything, including elections) accepts this illusion despite all the economic deterioration and visible impoverishment. It is evident that this phenomenon is based on a psychology of oppression that goes beyond economic inequality. To understand this psychology, I would urge you to look at the interview with Psychiatry Specialist Vedat Bilgiç and Alper Görmüş’s recent writings. Here, the real owners of this oppression managed to redirect this anger towards an entirely different group with a masterful move. The long-standing military guardianship, the oppression of religious people, the bans on headscarves, etc., are all either forgotten or attributed to the Hizmet Movement and swallowed by the ignorant masses.

Finally, we come to the main point. Could the answer to the question of what bothers the public about the Hizmet Movement be different from what we think? It is widely known (and still discussed) that the Hizmet Movement made significant contributions to education and raised successful individuals. But how does this resonate with our uneducated population? What does it mean to them to produce many well-educated individuals in all fields when the poorly educated population couldn’t achieve a good education? Similarly, the mass emigration of educated people from all walks of life from the country, is this perceived as a loss by the angry public, or is it something that makes them happy? For example, why doesn’t the mass emigration of doctors from the country deeply concern or upset the public? How could this be related to the anger mentioned above? We will attempt to explore this topic in another article.

*Prof. Salih Hosoglu is a medical doctor and specialist in infectious diseases, medical microbiology, and public health. 

This article was initially published in TR724.com in Turkish and translated into English by Politurco.

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