Spyros A. Sofos, Turkish Politics and ‘the People’: Mass Mobilisation and Populism (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Spyros Sofos (SS): Turkish Politics and the People has been taking shape over the past six years. From a theoretical point of view, it rethinks populism as a phenomenon rooted in particular ways of visualizing politics and society and as one that, in turn, promotes particular visualizations of political subjects, democracy, and rights. At a more empirical level, it seeks to understand the present moment in Turkish politics by setting it in dialogue with its past. It covers a period of one hundred years of modern Turkish statehood and traces the iterations of “the people” as a political subject as Turkish politics unfolds. It seeks to uncover traditions of interpellation of “the people,” as well as the evolution of structural and cultural aspects of the Turkish political system. And, last but not least, it attempts to make sense of Turkey’s populist turn of the past decade against this background.

The book stems from two central concerns in my work: first, my belief that we need a critical theory of populism—one that combines theoretical sophistication and “groundedness,” and second, my longstanding effort to understand why representative democratic and civil society institutions have not managed to take root in the Turkish Republic, giving rise to what I call “a difficult democracy.” Against the background of Turkey’s “difficult democracy”, the populist turn of the past decade cannot be explained solely by referring to the charismatic personality of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has dominated Turkish politics. It needs to be set in the context of a longer history of appeals to “the people,” but also of the ways this “people”—has been constructed by the political elites, infantilized, considered savage and unrefined, denied agency, mistrusted, its ways of life looked down upon, ultimately put under surveillance, and disciplined when it did not live up to expectations. It has to take into account the societal, political, and corporeal memory in the construction of this “infant people” and of its relationship with political authority. It is precisely this need to look at the genealogy of Turkish populism as much as at its present, and to explore ways of introducing this past-and-present dialogue in the study of populism beyond Turkey, that prompted me to write Turkish Politics and the People.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SS: Turkish Politics and the People engages critically with the rich populism literature, including that focusing on Turkey. It proposes a perspective that synthesizes aspects of approaches that have developed within distinct traditions—resource mobilization theory, organization and leadership perspectives, discourse analysis, and the study of rhetoric, strategy, performance. It does so by approaching populism as a logic, a way of seeing, that sharply divides “the people” from its foes (elites, foreigners, conspirators) in ways that have profound political implications with regard to the conceptualization of democracy and rights. This approach sees populist rhetoric, leadership, performance, and organization as part of a productive discourse, that pits popular/national unity against individual and particularistic rights and representation. This discourse turns “the people,” an entity hard to define, and whose voice is hard to decipher, into the sole bearer of rights, at the expense of particularistic or individual rights and civic liberties instead of “socializing,” deepening, and radicalizing them. Such an understanding of democracy disregards the rights of dissenters and undermines the legitimacy and efficacy of institutions that may challenge or scrutinize appeals to popular will, such as courts, other watchdogs, effective pluralistic parliaments, and constitutions.

Turkish Politics and the People also challenges the equation of popular politics to populism that undermines the critical edge of the notion of populism and fuels a tendency to dismiss critiques of “left” populist politics as elitist. The book thus recovers a rich, often neglected literature on plebeian politics—E P Thompson’s work on the politics of the English crowd and the plebeian cultures that emanated from these, and more contemporary research on plebeian struggles such as those of the Caracazo in Venezuela, the protests of the forajidos (outlaws) in Ecuador, or the Gezi mobilizations in Turkey in 2013, which I also discuss in the book.

