Istanbul rerun shows how to defeat populists - analysis

The significance of Sunday’s decisive opposition victory in the Istanbul mayoral rerun election extends beyond Turkey because it shines a spotlight on authoritarian populists’ biggest weakness, the ballot box, said an analysis for news site New Europe. 

Today’s populists are not like earlier strongmen in Latin America, South Asia, and Turkey, who wore army fatigues, took power through coups and held onto their positions through violence. 

“By contrast, the populist authoritarians of the past two decades came to power through elections, and do not (typically) murder their opponents,” Daron Acemoğlu, economics professor at MIT, and James A. Robinson, government professor at Harvard, wrote for New Europe on Wednesday.

As a result, these populists rely on at least the appearance of majority support, which is why they are often compelled to tilt elections in their favour and pressure the media, the authors said. 

“(President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan has made ample use of this playbook. He rose to power by tapping into the grievances of more religious, less educated, and less Westernised Turks who felt politically disenfranchised, economically marginalized, and culturally slighted,” said Acemoğlu and Robinson. 

In power, Erdoğan emphasised his popularity and enjoyed a string of electoral victories while becoming increasingly authoritarian, taking control of Turkish media as well as the bureaucracy, judiciary, and security forces, according to the authors. 

Having lost in Istanbul after attempting to reverse the outcome has exposed Erdoğan’s Achilles’ heel. “He who wins by the ballot box loses by the ballot box. That is where today’s populist authoritarians must be defeated, and where the reconstruction of democracy can begin,” the authors wrote. 

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) had long failed to provide an effective counterweight to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), because it refused to develop a popular platform, clinging instead to its traditional secularism. That changed with Istanbul mayor-elect Ekrem Imamoğlu, who ran a positive campaign centred on improving welfare, ending corruption, and restoring democracy. 

“He won because he broke free from the confines of polarising, retrograde ideological lines. A similarly pragmatic approach that focuses on improving people’s lives would pose a significant challenge to populists elsewhere,” said Acemoğlu and Robinson. “Populists derive their power from real grievances. It is only by responding to those grievances, not by ignoring them, that opposition parties can wrest democracy back from its populist usurpers.”