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[EWB Interview] Somer: Overcoming harmful political polarization requires genuinely reformist politics

Political polarization is a part of each democracy. But once a single, “Us versus Them” division becomes predominant and overshadows other ties, it begins to harm it. This type of harmful, pernicious polarization is becoming increasingly prominent across the world, and its root is the unresponsiveness of the current political systems to the needs of many people. In order to overcome it, truly reformist politics is needed – but this is by no means easy to achieve.

These are some of the conclusions of Murat Somer, professor of Political Science and International Relations at Ozyegin University in Istanbul. Among other issues, he specializes in political polarization and its connection with democratic backsliding. European Western Balkans talked with professor Somer in Belgrade, where he recently delivered several lectures on these topics.

In the interview, we also focused on the current situation in Turkey regarding polarization and the state of democracy, as well as the question of which strategies the opposition should use to challenge an authoritarian.

European Western Balkans: In your work, you focus on political polarization and you are a co-author of the concept of “pernicious polarization”. Can you explain what this concept implies and why it is harmful to democracy?

Murat Somer: There are many concepts of polarization and it is often confused with conflict. But not every conflict is polarization. There are many conflicts in all societies, and because of this people have a relationship with parties or groups, in order to represent their interests and identities in these conflicts. Sometimes, these conflicts also produce polarization, where we have to choose between two exclusive, either-or camps. There is no other option, as in a referendum, and this may lead to a polarized, tense relationship or rivalry between groups.

However, conflicts and polarized conflicts are also part and parcel of democracy. This is something a democracy should not only have – in order to present meaningful alternatives to people – but also be able to process. We want differences to express themselves and these differences to produce alternative paths so that we can sort them out and find solutions.

When does polarization begin to harm democracy? People who are polarized over one conflict usually have many different cross-cutting ties. For example, we can be polarized and argue over economic policy, but we may share a profession, we may support the same soccer team or we may both come from the same city. These cross-cutting ties moderate the conflict. We are rivals, we have a conflict to resolve, but we are not enemies.

Pernicious polarization begins when the cross-cutting ties become overshadowed and irrelevant. We may share many things, but those no longer matter. They get emasculated by the “Us versus Them” division. This conflict that we have is the only thing that determines our attitudes and political loyalty.

Pernicious polarization begins when the cross-cutting ties become overshadowed and irrelevant.

This process is clearly harmful to democracy. Vilification of political opponents occurs, people overlook undemocratic behavior of their own group, they do not want to listen to the point of view of other groups. All kinds of negative consequences occur. Our goal has been – how can we conceptualize polarization that is normal and part and parcel of democracy, and the one that is harmful. This kind of polarization is definitely harmful. The difference more or less corresponds to the agonistic-antagonistic democracy distinction as well. We explain how and why an agonistic democracy can perniciously polarize and turn into an antagonistic one: when cross-cutting ties are politically emasculated.

EWB: And it is always caused by the agency of the politicians, it is not something spontaneous?

MS: Right, agency is key, because there is potential for this type of polarization in any society, in some more than in others. Every society has some cleavages – economic, historical or cultural — that can polarize people. But it is political will that activates and politicizes these cleavages and makes them the linchpin of politics in a way that can overshadow other ties. Here, of course, political elites play the key role, but we cannot exclude the agency of ordinary people and civil society either. Media and social media also play a role. Anyone who jumps on the bandwagon has some agency here.

EWB: There is an impression that pernicious polarization is happening more often across the world, not only in flawed democracies and hybrid regimes, but also consolidated democracies. Is this impression true, and if it is, how can we explain this phenomenon?

MS: I think it is related to some parts of democracy that are not working. It may look like everything is working properly, procedures are followed, parliament and the judiciary do their work. But underneath this appearance, there may be substantive problems in democracy, which ultimately is a way of governing where citizens, the state and elected rulers must relate to each other in a dialogical and mutually responsive way. Some democracies become unresponsive to the needs of many people. There is no mutually binding relationship between the people and the government. These people will then look for alternatives.

Some democracies become unresponsive to the needs of many people.

So, it is not a coincidence that in many countries in Western Europe, North America and Latin America, this polarization was started by anti-establishment parties and politicians. However, these parties often do not have real solutions to the problems of democracy in those countries. Once we make this observation, I think that the solution to both polarization and democracy is politics that is both genuinely reformist and democratic. Unlike anti-establishment politics that has dubious loyalties to democracy.

EWB: How can these reformist forces and politicians overcome polarization?

MS: Overcoming pernicious polarization is not easy. Once it becomes the state of equilibrium, people become locked in a certain type of behaviour. Polarizing political actors may behave very provocatively, be hostile and anti-democratic, and just trying to be moderate and de-polarizing may almost look like legitimizing their behavior. How can you respond calmly and moderately toward people with such behaviour?

History tells that polarization is often suppressed by the collapse of democracy and autocratization, revolution or a civil war. These, of course, are not solutions. The move away from polarization requires a fundamental reform process. It requires a movement that actually reforms politics and temporarily polarizes the society along a cross-cutting axis, for example, a reformist path for economic justice. It creates a new majority in favour of the reform, and if the reform is successful, this is how the country de-polarizes.

EWB: If we focus on Turkey, what is the current state of polarization and democracy in the country? It has been mentioned as one of the examples of democratic erosion in the past 20 years, but it seems that elections are still competitive, which cannot be said for some other countries, for example Russia. Can you give us an update on the state of Turkish politics?

MS: One of the questions in the literature has been whether we can put Russia and Turkey in the same basket in terms of democracy even though they have some similarities. But there are also important differences. Turkey has a long history of democracy, and that makes a difference. Both in Russia and in Turkey, elections are no longer free. However, they are still competitive in Turkey, much more competitive than in some other countries which also have unfree elections.

