Democratic Backsliding and Anti-Gender Politics in Turkey: What to Expect After the 2023 Elections? “Never give in to the darkness”

Democratic Backsliding and Anti-Gender Politics in Turkey: What to Expect After the 2023 Elections?

Didem Unal, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, writes about the anti-gender and anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric in the 2023 election campaign in Turkey and the possible implications for the country's immediate future.

The 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections represented a historic turning point in Turkey in terms of political civility, rule of law, gender equality, and pluralism. The closely contested race between the People’s Alliance led by the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) and supported by the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) and by two Islamist fundamentalist parties, YRP (New Welfare Party) and HÜDA-PAR (Free Cause Party), and the National Alliance composed of the major opposition party, CHP (Republican Peoples Party), the nationalist İyi Parti (Good Party), and several small Islamist parties that parted ways with AKP, was widely interpreted as Turkey’s last opportunity to restore essential democratic institutions, free media, civil society, and academic freedoms.

The parliamentary elections on 14 May resulted in a right-wing parliament where the Islamist populist AKP joined forces with reactionary actors and accommodated their extremist demands geared towards dismantling key policy perspectives regarding women’s rights and LGBTI+ rights. The presidential elections on 28 May, which reflected persistent political polarization in the country, secured President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a victory, extending his two decades in power for a further term. The 2023 elections were marked by both political camps with arguments that it was an extraordinary political moment in which people faced the task of choosing leaders that could tackle the “existential threats” awaiting Turkey in its second century. In this article, I shall discuss the gendered ways in which these “existential threats” were constructed and perpetuated in the ruling bloc’s discursive politics and policy vision.

Gender issues played a pivotal role in AKP’s recent political alliances and in the polarizing language used in its election campaign. AKP’s election campaign demonstrated that anti-genderism was a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing “us” versus “them”. “Anti-genderism” here denotes an ideological and strategic opposition to a broad spectrum of feminist principles and socio-political reforms and a construction of fears and anxieties around gender in the name of protecting “national values”. An anti-feminist political stance and opposition to gender have always been a key part of AKP’s religio-conservative value system, but especially in the post-2019 period, the party has strategically operationalized this opposition to bolster its anti-equality, authoritarian political agenda. It employed anti-gender securitization perspectives, crafting threat perceptions around gender and exacerbating populist antagonisms that juxtaposed the “pure” people and the “immoral” elites and civilizational “others”. During this time, the party also closely collaborated with the anti-gender circles that defined anti-equality perspectives as hallmarks of the “authentic” national moral fabric.

A significant policy issue at the centre of the growing anti-gender mobilization has been the Istanbul Convention (IC, formally the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence), a comprehensive international agreement that requires states to address violence against women as a form of gender-based violence and to take anti-violence measures. Anti-gender groups’ negative campaign was successful in influencing AKP’s policy stance, providing the party with an excuse to suggest that “demands from below” communicated rising concerns in society over the “perils” of the IC. The party attempted to justify Turkey’s withdrawal from the IC, claiming that the “gender ideology” of the IC allowed gender identification independent of biological sex, granted a legal status to homosexuality and transgenderism, and dismantled the “ideal” family structure in Turkey.

During the election campaign, AKP formed new political coalitions based on opposition to gender equality. As a condition of their entering into a political coalition, the Islamist parties, YRP and HÜDA-PAR, pressured AKP to adopt a hardliner position on gender-sensitive policies. Opposing a broad spectrum of gender-sensitive policy perspectives in force, they specifically demanded the annulment of Law No. 6284 to Protect the Family and Prevent Violence Against Women and targeted the protective and preventive clauses of this law, stating that the barring penalties imposed on perpetrators violated men’s honour and dignity and disrupted family unity. Moreover, they campaigned for new anti-equality policy frames, aiming to normalize and legalize underage marriage. Further demands that these reactionary actors articulated included the closing down of LGBTI+ associations and the introduction of an Islamist and gender-segregated education system.

Feminist activists warned that this anti-gender policy perspective and its systematic attacks on Law No. 6284 to annul it could bring about a domino effect, further feeding into extremist demands to restrict and erode other rights such as abortion and alimony rights. On the other hand, LGBTI+ activists and associations were alarmed about the rising anti-LGBTI+ hate speech of the ruling bloc and its election promise to wage war on the LGBTI+ community, and declared their determination to resist state homophobia.

During the election campaign, AKP performed a series of articulated hatred, fear, disgust, and dehumanization discourses regarding LGBTI+ and queer identities and communities. This homophobic discourse not only framed LGBTI+ people as “perverse, criminal and alien” but also expanded this framing by translating “LGBT” into a general category of “enemy”. Accordingly, any oppositional project incorporating “gender ideology” and “LGBT” was stigmatized as “enemy of the nation” that was guilty of disintegrating the “national moral fabric” and thus needed to be denigrated. In various election rallies, President Erdoğan and many other AKP officials utilized the category of “LGBT” as a tool of a smear campaign to defame the oppositional political figures and place them in the generic category of “enemy”. “We are against the LGBT… Family is sacred to us – a strong family means a strong nation”, Erdoğan said in an election rally near the Black Sea. He made similar statements many times throughout the election process and accused all opposition parties of being “LGBT”. This anti-LGBTI+ rhetoric should be understood as a constitutive part of the growing discursive field in Turkey, where gender is increasingly securitized and turned into an ideological and tactical tool to perpetuate the populist juxtapositions of the in-group (religio-conservative, nationalist, pro-AKP) and out-group identities (feminists, LGBTI+ people and oppositional actors who may or may not support “gender ideology”).

Looking at this mainstreaming of anti-gender ideology and policy vision in the current political conjuncture, we can clearly say that in the upcoming period we may expect an unprecedented institutionalization of anti-gender politics in Turkey and a further backsliding in gender policy. The coupling of democratic backsliding and anti-gender politics in AKP’s new term may result in the annulment of gender-sensitive policies in force (Law No. 6284, women’s alimony rights), preparation of the ground for new anti-equality policy frames (e.g. legalizing underage marriage), and the introduction of constitutional amendments to further suppress LGBTI+ rights.