Political Scientist Soner Cagaptay once dubbed Recep Tayyip Erdogan the "inventor of 21st-century populism." There may be some truth to that, especially given the way the Turkish president's style of leadership has quickly spread in recent years. But as we progress further into the millennium, it's also clear that populism has evolved. Those with a claim to redefining the populist formula include U.S. President Donald Trump, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, and India's Narendra Modi.
Still, since his election as prime minister in 2003, Erdogan's rise is instructive. Initially working on a mandate of liberal inclusivity with echoes of Tony Blair, his policy and rhetoric alike morphed as he consolidated power. An analysis by the Guardian shows how he changed his language to stir and take hold of his electorate: His enemies became "enemies of the people;" his electoral successes became victories against the "tyranny of elites."
In time, to spread his populism he needed to infuse it with religion, and soon the "will of the people" became the "will of God." Grounded in Islamic Nationalism, Erdogan won the presidency in 2014 and 2018 after a decade as prime minister — despite persistent allegations of corruption.
Perhaps Erdogan's brand of populism is finally losing its appeal.
But with his party's recent failure to capture Istanbul's mayoral seat, Erdogan's influence seems in question. The shock loss of the AKP in Istanbul initially prompted calls for a recount, which confirmed the result. Its first defeat in the city in a quarter century, the party's response has now been to up the stakes: they want to re-do the election altogether, Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reports.
A high-risk move that threatens its legitimacy, the strategy speaks to how thoroughly the AKP's power is at risk; perhaps Erdogan's brand of populism is finally losing its appeal. To understand why we must look beyond Turkey's borders.
Erdogan's style is echoed by the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, both of whom appeal to the common voter with a religious nationalism that in some degree relies on the exclusion of Muslims. All three leaders face a time of uncertainty in their leadership, and a look at how they maneuver it may prove revealing.
Netanyahu after elections results earlier this month — Photo: Oliver Weiken/DPA/ZUMA
Netanyahu has faced his own challenges of late. Dogged by corruption allegations from his own attorney general, he also battled through an unexpectedly tight election. But unlike Erdogan and the AKP, Netanyahu prevailed by forming a coalition. His success also stems from his good international standing, another way in which he distinguishes himself from the Turkish leader. As such he continues to enjoy powerful support from international leaders like Donald Trump.
Modi is the latest of the three to face a leadership challenge, as India begins the early stages of humanity's largest ever election, seen by many as a referendum on Modi himself. While by no means certain, the fate of India's leader seems somewhat secure. The Israeli daily Haaretz noted that like Netanyahu, Modi's style of populism sees success in stirring and uniting voters against international danger. For Israel, this remains Iran, while for India, the clearest enemy is Pakistan, reconfirmed by tensions in Kashmir.
Modi's style of populism sees success in stirring and uniting voters against international danger.
In the case of both Netanyahu and Modi, their brand of populism feeds on fears of national security, rallying the franchise not just against a domestic elite but against the global enemies of progress, fighting those who oppose the "national interest" and the wellbeing of the common people.
In many senses, Modi, the newest of the three leaders, fuses the two populist styles that preceded him in both Netanyahu and Erdogan. Like Erdogan, his rhetoric stresses the importance of his nation's historical legacy, as noted by Indian politician Shashi Tharoor. And Modi's final aim, according to Professor Sumantra Bose of the London School of Economics, seems to be to emulate the Israeli model of the religious nation-state.
Without exception, all three populist leaders present themselves as a champion of marginalized people excluded by modern secularism. But where India distinguishes itself alone is in not just its size, but its position as a rapidly developing world power with a deep, historically entrenched commitment to democracy. Using this may be Modi's key to forming a newer kind of populism, and avoiding the mistakes of the "inventors" before him.
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