The Turkish case shows that the universally accepted model of “neoliberal rule-populist response” is more complicated than it seems. The story of neoliberalism in Turkey goes as far back as 1980 military coup. The simple reason behind the coup was the impossibility of implementing the neoliberal economic program and austerity measures accepted in the same year under democratic rule. The military junta government repressed the left opposition and immediately put into implementation the neoliberal economic program by appointing a famous economist who was the behind the neoliberal economic program, Turgut Özal, as the minister responsible for economic affairs. The same neoliberal program was maintained by the democratically elected Motherland Party government, which was indeed established and led by Özal, following the end of military rule. It must be said that by the end of the 1980s neoliberalism became the doxa in Turkey. In its first phase, neoliberalism managed the transformation of “import substitutionism” into “export oriented” economy, liberalized finances and gave a green light to privatization. It was mainly already powerful Istanbul-based industrial bourgeoisie who benefitted from privatization, deregulation and export-oriented growth. It is important to underline that Özal’s Motherland Party which governed the initial process came to power by anti-elite, anti-bureaucratic populist themes—indeed populist themes which run well with the anti-state, pro-privatization discourse of neoliberalism.
This was followed by a long period of hegemonic crisis and fragmentation of power. By the beginning of 2000s however, a new, younger generation of Islamists (R. T. Erdogan and A. Gul) established the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and came to power in the 2003 elections. Islamism emerged as a directly populist movement, which characteristically divided the political space into two, declaring an enemy camp in antagonism to “the true people.” Islamist populism is thus characterized by a strong version of “nativism,” i.e. a coding of native difference as Islamic vis a vis the authoritarian secularism followed by the Republican elite. But one should further keep in mind that, like in all populist movements, Islamism is also the expression of a class difference, given that the economically dominant class, i.e. Istanbul-based industrial bourgeoisie was actually created by the statist Republican elite by a program of capitalism from above. Islamist populism is therefore a construction of class difference as religious difference, indeed as a consolidated religious difference. Therefore it would be quite reasonable to consider Islamism as a populist response to a neoliberal program implemented from above. Indeed this “class” and “anti-elite” dimension gave Islamism a strong argument of victimization. But this is only part of the story, because Turkish Islamism has also very strictly and successfully followed the neoliberal economic program already re-formulated by the previous government following a short period of economic downfall in 2001. This brings us to a significant dimension of neoliberalism in peripheral spaces such as Turkey: its promotion of “small and medium size enterprises,” the SMEs. These are often critized for providing cheap (often family and informal) labor for the multinationals (such as Gap, Nike or Mac). Although this is true, they might also be part of a process of capital accumulation. Indeed it so happened in Turkey that a new group of Islamist large conglomerates emerged out of the immense support given to the SMEs especially by the AKP government (but already by previous governments as well). Known as “Anatolian Tigers,” this new group of Islamist businessmen was represented by AKP. Turkish Islamism can therefore be described as a new hegemonic bloc formed by the Anatolian Tigers with the poor working mass, which they lead ideologically and politically. Put in loosely Gramscian terms, it is the persuasion of the working mass by the new bosses into a new hegemonic system organized in and by Islamist ideology. But this populist version of neoliberal populism led by a “conservative democratic” politics gradually turned into an authoritarian, proto-fascist populism.
As soon as it came to power in 2003, the AKP government actually followed a series of democratic reforms, apart from its strictly neoliberal stand. It thus appeared, in its initial phase, as a pro-EU, reformist, conservative or Muslim democrat party, which had support from the liberal sections of the society as well as from EU (the number of awards Erdogan had from prestigious Western and European institutions would shock anyone now). Turkey was a model country until about 2010, a laboratory in which the so-called “compatibility of Islam with democracy” was successfully experimented. AKP made a qualitative jump in the relations with EU, reformed the banking sector and gave the central bank a leading role, and battled the corruption. It also made peace with the dissident Kurdish leadership and started a process of negotiation, however slow and problematic. It also made peace with the dissident Kurdish leadership and started a negotiation process, however slow and problematic. But these successful double syntheses of neoliberalism and populism, and of democracy and Islam, did not last long. Indeed it repeated the same pattern observed in other cases of neoliberal populism such as Argentine’s Menem and Peru’s Fujimori. AKP’s reformist line has never been entirely consistent. It battled corruption and favoritism insofar as the old elite is concerned but it also developed its own favoritism and its own version of “crony capitalism”, and it constantly avoided auditing institutions and mechanisms. On the political level, AKP was successful to the extent that it was capable of governing various freedoms emerged in parallel with the rapid development of capitalism, but it seemed to reach a point where it became impossible for it to govern freedoms any longer for both politico-economic (its own corrupt practices) and ideological (its conservative, authoritarian and nationalist roots) reasons. Hence we witnessed, in the case of Turkey, a swift turn into a violent, repressive form of authoritarian populism and crony capitalism.
Mahmut Mutman teaches critical theory, media and cultural studies in the Department of Cinema and Television and is the coordinator of the M.A. Program in Cultural Studies at Istanbul Sehir University. He is the author of The Politics of Writing Islam: Voicing Difference; he has co-edited a special issue of Inscriptions titled “Orientalism and Cultural Differences” and a collection on Orientalism, Hegemony and Cultural Difference (in Turkish) as well as several articles on orientalism, nationalism, postmodernism, and film and media in Cultural Critique, Postmodern Culture, New Formations, Rethinking Marxism, Anthropological Theory, Radical Philosophy, Third Text and Toplum ve Bilim.