Polarisation puts democracy in jeopardy

Die Istiklal-Straße in Istanbul
Turkey is deeply divided. Here, people on Istiklal Street in Istanbul (image: Emre Eser/DW)

In its 100th anniversary year, the Republic of Turkey is deeply divided. Profound societal rifts are apparent everywhere. Yet there are initiatives working to bring people from different social groups and backgrounds together

By Ceyda Nurtsch

Ever since the close outcome of the country's presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2023, there has been no doubt: Turkey is a deeply divided nation. Yet the rifts don't just run between secularists and supporters of laicism, between President Erdogan's followers and his AKP, which has determined the fate of the country for the past 20 years, and his opponents. 

One hundred years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the entire fabric of society and everyday life is riven with yawning chasms. They divide people on the coast from those living in the interior, Turkey's urbanites from its country folk. People are not only separated according to their educational backgrounds, but also along ethnic, religious and confessional lines.

Research conducted by Bilgi University demonstrates the extent of this general mistrust between the various societal groups. The surveys, conducted in 2015, 2017 and 2020, paint a sad picture: the majority of respondents from different backgrounds rejected "the others" as neighbours or playmates for their children, fostered a sense of their own moral superiority and were happy to exist in their personal social media echo chambers. 

A woman waves a flag in Istanbul during a demonstration against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention
Women in Istanbul protest against Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (image: Emrah Gurel/AP/picture alliance)

Polarisation harms democracy

One of the people involved in the surveys was social and political scientist Professor Emre Erdogan. Together with Professor Pınar Uyan Semirci, he is co-founder of TurkuazLab, a project aiming to counteract polarisation within society. As an open-source library with online courses, TurkuazLab sets out to empower people in the face of widespread disinformation and societal polarisation.

"The response we were still getting in 2015 was: 'There is no polarisation in Turkey'," says Emre Erdogan. "We had to emphasise again and again that it's not about having divergent opinions or a political spectrum. Rather, the problem we're increasingly facing is that support for a political party becomes an identity and leads people to judge each other. That's why today, we talk about political and emotional polarisation," says the social scientist.

More recently, acceptance has grown that society is polarised and that this is harming democracy, he continues. "But what we've not yet achieved is a change in the perception that polarisation is always something that only emanates from 'the others'. We have yet to accept that we're all in this together," says Erdogan.

Finding common ground

Meanwhile the UN has identified polarisation as a global problem. Exchange and scientific cooperation with other institutions has at least increased in recent years, says Erdogan. But Turkey still has a long way to go.

After all, polarisation can end up determining people's everyday lives. Take questions such as: To whom shall I rent my flat? Who is my child allowed to play with? Media and social media also benefit from this culture war, which yields either clicks or invitations to TV programmes. "It's virtually impossible for politicians to make the problem a priority because they too benefit from it. At the same time, while the population may not generally see this as a pressing issue, it is the people who are repeatedly being instrumentalised," says Erdogan.

But if individuals are to question their behaviour and thought patterns, it is necessary – alongside long-term structural change, such as the strengthening of NGOs, civil society and independent media – to promote commonality at a macro social level, he continues. In district or school councils for example, or virtual spaces.

"The most important thing is to create common ground," explains Erdogan. "Everywhere in Turkey, people withdraw to their neighbourhoods. This means fewer points of contact and increasing polarisation. It's only when people meet that they realise how similar they are. These rifts aren't natural. It's crucial people understand that," says Erdogan.

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Recognising what unites people

One initiative working specifically to bring people together is BAYETAV. Sociologist Ferhat Kentel co-manages the Coexistence[NC1] , Education and Social Research Foundation, established in Izmir in 2020.

"We know: the more we facilitate encounters, the more people don't just see what sets them apart. They recognise what unites them, their shared worries, joys and the possibilities of coexistence," Kentel also confirms. 

The foundation runs a broad-brush programme that includes work in schools, lecture series on topics currently pertinent to society, sociological research, social and art projects and exhibitions.

Coexistence despite the differences

The foundation's aim is to encourage people to look beyond existing cultural-political identity constructs and the differences exploited by politics and recognise that in areas such as the environment, social class, women and young people, they share common ground and could thereby develop the potential for coexistence.

Kentel is also aware that fear is one of the reasons why people withdraw. "Many people carry emotional wounds because of something they've experienced due to their ethnicity, religion, class or gender. Historic, economic, cultural, political or, in the broadest sense, social reasons prevented them from overcoming their fears, as new wounds and fears emerged. It's normal that these people feel insecure about themselves and others," he says.

Through its activities, the foundation wants to remind people of what connects them and develop this further. One of its guiding principles is: "Coexistence without renouncing our differences, equality, justice and freedom".

As Turkey, still in the grip of vociferous nationwide disaffection, moves ever closer to regional elections in March 2024, the people behind this initiative are convinced their efforts are worthwhile. "After all, the struggle of those who emphasise people's commonalities and promote trust is stronger than the focus on fear and insecurity and the power that feeds on that," says Kentel.

Ceyda Nurtsch

© Qantara.de 2023

Translated from the German by Nina Coon