The Pushback Against Populism: Running on “Radical Love” in Turkey

Issue Date April 2020
Volume 31
Issue 2
Page Numbers 24-40
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Drawing from the 2019 mayoral elections in Turkey, this paper highlights a path that opposition parties might take to defuse polarized environments and avoid playing into the political traps set by populists in power. The particular type of moral and amplified polarization that accompanies populism’s essential “thin” ideology builds a barrier between a populist’s supporters and the opposition. Yet the CHP opposition in Turkey has recently won notable victories with its new campaign approach of “radical love,” which counteracts populism’s polarizing logic and has exposed Erdoğan’s weakness.

On the evening of 6 May 2019, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council annulled the results of Istanbul’s March 31 mayoral election. The vote had been narrowly won by Ekrem İmamoğlu, an opposition candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Successfully overcoming a rigged competitive authoritarian system, he had managed to win an office for which more Turkish citizens cast direct votes than any other position save the presidency. İmamoğlu, previously a local mayor in one of the several dozen districts that make up the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, had beaten the chosen candidate of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP): Binali Yıldırım, Turkey’s last prime minister before the 2018 abolition of the office and a longtime confidant of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Each candidate took slightly over 48 percent of the vote, with İmamoğlu coming out ahead by less than half a percentage point.

About the Authors

F. Michael Wuthrich

F. Michael Wuthrich is assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. He is the author of National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System (2015).

View all work by F. Michael Wuthrich

Melvyn Ingleby

Melvyn Ingleby is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Aix-Marseille, France, and a research associate at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies. Based in Istanbul, he is a contributor to the Atlantic and the Dutch newspaper Trouw.

View all work by Melvyn Ingleby

Since recounts had failed to secure a victory for Yıldırım, the AKP settled on alleging electoral fraud and irregularities as a pretext for removing İmamoğlu in his third week in office. The ruling party claimed that polling-station officials—appointed under the AKP’s own watch—had for some reason altered the mayoral-election results, while leaving intact tallies in the other local races that these officials also supervised and tabulated. Yet despite the clear injustice of the circumstances under which İmamoğlu’s victory was overturned, he urged his supporters to keep calm. “In our squares there is love,” İmamoğlu declared on the [End Page 24] evening he was deposed. “They will want conflict from us, they will want to hear harsh words from us. But we, the people who do not want this nation to fight, who want this nation to embrace, we will unrelentingly embrace each other.”1

Confronted with a government that fueled polarization and undermined democratic institutions, İmamoğlu held resolutely to his party’s campaign approach, a strategy entitled “Radical Love.” Instead of boycotting the election rerun that took place following the first vote’s nullification, he returned to the campaign trail with a message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward AKP supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, İmamoğlu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote—the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984—against 45 percent for his opponent.

Beyond İmamoğlu’s victory in Istanbul, the CHP made notable gains in other major cities during Turkey’s March 2019 local elections. These results are significant not only because the Turkish opposition delivered a setback to an entrenched populist leader, but for the methods by which it achieved this outcome. As Takis Pappas reminds us, illiberal populists can lose power for many different reasons. Populists have been overthrown by military coups, as in Argentina; they have politically imploded amid scandal, as in Peru and Italy; and they have found themselves losing sway over their own parties, as in Ecuador. Yet this does not always lead to a lasting shift away from populist politics. In some cases, as in Greece, populist parties have lost their place to rivals that decided to fight populism with populism; in several, ousted populist leaders have made personal political comebacks and returned to office after a few years.2

In the Turkish case, however, the CHP not only scored an electoral victory, but also exposed a critical weakness in Erdoğan’s populist playbook that may be key to a broader and lasting transformation of Turkey’s highly polarized political landscape. This strategy, developed in the CHP campaign manual The Book of Radical Love (Radikal Sevgi Kitabı), defused polarization, appealed to the voters who made up the governing party’s support base, and left Erdoğan’s AKP with few promising options for a successful counterattack.3 In the kind of highly polarized atmosphere that populists tend to generate, a “Radical Love” campaign seems counterintuitive. Yet if we examine the premises underlying much of populism’s support, we find reason to believe that such a campaign could work not only to beat a populist at the ballot box, but also to reset political orientations in ways that will guard against a future populist resurgence.

Populist leaders both promote and benefit from polarization. If this is often true before they rise to power, it is especially so afterward. The brand of polarization that populists manufacture, unlike the “ideological polarization” highlighted by Giovanni Sartori, is one characterized not [End Page 25] by sharp ideological distinctions, but by an intense moral dichotomy: The populist intentionally cultivates a political environment in which positions and views take on an extreme cast. Members of the opposition are labeled “terrorists” or “foreign agents,” and disagreement with the leader becomes “treason.”4 This rhetoric provokes the opposition into reactions that, in the eyes of the populist’s supporters, only validate his claim to be battling a conspiracy of entrenched elites. As the populist cultivates the appearance of responsiveness to the “will of the people,” the chasm between his supporters and the opposition grows.