There are two reasons for this. Significant institutionalized local actors exist in Turkey. Opposition parties, for all their flaws, are not paper tigers. They have an ideology, history, loyal voters, organizations and institutions. Civil society is also engaged in the democratic struggle. There is also a legacy of democracy and subjective internalization and acceptance of democracy among the citizens. Here, I do not necessarily mean liberal democracy. I don’t think people are sufficiently sensitive to individual rights, human rights and freedoms. But the idea that the legitimacy of the government comes from the people’s will, that it is elected and that this is how governments come and go, this belief is very strong. That, by definition, makes elections competitive. Because, even in unfair conditions, people go to vote because they have the belief that it is possible to win.

Justice and Development Party Izmir Provincial Directorate; Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Ayratayrat

EWB: What came first in Turkey, polarization or democratic erosion?

MS: Polarization and polarizing politics came first. Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, when Turkey was already a polarized country, but not a perniciously polarized one. It was also a democratizing country, though a flawed democracy. Democratic institutions could not resolve certain important problems, such as corruption, secularism-religion division, and the Kurdish question. This created a potential for the anti-establishment agenda.

From the beginning, AKP used polarizing politics on an anti-establishment platform. They claimed to be reformists and they were. But also from the very beginning, as could be seen in rank and file party members and media they founded, they used vilifying language against the secularist establishment and everything that came before them. And that became a very powerful weapon.

They achieved two things – they consolidated a strong base from themselves, by saying “either you are with us or with the Old Turkey” and everything it represents, and they also weakened their rivals. Whenever Erdoğan confronted serious criticism, he framed the issue in a polarized, broader conflict where his rivals were evil. When the media covered corruption allegations against his party, which were well-documented in Germany, Erdoğan famouly said in 2008: “people who don’t take sides will be sidelined.”

Polarization can become a very dangerous weapon. It began to transform the society, politics, institutions, and even the party itself.

At the beginning, this had some democratizing consequences, because they were able to make some potentially democratic reforms that were opposed by strong actors such as the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. However, you can see how the polarization can become a very dangerous weapon. It began to transform the society, politics, institutions, and even the party itself. The party used to be more democratic, there were non-polarizing actors within it. But they were sidelined, and the party became more radical. So, democratic erosion happened in Turkey gradually, and it was a typical democratic erosion process. From 2004-2005 its liberal democracy ranking began to fall every single year. By 2017, one could say that democracy broke down.

But democracy has not disappeared in people’s minds. Even though they understand that the country is not governed democratically, they still follow politics, go to elections and vote. And in 2023 there was a big opportunity for the opposition to change the government democratically, but they lost. So now, there is a danger that many people may give up and stop hoping.

This is why the local elections on 31 March are very important. If opposition suffer a new defeat in the elections, especially Istanbul, I think this apathy might grow. If they win, as quite a few polls suggest, this may rekindle new hope, new opposition actors and strategies, and a transformation of the political field.

EWB: So, do you think that there is a risk, not only in Turkey but in other countries undergoing this form of gradual democratic erosion, that the point of no return might be crossed and that it becomes unimaginable that the regime loses power peacefully, through democratic means?

MS: I guess it may never become as unimaginable as a “point of no return” but people may lose hope and, worse, stop caring. Democracy can break down in two ways – explicitly or implicitly. If it does not break down explicitly, I think there is always a chance that the power can be changed democratically. Because in these cases, the government has not given up its claim on democratic legitimacy. As long as the source of the legitimacy of the government are elections, it is possible to mobilize people. It is difficult, though. We have found in our research that after ten years of democratic erosion, there have been no clear examples of reversal in the twenty-first century.

EWB: The title of your lecture at the Belgrade Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory is “Strategies Against Autocratization”. Can you tell us what those strategies are? What is the best way for the opposition, civil society and citizens who want democracy in their country to oppose authoritarianism?

MS: My co-authors and I argue that oppositions have to make a critical choice in two areas. One is the policy of polarization – will they try to be de-polarizing, or will they reciprocate with polarizing politics of their own? If they choose polarization, they should also decide between just counter-polarization and the reformist, transformative polarization I mentioned. They have to agree on that, because if they do not have a unified response, they will not be able to overcome this challenge.

The second choice is finding the right balance between normal and extraordinary politics. In democratic erosion, there is an appearance of democracy, but it actually does not work. In this case, can you only stick to normal procedures of democracy, such as working in the parliament, using the judiciary and so on, or do you need to do something extraordinary, for example a general strike, mass protest, impeachment?

But, if you use extraordinary politics, then you have to explain this to the people. Because some people will think that this is radical. And if one party uses the discourse of normal politics and the other party uses the discourse of extraordinary politics, people will say – “I don’t like the government, but at least it is clear what they are saying. Look at the opposition, they are divided, they are confused”. So, they have to agree on this new frame of politics.

Complementary reading recommendations by Professor Somer:
    •  Murat Somer and Metehan Tekinırk (2024). “Regime uncertainty, democratic erosion and resilience, and Turkish opposition actors,” Z Vgl Polit Wiss (German Journal of Comparative Politics). OnlineFirst: 1-29. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12286-024-00595-x
    • Murat Somer, Jennifer Mccoy and Russell E. Luke (2021). “Pernicious Polarization, Autocratization and  Opposition Strategies,” Democratization 28(5): 929-948.
    • Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy (2021). “Overcoming Polarization,” Journal of Democracy 32 (1): 6-21.
    • Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer (2019). “Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies: Comparative Evidence and Possible Remedies,”Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681: 234-271
    • Murat Somer (2019). “Turkey: The Slippery Slope from Reformist to Revolutionary Polarization and Democratic Breakdown” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 681 (1): 42-61.

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