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The Populism/Realism Gap: Managing Uncertainty in Turkey’s Politics and Foreign Policy

By: James Bieszka

Whether or not one agrees with the notion that Turkey has become a more populist nation in recent years, the sustained rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) – along with constitutional/governmental amendments and rapidly evolving regional confrontations – requires Turkey scholars and observers alike to examine the many impacts of the nearly fifteen years of AKP-tenured rule.  On February 4, 2016 at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Nora Fisher Onar presented her policy paper, “The Populism/Realism Gap: Managing Uncertainty in Turkey’s Politics and Foreign Policy.” She argues that “populism” has become an essential component of AKP rule and the “new Turkey,” not only dictating much of Turkey’s domestic policies but impacting crucial elements of Turkish foreign policy.  “Populism” involves the mobilization of a large portion of society, by a ruling party or leader, through the use of common and/or popular historical and societal rhetoric and policies. Populism, therefore, illuminates competing analyses of the “new Turkey.”

Dr. Onar asserts that the “new Turkey” is undergoing a populist phenomenon, led by Erdogan and the AKP, that combines popular national sentiments, historical understanding, and regional vision into a new style of foreign policy.  Dr. Onar presents her claims in a three-part timeframe, followed by an evaluation of recent foreign and regional relations, current domestic-Turkish identities, and internal political structure.  Throughout Dr. Onar’s paper, ideology and interest often challenge each other – highlighting how polarized Turkey has become.  This polarization is not new but has notably increased since the June 7, 2015 elections.   To cite one example, a January 2016 GMF study highlighted extreme levels of inter-political cleavage in Turkey – levels that are only expected to rise in the coming years (1).  Due to this increased polarization in Turkey, Dr. Onar’s three-part chronology serves as a helpful blueprint for recent Turkish politics, foreign relations, and society.

Her chronology begins with the 2002 AKP election.  Titled “The EU Era,” Dr. Onar claims that Turkey’s EU process was still vibrant and popular in this period, and that “domestic populism in pursuit of power” and a “pro-western foreign policy” were combined within the AKP’s political strategy from 2002-2008 (2).  The second time period, from 2009-2012, is labelled “Neo-Ottomanism” – a common evaluation and/or critique of the AKP’s rule.  In this second period, domestic and political language shifted, foreign policy creeped towards a more historical and Middle East focus, and direct challenges to traditional Turkish national positions (e.g. a favorable position regarding Israel) and western influence became the new norm.  The final time period, titled “The Domestic/Regional Nexus,” begins in 2013 and continues, arguably, until the present.  In this last period Dr. Onar presents a much more direct analysis, linking populism with foreign policy.  The “Turkish Model” in the final time period is the most critical in understanding the current shifts in Turkish foreign and internal affairs (3).

The “Turkish Model,” as presented by Dr. Onar, begins to materialize following the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.  While not exclusively a foreign policy paradigm, the “Turkish Model” transformed greatly after regional developments in 2011, including Turkey’s more assertive and leading foreign role in the region.  The two main cases are the AKP’s support for the Morsi-led Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, which failed after just one year in power, and the attempt to lead a regional response to the 2011 Syrian uprisings against the Assad regime.  Both cases reflected Turkish foreign policy populism through popular regional (“neo-Ottoman”) aspirations and Sunni-Muslim alliances.  The latter case involved aiding extreme religious factions, compromised Turkish border and internal security, and adhered to a hardline position that Assad must go at all costs.  Dr. Soner Cagaptay argued these points alongside Dr. Onar and added that while Turkish foreign policy is ultimately well intentioned, there are many legitimate critiques of Ankara’s regional and international pragmatism (or lack thereof, perhaps).  The foreign aspect of the “Turkish Model” has also directly impacted domestic identities and political structure.  Dr. Onar argues that domestic identities and political structure aspects of the “Turkish Model” are related to the “experiment with pro-religious electoral democracy and market economics” (4).  While the Turkish economy and middle class have grown under the AKP, Dr. Onar suggests that Erdogan took this perceived calling too far – using Turkey’s domestic progress as a kind of mandate for Turkey to be the guardian of the Middle East.  In terms of domestic identities, she continues by saying that Turkey’s policies towards Syria have fueled unprecedented cross border flows and internal ethnic challenges.  For example, the ISIS-attributed bombings in Suruç and Ankara against Turkish Kurds (and other minority factions) in 2015 and the current internal conflict with the PKK and HDP highlight the deterioration of Turkish-Kurdish relations.  Furthermore, Turkish-Alevi relations are also in question.  Another significant minority, Turkey’s Alevi community has been threatened by a steep increase of Sunni migrants and the presence of extreme leftist political violence; external state support for sectarian political violence is also problematic in this regard.

Dr. Onar also argues that the 2013 Gezi Park protests, Erdoğan’s ambitions to shift Turkey towards a presidential system, and the AKP’s significant victory in November 2015 elections have only added to the trend in Turkish politics where strong leaders enact partisan retribution.  In this political atmosphere, Erdoğan has embraced his role as the dominant leader, the AKP has solidified its political power, and opposition elements have become increasingly extreme and/or alienated from the democratic process .

Dr. Onar’s paper on the “Populism/Realism Gap” highlights the connections between populism and Turkish domestic and foreign policies.  While certain policy measures, such as relations with Israel, may evolve in either more populist or pragmatic ways, the gap between interests and ideology will continue to shape Turkey’s future.  Dr. Onar cites “leadership style, ideological shift, and regional spillover” as the three main pillars that will impact the Turkish populism/realism gap (5).  Consequently, these factors must continue to be addressed in the context of recent history and with an understanding that these factors will continue to constantly evolve.


  1. Coskun, Bezen. “Polarization and Politicization of Turkish Public Opinion.” Polarization and Politicization of Turkish Public Opinion. February 2016. http://www.rethinkinstitute.org/1162-2/.
  2. Onar, Nora Fisher. “The Populism/Realism Gap: Managing Uncertainty in Turkey’s Politics and Foreign Policy.” Turkey Project Policy Paper 8 (February 2016): 3.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 13.



About TUSIAD-US Intern Edition

This blog is a venue for TUSIAD-US interns to express their thoughts on U.S.-Turkey relations as well as their internship experiences in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this website belong solely to their authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of TUSIAD. // Bu blog, TUSIAD-US stajyerlerinin Turkiye-ABD ilişkileri üzerine yorumlarını ve stajyerlik deneyimlerini paylaştıkları bir platformdur. Bu sitede yer alan yazı ve yorumlar tamamen yazarların kişisel görüşlerini yansıtmakta olup, TÜSİAD'in resmi görüşü değildir.


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