The beliefs that unite populist supporters form a bulwark that is extremely difficult for the opposition to breach through reactive popular mobilization. How, then, did the CHP’s campaign strategy manage to defuse the country’s polarization and disarm Erdoğan and his party? To answer this question, we must first consider why the supporters of populists see their leaders as democrats, even as these leaders weaken the institutional accountability essential to keeping democracy alive, and how populist polarization baits the opposition into taking up a disadvantageous position.

The “thin-centered ideology” of populism, as Cas Mudde describes it, is simply the division of society into morally charged categories of “the people” and “the elite,” with an understanding that “politics should be an expression of the … general will of the people.”5 Populist polarization occurs around this dichotomy. To the extent that populism converges with democratic sentiments, it entails a dramatic prioritization of what Guillermo O’Donnell calls “vertical accountability” over “horizontal accountability.”6 Populists portray the latter form of accountability—which rests in the institutions and regulations that safeguard a balance of powers—as a malign obstruction that keeps the people’s true voice from being heard. Instead, they valorize democracy’s vertical components: participatory democracy, voting, and representation. This allows populists to cast actions that diminish individual rights and institutional protections as part of a justified assault on barriers to realizing the people’s will. In a similar vein, Berk Esen and Şebnem Yardımcı-Geyikçi argue that populists appeal to citizens’ sense that government has lost its “responsiveness.”7 Supporters thus often initially see populist victories as a needed corrective to a democracy in which accountability has been lacking.

Under populist rule, polarization intensifies as the populist’s fans and foes interpret the same actions in starkly different ways. Supporters think their leader is boldly bringing “genuine” democracy, while the opposition sees this leader as dismantling democracy. For such a split to emerge, there must be a considerable share of the public that believes there has been a critical failure of vertical democratic accountability; populists remain marginal in places where the established political system is broadly legitimate, responsive, and responsible.8 Once in power, populists present their opponents as the remnants of a delegitimized status [End Page 26] quo—the enemies of the people—and populist supporters generally share this view. Therefore, the opposition’s strategy for shedding this negative image is critical.

Populist leaders use the moral dichotomy they have constructed as a pretext for dismantling or weakening the state institutions that would normally constrain their actions.9 The populist’s supporters see this disempowering of horizontal-accountability institutions as a path toward greater democracy. Things look very different to the opposition elements remaining within state institutions, who feel that they are faced with an existential threat. Consequently, they tend to channel their power in any way they can to resist the will of the populist leader. This, of course, fits right into the populist’s worldview and moral framework. He treats the opposition’s actions within the balancing institutions of the state as evidence that the status quo elites are determined to thwart the will of the people—and hence as justification for further dismantling these institutions. The consequences are aptly summarized by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: “Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes. One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.”10

Because populists rely on creating a sense of direct linkage between the leader and the people, they are highly sensitized to their characterization in the national media, and they tend to find and utilize outlets that allow them to communicate directly with their supporters. This can be seen, for example, in U.S. president Donald Trump’s use of Twitter and phone-ins to Fox News, or the weekly television shows used by Hugo Chávez and other Latin American populists to talk directly to the people.11 Other leaders, including Erdoğan in Turkey and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, have used their powers to turn state media into propaganda organs and to economically restructure commercial media under progovernment ownership. Whereas earlier populists relied on mass rallies to connect to the people, modern media have made it easier to reach out “directly” and simultaneously to citizens all over the country, thereby entrenching the sense that the leader and the people are one.

Oppositions that confront populist leaders often fail to understand the media dynamics that these tactics produce. Eventually, the populist gains sufficient control over the ostensibly “neutral” mainstream media to propagate a positive image of his rule and to ensure broad support. Meanwhile, since he knows that the majority who placed him in power [End Page 27] will not take the niche media associated with the opposition seriously, he can allow critical comments to bounce in the echo chambers of these niche outlets while posing as a benevolent democrat to his supporters. Indeed, the strident criticism on pro-opposition channels generates sound bites that can be used in progovernment propaganda as a tool for heightening polarization. Populist leaders get traction from holding their own mass rallies, but they can also use large opposition rallies to frighten and galvanize their supporters. The opposition thus must carefully consider how to counteract populist control of the media, or it will likely walk right into the trap.

