Turkey’s pervasive political and social polarisation

Harsh, patriarchal and communitarian political culture and excessive chauvinism are keeping the country in deadlock.

A woman cries in the compound of a destroyed police station in Cinar, Diyarbakir
Anti-terrorism operations are provoking ethnic polarisation and strife between Turks and Kurds, writes Asimovic Akyol [AP]

While some level of polarisation is probably inevitable in every society, it seems particularly pernicious in Turkey these days. Since its founding in 1923, Turkey has been a country of sharp divisions, usually between secularist republicans and religious conservatives.

Lately, however, it is not only the political parties that have become more distant from each other, a survey shows that the country’s population has also grown alarmingly divided.

Accordingly – despite a few exceptions – the majority of citizens in Turkey now think along partisan lines on everything. Besides habitual tensions such as lifestyle differences, ideological proclivities are now spurring new tensions between citizens.

There is no single cause for this polarisation. A constellation of past and recent events – alongside long-standing divisions – contribute to enduring fault lines in the country.

Government responsibility?

The Justice and Development Party (AK party) government has won consecutive elections during its 14 years in power, while consolidating its votes and gaining ever more influence. Yet, despite all the positive transformations in Turkey during its rule, its consolidation of power has not necessarily added to society’s wellbeing.

In Turkey, a country of myriad self-righteous groups claiming absolute certainty, the only medicine can be more pluralisms of all sorts.


Scholarly opinion differs: Some argue that polarisation is “embedded in Turkish political life through military interventions, top-down institutional arrangements, the rising of identity politics and the disappearance of political centres”.

Others highlight the escalation of polarisation under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, noting that it goes back to the 2011 elections when the AK party won with a big mandate, and later has fallen into an era of corruption.

The presidential system which Erdogan wants to introduce – effectively altering the parliamentary system that is in place – continues to be another source of polarisation.

Nuray Mert, an academic and journalist, further argues that Turkish politics is now dominated by the “unfinished revolution” of the ruling AK party, which has come to see its rule as one with a “revolutionary mission”.

Moreover, following the elections in June 2015, no single party managed to secure a majority to form the government. Mert argues that the failure of the AK party and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) to form a grand coalition was a missed opportunity for Turkey to end its polarisation.

Now, polls show that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism tops the list of everyone’s concerns, but anti-terrorism operations are simultaneously provoking ethnic polarisation and strife between Turks and Kurds.

Moreover, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorism is aggravating the blame game. As the number of hostilities between different political and social groups in Turkey keeps widening, the use of alienating language by high-profile political leaders contributes to amplify the “us versus them” divisions.

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Simultaneously, the “labelling, stigmatising and demonizing trend is continuing“. Professor Serpil Sancar, the dean of Political Sciences Department of Ankara University, speaks of a proliferation of “lynch groups and gangs” on the streets.

The presence of these “agitated masses” is not only a reflection of an authoritarian state, but also of “the culture of violence, polarisation and inciting to hostility,” she says. For different reasons, the anger levels and tensions have brought Turkish society to “the borderline of insanity“.

Media and academia under pressure

Reactions to recent domestic political developments mirror how polarisation deeply divides Turkey’s social fabric. For example, Can Dundar, the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning daily Cumhuriyet, and Erdem Gul, the paper’s Ankara bureau chief, were arrested on November 26 on heavy charges, including “military espionage, helping a terrorist organisation and revealing state secrets” after they published leaked footage of Turkey’s Central Intelligence Organisation officials filmed carrying trucks-load of weapons and ammunition to an undisclosed location in northern Syria. But, while many condemned this arrest, others thought Dundar deserved it as yet another state “traitor“.

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Recently, Turks also have become split over whether Beyazit Ozturk, the popular talkshow host, spread “terrorist propaganda” when he encouraged an audience to applaud a phone guest from Diyarbakir who called for the recognition of the violent conflict that has been going on in southeast of the country between the Turkish security forces and the outlawed PKK.

Furthermore, many academics have been blamed for “terrorist propaganda” when they released a “a call for a peace manifesto” to end the hostilities in southeast Turkey, contributing to the furthering chasm between perceived nation-lovers and enemies from within.

A resident stands on the rubble of a destroyed house in the mostly-Kurdish town of Silopi in southeast Turkey [AP]
A resident stands on the rubble of a destroyed house in the mostly-Kurdish town of Silopi in southeast Turkey [AP]

When Turkey’s Ministry of National Education announced that Arabic courses would be offered to students in elementary schools starting in second grade from the next academic year, it served as another source of polarisation.

It is no longer only policy disputes that cause polarisation. Families are becoming divided over politics, and friendships are being broken.

Online debates are as toxic as offline animosities. Social media only worsens the polarisation, as others elsewhere confirm that “social media is better at breaking things than at making things.”

Ahmet Hakan, the popular columnist who was attacked outside his home by apparently pro-government thugs, complains of vitriolic messages from all sides. Most Turks have tended to see things in black or white, but now it is difficult to find any common ground with people adopting diametrically opposed positions on all sorts of issues.

Hence, the consequences are problematic and far-reaching. Drafting a new constitution will be impossible in this toxic environment of “polarisation, erosion of a common and good reference and distrust” – unless somehow the AK party manages to draft it by itself, which will probably only deepen the polarisation.


Additionally, as Cansen Basaran-Symes, the chairwoman of the Turkish Industry and Business Association, warned, escalated polarisation also threatens the investment environment. Yet, two years ago President Erdogan had blamed the previous chairman, Muharrem Yilmaz, for “treason”, for similarly warning about increasing tensions in the country.

In Turkey, a country of myriad self-righteous groups claiming absolute certainty, the only medicine can be more pluralisms. Alongside Turkish political culture – harsh, patriarchal and communitarian – excessive chauvinism will keep the country in deadlock.

Those political leaders who are willing to cooperate, to go forward with more self-control and kinder behaviour, might take Turkey out of its currently alarming impasse.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.