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Is Polarization Turkey ’s Fate ?

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Emre Erdogan, TurkuazLab Scientific Coordinator evaluated the outputs of the elite survey and working group meeting held within the scope of the Strategies and Tools for Mitigating Polarization in Turkey Project

Strategies and Tools for Mitigating Polarization Project aims to raise awareness in Turkish society about polarization and the harm it is doing and to equip Turkish civil society, academia, media, and political parties with strategies and tools for mitigating polarization to contribute to a new ecosystem in Turkey with the prevalence of human rights, social harmony, and respect to others.For further information, link to the project website: https://www.turkuazlab.org/en/home/

Recent developments indicate that political polarization, which is a key problem in Turkey, might replace populism as the next political pandemic. Within the context of the project on Strategies and Tools for Mitigating Polarization in Turkey, the German Marshall of the United States and Istanbul Bilgi University recently undertook a study and held a virtual workshop with leading scholars to discuss the roots of polarization and strategies for mitigating it.

There are different types and definitions of polarization. While, in fact, some experts claim it does not exist at all, others perceive it as a healthy reaction of a “political immune system.” Political polarization is best observed at the elite level: In the United States, for example, disagreement and ideological distance between politicians has increased significantly over the last forty years. At the same time, an increase in ideological distance and the emergence of bimodal distribution across a liberal-conservative axis are also observed in the electorate.

The latest presidential election show that the old phenomenon of political-geographic segregation is still relevant—supporters of different political parties live in different neighborhoods. However, the new type of polarization has an affective component: they also dislike each other; they do not want to live altogether; and they feel morally superior to one another. These symptoms, labeled as “political sectarianism” or “political tribalism,” dominate the political agenda and poison democracies everywhere by making a healthy dialogue almost impossible.

The election of Joe Biden has raised hope for a solution to polarization in the United States. He won by building a diverse race-class-gender coalition. However, we should not expect a quick fix. Key political institutions such as the rule of law and electoral administration, which enable the peaceful coexistence of different parties, lost credibility during the Trump era. Addressing this requires specific policies rather than rhetoric.

Turkey—like the United States, the United KingdomHungary, and Venezuela—is a textbook example of affective polarization. A 2017 survey by İstanbul Bilgi University Migration Research Center, conducted with support from GMF’s Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, highlighted that Turkish citizens do not share a common reality. They live in echo-chambers where they listen to affirmative views and filter out other voices that may challenge their beliefs.

No Shortage of Policies

The aforementioned GMF-Bilgi University study and workshop focused on the reasons for and solutions to affective polarization. Although participants focused on Turkey as a case study, many policy proposals may be valid in global and cross-national contexts.

The policy proposals to which the participants attributed the highest importance were usually those that required structural change, which in turn may require political change. The undermining of the separation of powers and consolidation of power were identified as the main culprits, and strengthening judicial independence was identified as the most important step toward mitigating polarization. Strengthening the culture of checks and balances was also proposed.

Another structural policy proposed by the experts was reducing socioeconomic inequality and enabling a strong welfare state. Income inequality is relatively high in Turkey, and recent political and economic fluctuations have erased the gains of the growth periods of the early 2000s. The income gap has increased between western and eastern Turkey, men and women, and rentiers and villagers.

Following the recent change in political system, power in Turkey is more consolidated in the presidency. Meanwhile, judicial independence and checks and balances have weakened further. Strengthening judicial independence as well as checks and balances, and dealing with socioeconomic inequality, would go a long way in mitigating polarization. The experts also agreed that these changes are not achievable by civil society, but rather by a parliamentary majority or the executive.

The experts devised a set of policy proposals to create a more liberal and diverse information environment: promoting media freedom, supporting independent and unbiased media institutions, and strengthening freedom of expression, including through social media. When individuals can access diverse and uncensored information, it is possible to overcome echo-chambers. Even if the lack of independent and unbiased media is not the sole reason for these, free media institutions cannot survive without guaranteeing free speech and sustainability.

In terms of press freedom, Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries, according to Reporters without Borders, and very high in social media censorship. Therefore, improvements in these areas could play a very significant role in mitigating polarization. Moreover, it is possible to push for a more diverse and independent information environment, even against the will of the political authority, through the participation of citizens and the collaboration of international and supranational actors. Globalization and the rise of the information society can contribute to this effort as information—and, unfortunately, misinformation—travels faster than just about anything else in the world.

While the interventions to mitigate polarization mentioned so far are at the political level, a bottom-up approach based on action at the individual level may have a bigger impact in the long run.  Emphasizing and investing heavily in liberal education and critical thinking at every level is one such policy, as the lack of critical thinking is one of the most important sources of echo-chambers. Hence, programs targeting critical-thinking capability are becoming more common in contemporary education systems. Unfortunately, the Turkish education system is not known for training students in critical thinking—the country ranks 134th out of 141 according to the Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum. The result is not only echo-chambers but also susceptibility to disinformation and conspiracy theories.

Even without an overhaul of the Turkish education system, improvements in critical thinking can be achieved. It is now possible to develop online training programs and disseminate them through distant learning. Another development could be creating open spaces for interaction among diverse “political tribes” in a society. Affective political polarization leads to the dehumanization of one’s political other and interaction helps rehumanize that other. Practices such as empathy circles may be mainstreamed and virtual contact may be helpful in the absence of direct physical contact due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, such activities are rare in Turkey, which could be addressed with cooperation of civil society as well as of international and transnational institutions.

Another group of policies suggested by the experts aimed at strengthening non-governmental organizations. Establishing fact-checking and accurate information-dissemination mechanisms or supporting those that already exist could be a solution to the problem of disinformation and misinformation. Although the number of reputable fact-checking institutions is increasing steadily, only a small minority of citizens has awareness of or access to them. Civil society campaigns can raise awareness about these institutions and support them financially. Turkey has several fact-checking organizations—some of which are doing a very good job. However, the habit of referring to them has yet not developed in the country.

Raising awareness among opinion leaders at the local and national level about polarizing discourse and practices would be also be an important contribution. Such an effort could trigger an interest in the topic of polarization and willingness to act to mitigate it. The experts underlined the importance of developing new decision-making processes, such as deliberative polling and empowering city councils as participatory mechanisms.

Since Turkey has a very centralized government system, local government bodies are relatively weak. However, since there is a winner-takes-all system at the national level, local government is the only platform where opposition parties can have an impact. Moreover, city councils are structured in a way that they could play a significant role in policymaking at the local level if they have the will to do so. Therefore, city councils, particularly those that have diversity in their governance structure, can play an important role in mitigating polarization.

While polarization in Turkey is deep, widespread, and persistent, it is not the country’s fate. As summarized here there are several policies that could lead to mitigating it. Some are structural changes that require willful effort by the government; others are interventions at the individual level and within reach of civil society actors regardless of the government’s position. Increased awareness of the public on polarization and deeper understanding of civil society actors as well as policymakers on what causes polarization and how to mitigate it are needed to bring these policy proposals to life.

Prof. Emre Erdoğan is the Head of the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. With a doctoral degree in Political Science from Boğaziçi University, he has served as researcher and senior consultant in various projects in academia and civil society. His research focuses on political participation, foreign policy and public opinion, child and youth well-being, methodology and statistics. He extensively studies and publishes about youth in Turkey, integration of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey, othering, polarization and populism.

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