Author:Ilkkaracan, Ipek


The rise of authoritarian radical right populism around the world poses a significant challenge to sustainable and inclusive growth, with strong gender implications. There has been much focus on rising economic inequalities and the lack of democratic response to it as an important source of the emerging populist discourse. (1) Yet there are a limited number of studies that explore the interaction of populism with gender inequalities in the economy. A consistent observation across advanced economies of the North is that men display more favorable attitudes towards right populist parties than women. (2) By contrast, some studies in the context of the developing South present evidence for women's support for authoritarian populism. Based on qualitative evidence from Egypt, Blaydes and Tarouty argue that women played a crucial role in the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power in the 2005 elections, but that economic motivations were determining rather than ideological. (3) Ilkkaracan uses political polling survey data for Turkey to show women's higher representation amongst voter support for rising political Islam in the early 2000s but argues this was conditional on their labor market status. (4)

A number of earlier studies that follow the evolution of the gender differences in political preferences over time for the same set of countries point to the interaction between women's labor force participation and political preferences. Using data from the United States and advanced industrialized economies, Inglehart and Norris identify two types of gender gaps in political preferences: the traditional gender gap in the first three quarters of the 20th century (until the 1970s) where women tend more than men toward "right" and conservative politics; and the modern gender gap from the 1980s onwards, where women are observed to lean more in favor of "left" non-conservative political parties and policies. (5) They attribute this in part to women's changing life experiences, shaped by factors such as decreasing fertility and increasing female labor force participation. Inglehart and Norris call this transformation the developmental gender gap, a change from a traditional to a modern gender gap in the course of economic growth observed in developed industrialized countries. Accordingly, the traditional gender gap favoring conservative, center-right political parties persists to date in a substantial number of developing economies.

In a similar vein, using survey data on political attitudes in Denmark between 1971-1990 Togeby identifies a merging of political cultures between men and women and a gradual erosion of the traditional gender gap as a response to the transformation of the sexual division of labor, as women became fully integrated into the labor market and men started taking greater responsibility in unpaid domestic work. (6) Iversen and Rosenbluth, using data for advanced industrialized countries, argue that one of the factors that accounts for cross-country variation in the political gender gap in favor of progressive left versus conservative right politics is the difference in labor market opportunities for women. (7)

Drawing from the above literature and set against a background of the transformation in the political scene in Turkey in the past two decades, this paper examines the interactions between the economic and political gender gaps and how they reflect upon the rise of authoritarian populist conservative politics. (i) Using data drawn from electoral surveys in Turkey for 2010-2017, I show that the traditional and the modern gender gaps coexist, shaping a political polarization amongst women contingent upon their relationship to the labor market. I also present qualitative evidence on the transformation of the political discourse on gender across the political spectrum in order to appeal to a female electorate majority who presume homemaking as their primary occupation. I argue that these mutual feedback effects between economic and political gender gaps provide an important insight into the success of rising authoritarian populism in Turkey.

The following section provides a context for gendered economic inequalities in Turkey and the rise of political Islam. Section III presents the findings of the empirical analysis of electoral data. Section IV discusses how gendered patterns of voter support shaped the evolution of the political discourse on gender in the past two decades. Section V concludes with observations on the implications of combined insights from the empirical analysis in Section III and the qualitative evidence reviewed in Section IV.


Turkey's female employment rate for the working age population (15-64 years old) is 33 percent as of 2017, the lowest in the OECD (which has a female average employment rate of 61 percent) and one of the lowest globally. The male employment rate, by contrast at 71 percent, is only slightly under the OECD average of 76 percent. While the Turkish economy has had considerable economic growth over the past half century, women, particularly those with lower skills, are excluded from the labor market. A large gender employment gap (and as a result a very low overall employment rate at 47 percent) remains a structural characteristic of the Turkish economy.

An overview of the historical evolution of the gender employment gap shows that under structural transformation and increasing industrialization of the Turkish economy, which has been in effect since the 1950s, the predominant occupation of low-skilled women was transformed from rural unpaid agricultural family work to urban homemaking. Benholdt Thompsen calls this "the house-wifezation" of women. (8) Ilkkaracan argues that this state of affairs has more to do with the dynamics of the relatively weak labor demand generation capacity of economic growth, rather than cultural or social norms. (9) The lack of sustained periods of robust growth and relatively weak labor demand vis-a-vis a large population, combined with poor labor market conditions, meant that the pull effect on women to enter the labor market was not strong enough. As a result, in the course of industrialization and the accompanying rural-to-urban migration, having a male breadwinner and female homemaker became institutionalized as the predominant family model. This has resulted in a care regime that is strongly dependent on familization and a labor market organized around a male breadwinner as the typical worker. A comparative study of seven OECD countries including Turkey finds that Turkey by far has the worst work-life balance environment in terms of limited availability of affordable quality care services, limited access to care leave, and very long workplace hours, all of which contribute to deepening the gender gaps in the labor market. (10) Consequently, the economic modernization process in Turkey has been one where the social division of labor based on traditional gender roles as been reinforced.

As of the late 1980s, homemaking had become the most popular female occupation; more than 12 million adult women have defined themselves as full-time housewives. The dominant female profile was urban homemaker, either first- or second-generation rural migrant, with less than a high school education. The 1990s saw a marked rise of political Islam in Turkey as a significant political force. Women's votes played a significant role in the first-ever electoral victory of a religious conservative party in 1994 (at the time the Welfare Party, later the Justice and Development Party known by the Turkish acronym AKP). When now Turkish President Erdogan was questioned in an interview on the innovative tactics used by his conservative religious party, resulting in the electoral success in local elections in 1994, he highlighted the role of women becoming active in political lobbying:

"First of all, the most innovative strategy in our party was the fact that it was for the first time in the Beyoglu elections that women took their place in active politics. This was of extraordinary importance; they undertook some serious work with us." (ii,11) A pro-government research think tank analyzed Erdogan's political strategies and found that the most important factor that led to Erdogan's first electoral success in the 1994 municipality elections was that he established powerful channels of communication with the mid- to low-income new urban population in a way that no political leader or party had done before. The analysis emphasizes women as the most important segment within this group:

"... in this new electoral strategy, women members of the party were encouraged to actively participate in the electoral campaign; eventually an important part of the campaign was run by women. This was an extremely important factor marking the improved role of women in Turkish politics." (12) Women were credited a significant role for also bringing about Erdogan's ever-increasing success in the national elections in 2002, 2007, and 2011. The Women's Branch of AKP was acknowledged for mobilizing hundreds of thousands of women in the urban metropolises to become active in local political organizing through their regular home visits and neighborhood meetings. (iii) In an interview regarding the electoral success in 2011, a prime...

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