One of the key features of Turkish Politics and the People is its interdisciplinarity and eclectic engagement with diverse literatures, as well the endeavor to inject into the historiography of the Turkish state and the study of Turkey’s political culture and institutional architecture theoretical tools that have not been considered relevant to them. It draws on studies of decolonization, especially of the African movements-turned-parties and applies insights from these to the trajectory of Turkey’s independence movement, the state-building process, and the political culture cultivated by the early Republic. It looks at work on the history of colonialism and its intellectual and political underpinnings to reconstruct the colonial aspects of nation-building in Anatolia, and the notions of “savageness” that informed the civilizing mission of the Republican elites. The book also integrates modes of analysis from a diverse body of scholarship: Deleuze’s and Guattari’s political anthropology and geography are deployed to make sense of the choice of Anatolia as the central focus of the Turkish nation-building project, and Schmitt’s, Lacan’s, Freud’s, and Agamben’s understandings of authority and deference are mobilized to make sense of “the people”/leadership nexus in Turkish politics. Psychosocial notions of angst are employed to peer into the emotional economies that underpinned the internal colonization of the Anatolian communities that found themselves within the boundaries of the rump Republican state.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SS: Conceptually, Turkish Politics and the People is a book on populism, a topic that has been present, if not always central, in my research from very early on. This includes work that has appeared in Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe, a book I coedited over twenty years ago, and in short articles on #RethinkingPopulism and OpenDemocracy. Having said that, Turkish Politics and the People deals with populism more systematically, suggests taking it more seriously, and focuses on the way it impacts the social construction of politics and our democracies, our rights. Empirically, it is a book about Turkish politics. Turkey is not a random choice here as I have published extensively on Turkey—on the political dynamics of Turkey’s Europeanization, on social movements and contentious politics, on populism, and on nationalism (in an earlier book Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey). Although I want to believe that my work has always sought to challenge ways of seeing Turkish politics, I believe that Turkish Politics and the People adopts a systematically and productively iconoclastic, deconstructive approach.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SS: Every book is unique in that it opens up new and engaging conversations. I do indeed look forward to the conversations Turkish Politics and the People will generate. I wrote this book with multiple audiences and interlocutors in mind. The book presents challenging arguments on how to think critically about populism and popular mobilizations, and on how to cast a critical look on Turkish politics beyond the simplistic and counterproductive “secularism v Islamism” binary and the uncritical embrace of Kemalism as an unproblematic force that has brought progress and unity. When writing it, I tried to relay a highly complex past and contemporary history through an accessible narrative, and to build through it the scaffold of a conceptual toolkit—an approach to populism. I thus envisage that Turkish Politics and the People will be read and used by researchers, as well as adopted by instructors, and become a resource for students taking courses on social movements and populism, nationalism, politics, comparative politics, history, state- and nation-building, and Turkish and Middle East studies. It is also written in a way that it is accessible and can appeal to interested lay readers as well as activists and policymakers.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: I do not know how I always end up with so many, apparently diverse, projects on my plate. The main projects I am working on now share a focus on contentious politics in polarized, antagonistic political contexts and a comparative emphasis. The first explores the political responses of young European Muslims to an increasingly insular and Islamophobic Europe. It sort of picks up where earlier work that appeared in my book Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks had reached its conclusion, asking more specific questions. Another work in progress explores the increasingly polarized urban politics and citizenship in the MENA region, looking at the ways cities are “written” from above and envisioned and “rescripted” from below. Last but not least is a project lying at the intersection of contentious politics and the demise of democratic presents and futures, taking a comparative look at popular and populist politics in Western and Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. The cherry on top of this is the intention to contribute to breaking down the walls that have separated the study of similar phenomena in the Global North and the Middle East, that have prevented the creation of shared languages and modalities of investigation.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 7, pp. 219-22)

Compared to other political actors in Turkey who attempted to mobilise the secular/religious divide partly and isolate the Justice and Development Party (AKP) by resorting to rhetorical antagonistic tropes, the AKP has been much more effective in constructing an atmosphere of crisis, as indeed populist actors are adept at doing, and injustice frames, discussed in Chapter 6, as the party and its leader have consistently raised the issue of contempt and marginalisation of their constituency by the Kemalist establishment and the intellectual elite, thus raising its anti-elitist profile and turning the intellectual elites’ cultural capital into a liability.

The party made use of the polarised political landscape that the armed forces’ attempts the against it had rekindled, relaunching itself as a party of the repressed – the “Black Turks”, as Erdoğan has said on more than one occasion. Erdoğan himself drew on such tropes effectively to contain a mass protest movement (the Gezi protests) and emerge with his supporter base emboldened after another coup attempt in July 2016. As I tried to indicate, although clearly more research needs to be conducted on this, the AKP leadership claimed they represented “the repressed” but have gone to great lengths not to attribute an exclusively Islamic connotation to their constituency (although references to covered women and the mockery of piety have been increasingly present in the party discourse), referring to conservative values in general and to status disparities. They drew effectively on the themes of state and elite mistrust as well as disdain, and represented their confrontations with various opponents, imaginary and real, as a fight for the protection and empowerment of their constituency. Owing to Erdoğan’s charisma, the party largely, though not exclusively, mobilised the dominant divides in Turkish society to its own advantage, once they were made relevant by the military’s attempt to force the government to resign or, at best, to change course back in 2007.

In the field of formal politics, the message that the party has shared with its audience has been one that points out the ineffectiveness of parliamentary politics especially when juxtaposed with the presidential system, which provides strong and effective leadership. When the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in 2015, Erdoğan and his party leadership dismissed the possibility of a coalition government, indicating their preference for majoritarian politics. Erdoğan often expressed his preference for a strong, presidential-type leadership on account of the experience of Turkish society with coalition governments. This anti-institutional, but also anti-particularistic emphasis of the party (given that the Assembly constitutes a reminder of the diversity of ‘the people’ whose unitary will Erdoğan claims to express) is highly significant. Aversion to assertions of social diversity was also demonstrated during the Gezi protests, which were instances of plebeian mobilisations that were permeated by a complex interplay between particularistic and shared vistas constructed by the participants. Instead, the party and its constituency seem to be more in tune with populist conceptualisations of the people and their emphasis on the “general will” as indicated by recurrent identifications of democracy to the will of the majority by Erdoğan and key party officials, which were construed as overriding the ‘selfish interests’ of social minorities.

