Beyond Populism: From Scholarship to Politics in “New” Turkey

Tutkimustuotos: OpinnäyteVäitöskirjaMonografia


Lately, it has become almost a cliché to label Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as populist. Turkey’s democratic backsliding under his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is often raised as a reminder of why all who believe in democracy should protect it against populism and populists in their own societies. But this was not the case until the summer of 2013 when millions took to the streets of Turkey as part of the nationwide anti-government protests. The ruthless suppression of the protests reminded AKP’s liberal-minded supporters at home and abroad of other “populists” with a similar authoritarian streak. Once promoted as the “Nelson Mandela of Turkey”, Erdoğan was turned into its “New Sultan” almost overnight.

On the first level, this dissertation examines the epistemological and ontological roots of the mainstream narrative by asking: How could Erdoğan government turn from beloved democrats into wretched populists overnight? Operationalising a post-foundationalist theory of populism that defines it as a fundamentally neutral rather than necessarily antidemocratic discourse, this dissertation demonstrates that rather than undergoing an ideological metamorphosis, the AKP government has been a consistently populist force from the beginning. In fact, it argues that the moment when the mainstream media and scholarship started to label the party as populist was roughly the time authoritarianism and nativism came to fore much more pronouncedly as its core features, effectively transforming the AKP into a populist radical right party. The reason why most accounts failed to define it as such and instead vehemently supported it as a harbinger of liberal democracy for so long is that the AKP successfully integrated the epistemological framework of their thinking into its own political branding. Promoting itself as an antipopulist “conservative democratic” party that was uniquely capable of overcoming the supposedly constitutive antagonism between the Kemalist centre and Islamist periphery in Turkish politics, the AKP perfectly synchronised itself to the post-political zeitgeist whereby the ultimate goal of politics is conceived to be the realisation of a “politics without antagonisms.”

On the second level, through an immanent reading of the Laclaudian theory of populism in Turkish case, this dissertation remarks at a significant shortcoming of his model, namely its underlying “emancipatory apriorism” about populism. Insofar as Laclaudian theory tends to categorise political as such only insofar as it refers to democratising and emancipatory endeavours and renders populist reason synonymous with political one, it assigns populism an essentially emancipatory mission. This study inquiring the rightward trajectory of a populist actor seeks to overcome this gap in Laclaudian approaches to populism. Tracing the AKP’s discourse as its trajectory from populism to nativist radical-right has intensified, the empirical part of this dissertation shows that it is indeed possible for populism to take non-emancipatory forms and descent into authoritarianism. As the case of Erdoğanism demonstrates, populist discourses can reach at such an extreme point that they collapse all social differences into a singular political identity with respect to their articulation through the name of the leader. Though at this extreme point, this dissertation asserts, it would be analytically more correct to categorise such cases not as mainly populist but radical right, for it is the nativist/nationalist and authoritarian—rather than populist—features that primarily determine their discourses.
  • Palonen, Emilia, Valvoja
Painoksen ISBN978-951-51-6485-8
Sähköinen ISBN978-951-51-6486-5
TilaJulkaistu - 2020
OKM-julkaisutyyppiG4 Tohtorinväitöskirja (monografia)

Lisätietoja väitöskirjasta

To be presented for public examination with the permission of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Helsinki, in Room 107, Athena Building, on the 10th of September, 2020 at 13:00.


  • 5171 Valtio-oppi

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