Is authoritarian populism on the retreat after elections in Turkey?

Last week Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) won the position of mayor of Istanbul by obtaining 54% of the votes – an impressive feat given that most of the media are controlled by the Justice and Development Party (APK) of President Erdogan. The CHP thereby gave another blow to Erdogan, who had annulled Istanbul’s municipal election of 6 May hoping that a re-vote would secure his victory. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson explain regarding the rise to power of populists in Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere “the populist authoritarians of the past two decades came to power through elections, and do not (typically) murder their opponents. In most cases, they have been elected because they articulated, and then exploited, public discontent over economic inequalities and mobilized cultural divisions. Once in power, they have legitimized their rule through demonstrations of electoral support, won by defining their supporters in contradistinction to other (less worthy) members of society”.



Although Erdogan came to power through elections, his policy of the past 17 years had become increasingly authoritarian. The victory of the CHP is partly attributed to having opted for a pragmatic over an ideological approach that aimed at improving people’s lives. A similar strategy, Acemoglu and Robinson expect, can pose a significant challenge to populists in other countries.


Erdogan himself, however, does not have to stand for re-election until 2023, and his party has a strong parliamentary majority. Interestingly, 2023 is also the year when the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic will be celebrated. In 1923, after the defeat of the Ottoman empire in WWI, the Treaty of Lausanne was concluded which set Turkey’s current borders. While “Lausanne” was an improvement for the Turks over the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which among other things envisaged an independent Kurdish state, Erdogan as well as some of his predecessors have publicly speculated about Turkey’s legitimate claims over some of the territories previously belonging to the Ottoman empire, including parts of Greece and Iraq. Erdogan is said to have complained that the Allied powers artificially drew Turkey’s borders after WWI with a view to securing access to the oil fields belonging to the Ottoman empire.


Analysing Erdogan’s long-term agenda, commentators have noted that “the idea behind [his] goals is to create nationalistic cohesion towards annexing more land to Turkey. To alter the borders of Turkey, however, [he] must change or annul the Lausanne Treaty”. While Turkey’s claims over some Greek islands will certainly lead to geopolitical tensions, its claim over the oil-rich territories around Mosul in Iraq will have an economically greater impact. If Turkey would acquire access to these oil fields, it would be a major step in Erdogan’s national objective to have Turkey become one of the 10 largest economies in the world by 2023.


A paper by Latif Tas explains the nationality position of the Kurds. The “Kurdish question” affects a large part of the Middle East and what the Kurds themselves call Kurdistan covers parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the absence of their own state, however, 30 million Kurds having been living spread out over these four countries and a few million more live outside Kurdistan. This makes them the largest people without a home state in the world.

Tas shows how large groups of Kurds have been denationalised by several of their home countries in recent decades in an attempt to exclude non-Arab minorities from the nation-state. This resulted in 750,000 stateless Kurds in Syria and 100,000 stateless Kurds in Lebanon.


These are examples of de iure statelessness, however, in that they do not have any official nationality. Tas also interviewed many Kurds in the UK “who officially have Turkish, Iranian or Syrian nationality, but who are unable to return to these countries because of their political views … Although these Kurdish people are still citizens of these states, they can be considered to be de facto stateless persons given that they are unable to use their legal right to return to their homeland”. The Kurdish question is therefore a perfect illustration of the conundrum of defining who is stateless, and how the borderline between de iure and de facto statelessness is often difficult to draw.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

Amsterdam | London | Luxembourg

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