The “Respect for the National Will” meetings of 2013, clearly organised to provide a response to the performative aspects of the Gezi protests, placed considerable emphasis on the size of the events and their quasi-dialogic character, in a way reminiscent of the ‘virtual’ interactions between Atatürk and “his people” discussed in Chapter 4. Similarly, leaving aside the gruesome situation in which it took place, the mobilisation of the people on the early hours of the morning of 16 July 2016, as discussed in Chapter 6, constituted an instance of a performative, liminal moment, a direct, unmediated yet highly “mediatised” plebiscitary event. Erdoğan’s populism, just like populism in general, rests on the promise of sovereignty to “a people” posited as deprived of this fundamental right. But as sovereignty is not linked to actual social individuals but to an abstract collectivity, hard to locate empirically, whose “will” is impossible to decipher, popular sovereignty, the sovereignty of the “abjects” of the Republic is a ‘deflected’ one, theatrically activated, experienced in emotional terms. Divorced from the material universe of empowerment, the sense of emotional vindication that populism portends renders its democratic promise deceptive.

Conclusion: Life after Populism?

Soon after the June 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, a rerun of the earlier election of March 2019, which saw opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu win with a very narrow margin only to be annulled by the Supreme Electoral Council, İmamoğlu’s landslide gave hope to supporters of the opposition as well as commentators who saw in the election results the possibility that this period of polarisation could end. Various media hailed the results as an indication that they were witnessing the “beginning of the end” for Erdoğan and predicting a potential İmamoğlu candidacy in the next presidential election. Implicit in such thinking is the assumption that the departure of a “charismatic” leader from the political scene, or, of a skilful political entrepreneur like Erdoğan would mean the end of the country’s long populist moment.

Although I have focused on the impact of Erdoğan’s charismatic personality in what preceded, I tried to avoid such facile explanations as far as charismatic personalities are concerned, and to situate his charisma in its social context. I suggest that just like Atatürk’s, Erdoğan’s charisma, and indeed the AKP’s success as a populist organisation, cannot be considered in a social void. I have tried to identify the contours of key discursive traditions that have been informing and circumscribing Turkish politics and its lived experience, as well the largely cultural, but certainly underpinned by tangible, material disparities that have served as fault lines structuring social and political life in Turkey. The politics of the past two decades in Turkey, the transition of the AKP from a “tame,” socially liberal and inclusive party to an organisation that has solidified around its leader’s personality, shoring itself up on the polarisation that has consumed Turkish society, are the product of the structural and cultural conditions I tried to identify earlier.

Even before the AKP abandoned its “politics of patience”, which informed and shaped its first five years in office, the tensions between the military and the judiciary on the one hand, and the party on the other, were hard to ignore. They were not the product of coincidence or caprice but were deeply embedded in a political culture that had shaped the contours of what was permissible and what was not, and of who could and who could not inhabit the prime ministerial office. The rumours that were circulating among political circles in Ankara just before the presidential election of 2007, that the presidential residence was about to “fall,” were part of a pervasive discourse that made possible the categorisation of the AKP as an outsider, a temporary presence in Ankara’s government offices. This very same discourse had contributed to the identification of the constituency of the AKP as outcasts and abjects. In a discussion I had with an eminent intellectual at the campus of Boğazici University in June 2000, I was told, while gazing at the Asian shores of Istanbul, that the hinterland of what we were looking at constituted a “factory of fascists”. The the binary representations of the social, the contrasts between pious and infidel, native and cultured, “Black” and “White” Turks that Erdoğan used in his speeches, belonged to the same discourse my interlocutor used. They have been part and parcel of the politics of “the popular” in Turkey for the best part of a century. To be sure, those who make up ‘the people’ have changed in their provenance, education, religiosity, insertion in consumer society and the like, but the divides have remained, not immutable but an established part of the social landscape of the Republic. The divides upon which the Republic has been built have fed a politics of “the popular” for decades. On some occasions, plebeian cultures would become the backbone of communities, infused with a mixture of pride and solidarity, as well as defiance of the “bad state” and its continuous demands, the erection of barriers, the limiting of life chances. On other occasions, and, increasingly nowadays, as the contradictions stemming out of a system premised on economic disparities and sociocultural marginalisation have manifested themselves in the dejection of the abject, the same plebian cultures would feed a politics of “the popular” premised on antagonism, resentment, and indignation. The time of populism is here and now, with Erdoğan or without.