This all leads to amplified polarization that both stems from populism’s logic and serves to sustain the populist leader’s power. Populists benefit when the opposition focuses on the various ways in which the leader has transgressed the rules of “high politics” and relies on vilifying him to mobilize support. These kinds of attacks on the populist tend to go hand-in-hand with vilifying and caricaturing his supporters, which usually keeps those supporters from switching allegiances. Supporters of populists are not primarily concerned with the cooptation or restructuring of institutions they have come to see as standing in the way of their leader’s attempts to address their grievances; what they want is governance responsive to their concerns. Thus, the political context that brings a populist to power—one marked by a perceived crisis of vertical accountability—provides cover for the leader as he systematically reshapes the political, institutional, and media environment in ways that make it harder for potential challengers to either curtail his power or get through to his supporters. In response to these actions, the opposition reflexively attacks the very section of the populist’s defenses that is best fortified.

How “Radical Love” Strikes Back

The Turkish case highlights how opposition actors that misjudge the logic behind populism can end up feeding the polarization that enables populists to hold onto power. Like many populists, Erdoğan initially gained public appeal by addressing legitimate voter concerns within an unresponsive political system. In the 1990s, he served as an effective mayor of Istanbul for the Welfare Party, appealing to voters’ desire for good governance and to the bread-and butter concerns of many in the city, but his religious conservatism represented a challenge to the then-stringent secularism of Turkey’s political order. In 1998, he was removed from office and imprisoned on the pretext that he had recited lines by a beloved national poet which invoked militant Islamic imagery, an act found to violate a ban on inciting religious hatred. These events, however, only ended up increasing Erdoğan’s popularity, and he made a resounding comeback when his newly established AKP arrived at the helm of national government in 2002. [End Page 28]

The CHP, which emerged as the primary opposition party, did little to address the voter concerns that had pulled the electorate toward the AKP. Instead, it channeled its energy into personal attacks against Erdoğan and dismissive critiques of his religious-conservative electorate.12 Whatever the legitimacy of the opposition’s concerns, this response fit neatly into populism’s polarizing playbook. It allowed Erdoğan to drive a wedge between the CHP and much of the electorate by presenting the opposition party as an assemblage of contemptuous “elites” who looked down on the people and their true leader. This image became ever harder to cast off as the AKP expanded its control over the national media and virtually all state institutions,13 leaving the opposition to decry Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism within the walls of its own echo chamber.

This dynamic culminated in the Turkish presidential election of 24 June 2018. One year prior to the vote, Erdoğan had narrowly won a constitutional referendum that replaced Turkey’s parliamentary system with a presidential one, which meant that the new president would enjoy broad and largely unchecked powers. Preparing for what seemed like an all-or-nothing race to save the Republic, the CHP opted for a famously pugnacious candidate, Muharrem İnce. The result was an aggressive campaign in which İnce struggled to maintain focus on his own governance program and was instead drawn into constant clashes with Erdoğan. İnce portrayed his opponent as “the real elitist” and regularly mocked the Turkish president for drinking unaffordable “white tea” in his presidential palace.14 The approach certainly succeeded in mobilizing the opposition: At one of İnce’s last rallies in the CHP stronghold of İzmir, more than two-million people reportedly turned up. Yet İnce’s combative tone and the widely shared images of his mass rallies also seemed to galvanize Erdoğan’s base and to drive socially conservative fence-sitters into the arms of the AKP. When the results were counted, it became clear that the political poles had remained intact. Erdoğan took 52.6 percent of the vote and İnce 30.6 percent; İnce had attracted almost no support from within the AKP base.15

Ahead of the 2019 local elections, the CHP deliberately took a very different approach. The party systematically outlined its new strategy in The Book of Radical Love, which it distributed to local CHP activists across the country. The author of the booklet, Ateş İlyas Başsoy, wrote a much-debated critique of the CHP’s electoral tactics as early as 2011, but he was only invited to become a party strategist several months after İnce’s 2018 defeat. In an interview with one of this article’s authors, Başsoy emphasized that his political strategy is tied to his understanding of technology’s impact on contemporary social life.16 In his view, attachment to smartphones and immersion in social media have so drastically impaired our attention spans and our ability to engage in face-to-face communication that society is pervaded by [End Page 29]


No one thought that Turkey’s ruling party could be beaten. What follows is a conversation with Ateş İlyas Başsoy, the man who devised the blueprint that did just that. Excerpts:

Q: Can you tell me about your inspiration for The Book of Radical Love?

Daniel Kahneman had a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow and I read it. It’s definitely a foundational work. Later I began to reflect on the changes that have occurred more rapidly than ever. In the last twenty years things have been done more rapidly than in the entire history of humanity. Yet, at the same time, humans still grow up in the same way. The human baby is still a baby in the same way.

