You are here

The dangers of waxing populism

Apr 06,2017 - Last updated at Apr 06,2017

The long talked-about referendum in Turkey will happen on April 16. In effect, voters have to decide whether the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in theory the incumbent on a relatively modest political post, should now be given the powers of president and prime minister together.

Combined with a large majority in parliament, he would have enormous power to shape Turkey around his pro-Islamic agenda.

Although working within a democratic system, Erdogan is in many ways a populist, rather in the mould of US President Donald Trump.

Shortly after his Justice and Development Party first won an election in 2003, I was in Turkey and my first question to the people I interviewed was whether the party has a “secret agenda” — that is, whether it was planning at some future date to make the country Islamist.

“Definitely not,” was the almost universal response.

How wrong they were.

Or perhaps they were not. Maybe over the years, Erdogan has changed his spots.

Either way, Turkey now confronts a situation where populism, Islamism and nationalism are becoming Turkey’s dominant forces.

This is dangerous for Turkey.

Its highly educated, secular-minded, middle class will have less influence and indeed will be singled out and prosecuted, as many journalists, professors, novelists and judges are these days.

Turkey will become even more anti-EU.

What a mistake it was not to admit Turkey when, 12 years ago, it was knocking loudly on the door and was rebuffed. 

The Islamist forces so strong today would have been marginalised by the embrace of Western Europe and the fervour in most parts of Turkey about becoming a member of the most important alliance in history.

I remember asking some very poor Turkish pastoralists out in the scrubland, living in tents near the Syrian border, if they wanted to be part of Europe or part of Islamic Asia. They all said “Europe”.

The worrying thing for the EU is not just Turkey or the role model set by Trump, but that a number of its member countries, former members of the Soviet-controlled Warsaw Pact, a military and political alliance, are going the same way (albeit not, of course, Islamist).

In Hungary in 2010, an EU member, Viktor Orban led his Fidesz Party back to power and then immediately started to eviscerate the country’s checks and balances.

He changed the constitution and electoral code in his party’s favour.

In the Balkans, the governments there soon followed. Even though they had applied to join the EU, the populist agenda — which in its extreme form had brought about the wars in Yugoslavia in 1991— was surging forward.

Two years ago, populist leaders began vigorously stirring the pot over immigration.

In Poland, also an EU country, the government elected in 2015 made changes at an even faster pace. It paralysed the constitutional court, turned the sober public broadcaster into a party mouthpiece and hounded the press.

Thanks to the Syrian and Iraqi massive refugee exodus last year, anti-immigration sentiment has grown by leaps and bounds, even though in reality there are fewer of them knocking at their door.

Today Freedom House, a well-respected American institution, in its new report “Nations in transit”, argues that “populism has seized on deep frustrations with the EU and post-Cold War socio-economic model, capitalising on fears of eroding identity, economic insecurity and inequality.... De-democratisation is possible. The populist movement should be taken as a call to shake off the dangerous assumption that progress is inevitable.”

With Brexit, one can see signs that populism and nationalism can cut deep, even in the country, Britain, which is the father of parliamentary democracy.

Immigration was the issue that most divided the electorate. The populists, wanting to leave the EU, blatantly lied about the political and economic cost of immigration and so won the plebiscite.

In France, the greatest European populist of them all, Marine Le Pen, looks ready to trounce many of her mainstream opponents in the coming election.

If Europe is to defend liberal democracy, it must strengthen European institutions and hold renegades to account.

Why should dissident, anti-human rights countries receive large European funds? The “bend but don’t break” policies have now been shown to be a failure.


As for Turkey, it is not too late to open EU doors for its membership. I still believe if the Turkish electorate were given a choice between Asia and Islamism, and Europe and secularism, they would choose Europe.

115 users have voted.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
6 + 8 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.


Get top stories and blog posts emailed to you each day.