As Turkey heads for municipal elections on March 31, there is an effort to understand how different factors, first and foremost the ongoing economic crisis, will impact voter behavior. A crucial, but the often neglected factor is political tribalization. While sociological cleavages or class-based alignments are still accepted as the most useful analytical tools for many political analysts, the current zeitgeist opens up avenues for more unorthodox approaches, such as taking tribes as the primary political units.
No short-term solution for tribal politics in Turkey - scholar
Turkish society has become polarised into tribal groups, and this has become a defining feature of the country’s politics, Bilgi University political science professor Emre Erdoğan said in an article published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Tribal divisions have characterised every recent election and referendum, as maps showing voter preferences in recent contests show, Erdoğan said, with the main divisions being between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
“This divided picture survived with small changes within and between tribes such as the emergence of the Good Party and the temporary alliance between the AK Party and the HDP during the Kurdish opening process,” Erdoğan said.
The centre-right Good Party was formed in 2017 when prominent members of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, unhappy with the party’s support for the AKP, broke away and were joined by CHP politicians.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) represents the Kurdish political movement, which had been involved in an initiative by the AKP to resolve decades of conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants. The peace process broke down in 2015, and the HDP has been under significant legal pressures since.
A series of important events have solidified tribal divisions in recent years, Erdoğan said, including large-scale anti-government protests in 2013 and the failed coup attempt in July 2016, but cultural differences between social groups have also played a significant role.
“In addition to the continuous cycle of elections and referendums, everyday discussions about alcohol usage, abortion, religious education in high schools and even music tastes have functioned as daily plebiscites, dividing people and reunifying them under the banners of their tribes,” said Erdoğan.
The tribalisation of politics has also led to the rise of a “post-truth” environment in Turkey, in which individuals make decisions on news items based on their sources rather than content.
“Hence, people accept the arguments of the members of their tribe without questioning their validity and they can be prejudiced against those of the other tribes. In Turkey, many public discussions are easily turned into a competition between two different facts and not surprisingly most people support the one endorsed by the chief of the tribe,” the scholar said.
Similar tribal divisions are commonplace across the world, Erdoğan said, though the extent they have taken hold in Turkey means there is little chance they will ease off in the near future.
“From this perspective, there is no short-term solution to the rise of tribal politics in Turkey. Affective polarization and continuous symbolic clashes in everyday life and politics create a substantial obstacle to bridging the gaps between tribes,” said the scholar.
“The current political system, especially the country’s brand of presidentialism, restricts the opportunities for cooperation on political issues. The lack of a middle ground composed of independent media and civil society organizations prevents the development of empathy and mutual respect across tribes. Under these conditions, the survival of social coherence in Turkey becomes an important puzzle for everyone worrying about the future of the country,” he said.