Human evolution cannot catch up with this sociological evolution. Yet there where we foundationally resemble one another, it is actually the differences that win. We so easily hate things. We like [things] easily. It’s a world of like and dislike. I call this the expanse of shallowness. Within this extraordinary shallow world, people emerge who would direct these small feelings, like an orchestra conductor.

Everyone is overwhelmed with moments, all people are too busy with instant things. We are living in the moments. … In a society in which everything can be changed and decided in seconds, we have several feelings that we hold onto. These feelings are, fear, [and] as a result of this fear, obedience, worshipping the father and being brought under his wings. … We always have a circle of fear against those on the outside. People think: “These secular people will kill us,” “they are atheists,” “they are infidels.” “They are Christian.” “They are Jewish and have top-secret organizations that assassinate people.” … And meanwhile, leaders who … use our fears well shine out.

What can you do in this case? We must organize love against evil. Love is a different feeling, just like fear. Against the ideology saying, “There are evil people out there,” being able to say, “There are actually a lot of good people out there,” is a way of fighting as well. If we are going to fight, we must do it with flowers.

Q: So you are emphasizing emotions in your understanding of populism?

Because it’s an empire of emotions. I mean, some, if not all, of people are without politics. Not apolitical, but without politics. These emotions are also outside politics. In my first book, I wrote “70–75 percent of Turkey decides in a political way. However, 25 percent decide on reasons other than politics. And whichever side has that 25 percent, wins.” [End Page 30]

Why do we lose? … What is the mistake in our behavior? The mistake is that we have insulted the people who believed these false dreams, we attacked them. And we branded the people who love these people as ignorant, stupid, deluded masses.

The one-line summary of Marxism is “Unite!” We are searching for new ways to unite. We are trying to find a way for the poor to bring them together again in this chaotic world, while [the populists] divide them through race, ethnicity, gender, etc. We are not dismissing these differences. We accept these differences as our richness, but the moment these differences set us up against each other, we state that this is harmful and try to find new commonalities.

I am using love as an instrument. I am not reconciled with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Don’t misunderstand me. I am trying to overcome Erdoğan. What I am saying is “If you want to defeat him, you need to ignore him.” The “love” here is a means of struggle. If you want to defeat these guys, ignore them and love those people who love them.

Q: Can Radical Love be exported to other political contexts?

I think it can be exported, but everything changes according to local contexts. What we did in Istanbul and what we did in Ankara was different. In İzmir, it took another form as well. We are developing a strategy against the politics of fear that I believe can be applied everywhere in the world. But it would work differently in different contexts.

They used to presume that I was crazy. But after our success … [He smiles.] Ten years ago I was saying this as well, but nobody listened. Because it sounded naïve to them. I use a language that can reach people without politics.

—Interview conducted and translated by Melvyn Ingleby

a sense of restless loneliness and anxiety. The political consequences of this development are manifest in the current surge in populist polarization, which relies on strategies of distraction and disorientation, takes advantage of citizens’ emotional isolation to sow division, and presents a strong leader as the answer to the resultant hunger for security and stability.

To counter these dynamics, The Book of Radical Love offers a list of practical tips aimed at helping readers to communicate in more patient and sustainable ways. Başsoy’s text, complete with references to Sufi poetry that give the fifty-page booklet the feel of a spiritual treatise, advises campaigners to avoid attacking Erdoğan, insulting his supporters, or becoming entrapped in ideological debates; instead, they should keep an open mind. In short, CHP activists are enjoined to talk less and listen [End Page 31] more. The booklet’s core message on how to undercut the logic of populism can be summed up in two key principles. First, opponents should defuse polarization by ignoring the populist while loving his supporters; and, second, they should demonstrate their responsiveness to voters by avoiding debates about high politics and focusing instead on voters’ felt needs and concerns.

Defusing Polarization

These principles were clearly reflected in İmamoğlu’s campaign for Istanbul mayor. The CHP booklet warns against attacking the populist: “If we start the conversation by insulting the party that others vote for or their leader, nothing we say later will have any effect. Don’t badmouth other political leaders. Instead, exclude them from your conversations altogether.”17 İmamoğlu seems to have followed this advice. In his recorded speeches between May 16 and the June 23 election rerun, we found only two instances in which the opposition candidate used Erdoğan’s name. In the first case, he was responding to Erdoğan’s suggestion that İmamoğlu could still be kept from office even if he won the second balloting. Despite these circumstances, İmamoğlu addressed the president using a form of address (Sayın) that emphasizes respect. The second instance came during İmamoğlu’s victory speech, when he expressed his wish to work together with Erdoğan in order to deliver the best possible service to Istanbul’s citizens, regardless of their political affiliation.18

