Can Turkey's new parties overcome polarization?

Andrew O’Donohue writes: The hard truth is this: Turkey’s new political parties will not be able to defeat polarization anytime soon. Turkish society, furthermore, will almost certainly remain divided for at least the next decade.

Andrew O’Donohue

As former AKP heavyweights Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan launch new political movements, an essential question looming over their efforts is whether either man will be able to overcome Turkey’s profound political polarization.

Bothhave promised to do so: At the launch of the new Future Party last Friday, Davutoğlu vowed to champion “policies that unite us, not divide us.” In a recent interview with Habertürk, Babacan similarly offered the hope that Turkey could heal its divisions “as long as politics does not marginalize.” 

Particularly in light of the opposition’s “landslide victory” in Istanbul this June, some analysts have underscored the potential for Davutoğlu and Babacan to “radically alter the political landscape.” Yet the hard truth is this: Turkey’s new political parties will not be able to defeat polarization anytime soon. Turkish society, furthermore, will almost certainly remain divided for at least the next decade.

In our new book Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization, Thomas Carothers and I analyze polarization’s drivers and dynamics in nine deeply divided countries, ranging from Brazil and India to Turkey and the United States. Our findings, as well as those of other experts, demonstrate that once polarization has become ingrained in social and political life, even unifying leaders cannot easily uproot it. 

Take the case of Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. In our research, Carothers and I highlight İmamoğlu, along with Ecuadorian president Lenín Moreno, as a rare example of a political leader who has actively sought to de-escalate partisan divides.

Yet İmamoğlu did not put a dent in polarization during his campaign. Indeed, a survey of over 1,000 Istanbul residents before the June 2019 election showed that for pro-government voters, İmamoğlu is just as polarizing as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is for opposition voters. Among supporters of former AKP prime minister Binali Yıldırım, fully 70 percent said that İmamoğlu “very often” or “often” arouses emotions of anger, while 69 percent of İmamoğlu supporters said the same about President Erdoğan. As these data indicate, in polarized societies, even leaders who aspire to heal divisions are often seen as divisive themselves

What is more, cross-national research shows that it usually takes a decade—not just a few years—for ideological polarization among voters to emerge or subside. In a cutting-edge study on this topic, the scholars Robin Best and Mert Moral analyzed over four decades of data from 19 different democracies. Their analysis revealed that polarization among political parties drives polarization among citizens as well—but it takes about two elections to see half of the long-term effect that parties have and about five elections to observe the full effect. 

This research points to the fact that Turkey’s current polarization is at least a decade in the making. Since 2007, five national parliamentary elections, two direct presidential elections, and three constitutional referenda have hardened partisan identities among voters. Davutoğlu and Babacan should not expect that the path away from polarization will be any shorter or easier.

Finally, polarization is difficult to defeat because it tends to become self-perpetuating. As Carothers and I observe in our research, polarizing actions and reactions feed on each other, creating an ever-growing list of grievances for the warring political camps. 

The consequences of polarization similarly generate a vicious cycle of conflict and division. For instance, polarization frequently leads to very different partisan perceptions of the judiciary, and judges’ decisions therefore become fuel for the polarization bonfire. The outrage over legal proceedings against Istanbul Şehir University, which Davutoğlu founded in 2008, vividly illustrates that the judiciary is driving polarization more than mitigating it in Turkey today. 

As a result of these self-reinforcing dynamics, partisan divisions are often remarkably enduring. In some countries, like Bangladesh, Thailand, and Venezuela, polarization is now starting to be measured not in years but in decades. In others, like Argentina, Kenya, and the United States, it has endured and even intensified for over half a century.

At least in their public remarks, the leaders of Turkey’s new parties have not come to terms with just how thorny the problem of polarization will be. In an interview this November, Babacan went so far as to claim that Turkey’s polarization was not “natural” but rather the work of online “trolls.” Such a perspective gravely underestimates just how entrenched divisions have become in the fabric of Turkish society.

That Davutoğlu and Babacan are trying at all to reduce polarization is an important sign of vitality in Turkey’s politics. Yet before undertaking the task of healing political divides, it is important for both leaders to be clear-eyed about how long and difficult the path ahead will be. 


Andrew O’Donohue is a research fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and the co-editor (with Thomas Carothers) of Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization