Dimensions of polarization in Turkey

“We are living in separate worlds where party affiliation and social identities overlap. Our identities have become so politicized that differences in political perspectives have turned into social distance, causing a psychological distance as well, among members of society,” says Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) office in Ankara, referring to the major findings of the “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey,” a study recently conducted by the Corporate Social Responsibility Association and Infakto RW; sponsored by the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation, a GMF undertaking.

Professor Emre Erdoğan of Bilgi University says they weren’t expecting to see such a huge social distance among individuals holding different political views.

Erdoğan suggests that the most common indicator of social distance is neighborhood. Neighborhoods are important because they literally require the elimination of social distance among different identities who cheek by jowl.

“We usually ask people if they would like to have a neighbor with a particular political affiliation, but in this research, we went a step further. First, we asked our respondents to specify the most politically distant party to them. Then, we asked them whether they would like to have their daughters marry a person affiliated to that party, enter a business transaction, or even let their kids be friends with them.”

The results point at a high level of political partisanship in Turkish society that has become deeper and more extensive, damaging social bonds.

According to the study, 83.4 percent do not want their daughters to marry a member of the most distant party constituency. Some 78.4 percent do not want to do business with a member of the most distant party, 76 percent do not want each other as neighbors and 73.9 percent do not want their kids to be friends with such people.

The study’s findings demonstrate that we tend to live in our comfortable separate worlds and follow media channels that only reflect similar political views, facilitating the construction of opposing partisan worldviews.

It is, therefore, not surprising to see that supporters of different political parties diverge over the political issues that divide Turkey the most. To the Justice and Development Party (AKP) supporter, it is the Gezi protests, whereas the Republican People’s Party (CHP) supporter points at the corruption probe. While Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) respondents hold the 1980 coup responsible for all the ills of Turkey, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) supporter believes that it is the Kurdish problem that has divided and continues to divide Turkey the most.

Ultimately, social cleavages seem to have grown and are expected to grow further in the future.

What might be the political implications of such a politically polarized society?

“Politics turns into an existential struggle; a hard and almost apocalyptic one,” says Ünlühisarcıklı. “It is not possible to rally around issues when our national interest is at stake. If there is an existential struggle at the domestic level, you may well defend a contradictory position in line with your political affiliation even though it is against your national interest. It’s a trend which we have been observing recently.”

Erdoğan argues that each political party has an “other” which it excludes in the socio-political sphere and claims that having a wide loyal electoral base provides a political advantage for party leaders.

But the wider the social distance is, the harder it becomes to reach reconciliation.

“If you raise your walls up this high, how are you going to cooperate? How are you going to form a coalition? How are you going to establish a new constitution?” asks Erdoğan.

As for the study’s message to political leaders, Corporate Social Responsibility Association Chairman Serdar Dinler focuses on the economic dangers posed by increasing levels of polarization. “Polarization causes discrimination, which eventually damages the business sector,” says Dinler. Positive discrimination may benefit certain segments of society up to a certain point, but in the long run, institutions are likely to lose creativity and their competitive power in the international arena.

So, what’s the cure?

The keyword is dialogue. “We need to learn to say, ‘You’re right,’” suggests Erdoğan. “It might look like a simple and naïve solution, but it is not an easy task at all, especially for politicians. Politics is not necessarily black or white; we should come to see that there are shades of grey. We need to act on points on which we think the other side is right.”

Otherwise, warns Erdoğan, Turkish society could be destined for self-fulfilling solitude.