A similar picture arises from İmamoğlu’s social-media activity. In his postings on Twitter during the abovementioned period, the CHP candidate did not refer to Erdoğan at all. He mentioned his opponent Yıldırım only three times, again always using a respectful form of address. This stands in stark contrast to the language of İnce, who constantly attacked Erdoğan in his speeches, addressed the president with the informal “you” (sen), and mocked him on Twitter over trivialities such as his use of a teleprompter.19 The consequences of these divergent approaches were clear. While the AKP could easily maintain its ranks against İnce by fitting him into the classic populist dichotomy that pits a haughty “elite” against the victimized “people,” it struggled to do the same with İmamoğlu. Progovernment media outlets tried to smear the mayoral candidate as a terrorist sympathizer or an undercover Greek, but as İmamoğlu kept turning the other cheek, the attacks failed to resonate with the public. When the opposition refused to take the bait, populist attempts to stoke polarization proved ineffective. Clearly, then, it takes two to polarize.

Ignoring populist leaders also makes it easier to embrace their supporters. After all, when opposition actors are focused on responding to the populist’s every move, they often end up projecting their disdain [End Page 32] for his crude rhetoric or moral misconduct onto his supporters as well. This tends to foster derogatory and patronizing assumptions about the large and diverse group of populist voters, who are often lumped together and derided for their lack of enlightenment and education or, in the Turkish context, their “religious backwardness” (irtica). To avert the polarizing effects that such attitudes produce, The Book of Radical Love repeatedly urges campaigners to respect everyone’s identity or religious beliefs and to avoid arrogance at all costs. “Every person is wise,” the document reads: “How lucky for us that a shepherd in the mountains has the same right to vote as a professor. … If we’ve lived in better conditions than a fellow citizen, this should only increase our humility, not our pride.”20

Throughout his mayoral campaign, İmamoğlu made gestures of outreach, respect, and humility. Much to the disapproval of the staunchly secularist factions within the CHP, he regularly signaled respect for religious values by attending Friday prayers and joining local iftar meals during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The CHP candidate also toured the streets and homes of working-class Istanbul neighborhoods whose residents have traditionally voted for the AKP. There he spoke face-to-face with voters, many of whom had never considered voting for the CHP and did not hesitate to express their frustration with the party. In these exchanges, as in his public speeches, İmamoğlu emphasized that he harbored no antipathy toward AKP voters and would strive to serve all citizens of Istanbul regardless of their political affiliation, lifestyle, or socioeconomic background. In an interview, İmamoğlu argued that effective politicians must be able to adapt their message to their audience. “I want to be a person who can touch everyone,” he stressed. “This prevents you from being seen as elitist. On the contrary, it makes you a man of the people.”21

Serving the People

The task of deflating polarization leads naturally into the second aim of “Radical Love”: demonstrating vertical accountability to voters. In order for voters to be receptive to alternative policy proposals, they must first feel that they are no longer being patronized or dismissed by the opposition. By being inclusive toward all voters regardless of their support for the populist, the opposition can undercut the populist’s claim to be the sole incarnation of the people’s will. When the opposition eschews combativeness and focuses instead on responding to voters’ expressed concerns, this defangs populist polarization tactics such as branding opposition members as “traitors” or “enemies of the nation.” Instead of playing into polarization, the opposition can show that it is ready to meet the democratic demand for vertical accountability—not by dismantling horizontal-accountability institutions, as populists [End Page 33] do, but by demonstrating responsiveness to concrete demands that are shared by voters from different backgrounds and across party lines. As the CHP manual notes: “Politics divides people, but people have many common concerns outside of politics.”22

This focus on responsiveness explains why the CHP’s campaign strategy urged campaigners to steer clear of high politics and to focus instead on questions of local service provision: ensuring affordable housing, keeping the streets safe, or simply picking up the trash. “We are striving to find solutions to our citizens’ problems, not to propagate general political views,” the manual stresses. In contrast, “When [the] CHP voters forget about the local elections and start to publicly discuss general political issues, the depoliticized AKP voter will withdraw.”23 This insight is often lost upon opposition actors who are caught up in their own dismay at the populist’s behavior. When a populist leader has weakened and coopted state institutions, persecuted dissenting voices, and stifled the critical press, an opposition that has suffered as a result is tempted to believe these are the issues that preoccupy most voters. This assumption seems to have shaped the CHP’s manifesto for the 2018 presidential campaign, which focused heavily on constitutional and balance-of-power issues but did not bring up the economy until page 52.24 Many average citizens, especially those within the populist’s electoral base, simply do not count topics such as the persecution of “elite” intellectuals and journalists or the erosion of judicial independence among their most pressing day-today concerns.

İmamoğlu’s campaign thus highlighted his capacity to solve citizens’ daily problems, a hands-on approach summed up in his slogan during the first mayoral race: “If there is İmamoğlu, there is a solution” (İmamoğlu varsa çözüm var). To be sure, İmamoğlu’s second campaign called attention to the unjust cancellation of his first election victory, but his messaging presented this act as a direct assault on the will of the people rather than as part of a more technical narrative about the gradual destruction of Turkey’s democratic institutions. In this way, İmamoğlu once again prioritized the theme of vertical accountability over that of horizontal accountability, thereby undercutting the populist’s claim exclusively to embody the former. A focus on vertical accountability was also evident in the mayoral candidate’s emphasis on transparent governance: İmamoğlu’s campaign, for instance, promised to provide live [End Page 34] broadcasts of municipal-council meetings so as to allow citizens to hold their elected officials personally to account. (He followed through on this promise after being elected.)25

Most of all, however, İmamoğlu signaled his responsiveness to voters’ demands by focusing on the day-to-day concerns of Istanbul residents, such as urban poverty, unemployment, and the cost of education and transportation. He highlighted this responsiveness by narrating personal encounters with citizens in the streets, as in the following speech at the launch of his second campaign:

Did you know that in the last five years a million young people have dropped out of school? In the neighborhood of Bayrampaşa, I met Cebrail at the break of dawn, after the morning prayer. He told me that he dropped out of school because his family’s material condition was insufficient, so he was working as a street vendor. As an administrator of this city, I was ashamed, and I told him that I was ashamed. … After meeting Cebrail, we put our friends to work, and within three to four months my brother Cebrail had his middle-school diploma. Then I visited his home for iftar. I met his esteemed family. You will see, we will continue to stand by the Cebrails of this city!26

Much like many populists in power, İmamoğlu emphasized his vertical accountability to the people. In stark contrast to the utterances populists often make, however, İmamoğlu’s statement did not emphasize his proximity to the people by contrasting it with the carelessness of establishment elites. Instead, he highlighted his own feeling of shame as an administrator who saw injustice in his city, and he stressed the shared responsibility of all elected officials to attend to the material well-being of citizens.

The new CHP strategy thus fights populism by borrowing one element of the populist playbook—namely, the focus on resetting an unresponsive political system—while steering clear of actions that would exacerbate polarization between different groups of citizens. Insofar as this approach still rests on a distinction between those in and out of power, it frames this division not as a moral or social-identity conflict—juxtaposing the good and properly Turkish “people” against the evil and culturally detached “elites”—but rather in terms of access to economic resources. Piercing through polarization by focusing on shared economic hardship is a final theme that resonates throughout the campaign manual. As its author emphasized: “The real divide in Turkey is not between secularism and Islam or between Turks and Kurds, but between rich and poor. If you want people to break out of their echo chambers, focus on poverty.”27

Voters seem to have approved. In the June 23 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral race, İmamoğlu beat Yıldırım by roughly 800,000 votes. More significantly, election analyses suggest that the CHP’s new strategy succeeded in triggering a reconfiguration of Turkey’s political landscape. [End Page 35] On the one hand, İmamoğlu held together a very diverse opposition block, maintaining the CHP’s alliance with the rightist-nationalist İYİ Party whilst also securing votes from supporters of the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Even more significantly, İmamoğlu managed to destabilize the base of his populist opponent: He gained the votes of nearly 4 percent of Istanbul residents who had supported the AKP in the June 2018 general election, and he won over more than half of those who had backed the AKP’s disgruntled coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).28

While the Istanbul race has drawn the greatest attention, the 2019 local elections saw a change in the CHP’s fortunes nationwide. The party made dramatic gains in other key cities previously held by the AKP or its coalition partner, including Ankara, Adana, and Antalya, and even in more conservative Anatolian districts such as Bilecik. This shift owed much to the efforts of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who became the CHP’s party leader in 2010 and embarked on a long process of internal reforms. While Kılıçdaroğlu is often scorned for being “too soft” on Erdoğan or for disregarding the CHP’s secularist identity, his more inclusive and social-democratic course laid the groundwork for İmamoğlu’s depolarizing campaign.

In an interview with one of the authors, Kılıçdaroğlu confirmed that depolarization has been his “main goal” since he became party leader. He stressed that Erdoğan can be defeated only if the opposition actively reaches out to the AKP leader’s base. This explains why Kılıçdaroğlu has generally avoided organizing large CHP rallies. In his words, “only our own party’s supporters come to such rallies. We hang out, I give a speech, everyone shouts a slogan, and then at night everyone goes home again. Everyone’s happy, but we have not reached out to those who don’t vote for us.”29 Instead, Kılıçdaroğlu has long experimented with campaign tactics close to those outlined in The Book of Radical Love, including regular face-to-face meetings with voter groups that are generally unlikely to support the CHP, such as Kurds and religious conservatives. The CHP leader pursued this path despite fierce criticism from within his own party. His example suggests that “Radical Love”—like the fight for democracy itself—is not a short race to electoral victory, but rather a strenuous marathon down the road to real political change.

The Populist Trap

Turkey’s CHP has devised a strategy that appears to have proven at least somewhat effective at challenging the populist leader of a competitive authoritarian regime. This is not to argue that a “Radical Love” approach—one that employs depolarizing tactics to undercut the populist’s support—will work in every case. This strategy was not the only [End Page 36] factor at play in Turkey’s 2019 election: An economic downturn worked against the incumbent party and made it easier for the opposition to gain momentum. And we are not claiming that this approach is the only way to beat a populist. Nonetheless, its success despite considerable odds makes it worthy of closer attention.

International experience has shown that continuing with “politics as usual” or fighting polarizing populism with polarizing populism only confirms the sense among voters that politics is a zero-sum game. It keeps active the lines of animosity drawn by populist leaders, meaning that such leaders can once again rally their supporters around these divisions in future campaigns. By contrast, “Radical Love” is premised on the idea that the opposition wins by reaching out to populist supporters and breaking down the morally charged, “us versus them” framework that undergirds polarization.

Those who would adopt political approaches of the sort chosen by the CHP in the 2019 elections face some serious challenges. One of these is intraparty resistance. As mentioned above, from 2010 onward, Kılıçdaroğlu has more or less consistently tried to steer the CHP toward a path closer to “Radical Love” than the one it had traveled since 2002. In 2011, when the CHP ran its first electoral campaign under Kılıçdaroğlu’s leadership, he pushed for inclusive rhetoric, a focus on the everyday concerns of voters, and a shift away from confrontation. Yet until the 2019 local elections, such efforts were undermined by dissenting factions within the party, with many of the old guard and factional leaders such as İnce criticizing Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach as too soft. It is not easy for opposition campaigns to hold to the depolarizing path in the heat of political battle against a populist leader who is trampling both political norms and the rights of his opponents. Even after the CHP’s impressive successes in 2019, there remain many within the party who have little fondness for the “Radical Love” approach and seek to downplay its effectiveness. Bringing a large party comprising multiple factions on board with such an approach in a polarized environment is a feat in itself.

A second major test for the preachers of “Radical Love” is putting their philosophy into practice after they win the chance to govern. Even if the CHP succeeds in uniting its own factions around an agenda of inclusive and efficient municipal governance, it still faces an entrenched ruling party with the motive and the means to sabotage this effort. Over the first few months of İmamoğlu’s tenure as mayor, the council meetings of Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality have been regularly obstructed by AKP district mayors. Taking advantage of their majority within the council, these AKP representatives veto Imamoğlu’s proposals and deliberately slow down the decision-making process. The AKP has also leveraged its control over the nepotistic networks that underlie much of the Turkish economy to undermine İmamoğlu’s financial position; this became clear when major Turkish businesses suddenly stopped purchasing [End Page 37] the metropolitan municipality’s brand of bottled water shortly after İmamoğlu took office.30 Finally, the ubiquitous progovernment media have charged the new mayor with every possible fault, from unethical hiring practices and poor timing of his vacations to cavorting with persons linked to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism. The latter accusation was leveled by Erdoğan himself after İmamoğlu publically protested the removal of mayors representing the pro-Kurdish HDP in several southeastern cities.31 If these attempts at obstruction persist—and it is extremely likely that they will—İmamoğlu will struggle to deliver on his key campaign promise of efficient and accountable day-to-day governance.

Similar scenarios are likely to arise in other countries where opposition parties have scored victories against populists in power—for instance in Hungary, where united opposition candidate Gergely Karácsony was elected mayor of Budapest in October 2019. In Malaysia in 2018, the opposition Alliance of Hope unseated the United Malays National Organization, which had governed for more than six decades. Much like the CHP the following year, the Alliance campaigned on inclusion, rapprochement with political rivals, and everyday governance issues salient to a broad majority of Malaysian citizens—a marked switch from the confrontational style and emphasis on high politics evident in previous elections.32 Yet even in Malaysia, where the opposition managed to gain control on the national level, the victorious coalition has faced struggles that underscore the difficulty of governing in opposition to the established political status quo.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that, although the CHP’s campaign strategy seems to have merit as a response to polarizing populists in power, it is not a sustainable political ideology. Like populism, “Radical Love” is a “thin-centered ideology” and does not supply substantive principles around which to build an enduring political party or movement. It is an approach based on acknowledging that all was not well with the political status quo that existed prior to populist rule, leading many voters to feel that their government had lost its vertical accountability. While “Radical Love” may offer an escape from the populist trap, it creates expectations that responsive and responsible governance will follow. Rebuilding democracy, moreover, will require restoring legitimacy not just for one party, but for the whole system. This is an onerous task, and it remains to be seen whether the depolarizing effect of “Radical Love” strategies can outlast the campaign period, reset the lines of political debate, and keep populist polarization from reemerging at a later stage. In this regard, history gives reason for caution, particularly if we consider that İmamoğlu’s inclusive and hands-on campaign in many ways resembles the strategy of another former Istanbul mayor once hailed as a social and political bridge-builder: Erdoğan himself. [End Page 38]



1. “Son dakika … Ekrem İmamoğglu’ndan YSK kararı sonrası açıklama” [Breaking news … Ekrem İmamoğglu’s statement following the YSK decision], Habertürk, 6 May 2019,

2. Takis S. Pappas, “Populists in Power,” Journal of Democracy 30 (April 2019): 70–84.

3. CHP, Radikal Sevgi Kitabı [The Book of Radical Love] (Derman Belediyeciliğgi, 2019), accessible at See also Nick Ashdown, “‘Radical Love Book’ Hailed as Key to Turkish Opposition Election Success,” Middle East Eye, 11 April 2019,

4. This could be seen as an example of what David Snow et al. term “frame amplification.” See “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation,” American Sociological Review 51 (August 1986): 469–72.

5. Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39 (Autumn 2004): 543–44.

6. Guillermo O’Donnell, “Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 9 (July 1998): 112–23.

7. Berk Esen and Şebnem Yardımcı-Geyikçi, “An Alternative Account of the Populist Backlash in the United States: A Perspective from Turkey,” PS: Political Science & Politics 52 (July 2019): 445–50.

8. Juan J. Linz, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown & Reequilibration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

9. Cf. Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

10. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 92.

11. Müller, What Is Populism? 43.

12. F. Michael Wuthrich, National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics, and the Party System (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2015), 217–19.

13. Berk Esen and Sebnem Gumuscu, “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581–1606; Ergun Özbudun, “Turkey’s Judiciary and the Drift Toward Competitive Authoritarianism,” International Spectator 50, no. 2 (2015): 42–55.

14. “Muharrem İnce İstanbul’da konuştu: ‘Rakibim Beyaz Türk'” [Muharrem İnce speaks in Istanbul: “My rival is a White Turk”] CNN Türk, 10 June 2018,

15. Konda, Temmuz’18 Barometresı [July ’18 Barometer], 34,

16. Ateş İlyas Başsoy, interview by Melvyn Ingleby, Istanbul, 13 May 2019.

17. Book of Radical Love, 43.

18. The CHP provided us with a daily log of İmamoğlu’s campaign speeches. For the first case, see “İmamoğlu: ‘Sayıştay’da işçisine hakkı olanı verdiğgim için yargılanıyorum'” [İmamoğlu: “I am on trial in the Court of Accounts for giving workers their rights”], Haberler, 20 June 2019,; for the second, “Yeni başlangıç hayırlı olsun” [May the new beginning be for the best], Hürriyet, 24 June 2019,

20. Book of Radical Love, 30–31.

21. Ekrem İmamoğlu, interview by Melvyn Ingleby, Istanbul, 21 May 2019. Also cited in Ingleby, “A Turkish Opposition Leader Is Fighting Erdoğan With ‘Radical Love,'” Atlantic, 14 June 2019,

22. Book of Radical Love, 22.

23. Book of Radical Love, 34–35.

24. The CHP’s 2018 manifesto can be found at

25. See for instance footage from an 8 July 2019 session at

26. “İstanbul seçimleri: Ekrem İmamoğlu seçim kampanyasını açıkladı” [Istanbul elections: Ekrem İmamoğlu announces election campaign], Haberturk Video, 22 May 2019,, at 12:35–13:45.

27. Başsoy, interview by Ingleby. See also Ingleby, “A Turkish Opposition Leader.”

28. Konda, 23 Haziran 2019 sandık analizi ve seçmen profilleri [23 June 2019 ballot analysis and voter profiles], July 2019, 18–19,

29. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, interview by Melvyn Ingleby, Ankara, 29 August 2019.

30. “Affiliate of Turkish Airlines Terminates Contract with Water Brand of İstanbul Municipality,” bianet, 1 October 2019,

31. Dorian Jones, “Crisis Looms as Erdogan Targets Istanbul Mayor,” Voice of America, 2 September 2019.

32. Anwar Ibrahim, “Confronting Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 30 (April 2019): 5–14.


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