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Turkish elections: money and the media

Measures aimed at limiting reporting by major independent news resources allowed Erdogan’s media to create an unquestioned atmosphere of electoral victory.

The elections on March 30 do not bode well for Turkish democracy. They threaten the basic liberties and rights of many opposition groups in the country, thanks to PM’s Erdogan ultimatum that he will make the opposition “pay for this.”  

When the corruption scandal broke out in Turkey a few months ago, Twitter instantly became the primary outlet of opposition to PM Erdogan and his AKP. Twitter was about dissemination of ideas, organization, and exposing the corruption, illegal rule [rule by utter disregard of law], the immoral acts of PM Erdogan and those around him.

Yet, the results of the elections were instructive. Twitter was effective in terms of organizing the opposition and informing them about the extent of the corruption in which the AKP was mired. Yet, this opposition was relatively small in number, educated, young, and urban; what appeared on Twitter (and, other social media outlets) had minimal impact on the rest of society, which is large in number, less educated, older, and more suburban and rural than urban.

The rest of society relied more heavily on traditional means of mass media, including television and print. In other words, the opposition created a world of its own on Twitter, essentially singing to the choir, and unable to reach out to those outside. The most effective arguments against AKP corruption failed to reach the population at large in Turkey.

Media and fraud 

Arguably the most notorious feature of democracy is the general public’s openness to manipulation. PM Erdogan is a savvy politician and exploits this weakness fully. PM Erdogan’s fledgling dictatorship rests not on force but rather on media and money.

Erdogan’s control and influence over newspapers affects around 40% of all newspaper sales, including major, and seemingly mainstream, Turkish dailies such as Sabah, Milliyet, and Haberturk. Likewise, major TV channels like ATV, Star TV, Show TV, NTV, and the state television network TRT are all either directly controlled by Erdogan or influenced by his great sway over the network’s broadcasters.

Such significant media control allows the AKP to shape the minds of many Turks who are uninterested in what social media outlets have to offer by way of alternative sources of information. The opposition rarely finds its way into these newspapers and television channels; instead, it is virtually all government propaganda, explicitly or implicitly. Hence, while the AKP’s dismissal of the corruption claims wins the hearts of the audience, the opposition cannot make its case.

Turkey in these elections has undermined its record in free and fair elections since 1950. The access to a virtually endless pool of money by PM Erdogan and the AKP facilitated an organized and systematic electoral campaign on such a scale that it was ultimately fraudulent. Such a campaign has not been seen since the 1946 election when votes were cast openly but the count was kept secret. 

As a party bent on winning the elections and showing its strength, the AKP used sheer administrative, political, and monetary power to affect the election outcomes in critical contests, including Ankara, Istanbul, and Antalya.

Thus far, more than 1,400 documented complaints are filed under the heading of electoral manipulation in favour of the AKP. Such complaints include stuffing ballot boxes with pre-stamped ballots, or voting by unregistered voters and non-citizen aliens. The districts with an anticipated pro-AKP outcome were meanwhile reported first, while those districts hosting the greatest challenge to AKP candidates were reported last. This was aimed at undermining the strength and morale of the opposition supporters. Once the vote counts began, about 40 or so major cities experienced extended power outages. These outages are unusual (despite a statement by a minister in AKP government, attributing them to poor weather conditions), for most of these cities had not experienced similar problems within the past year.

Turks were awake and in the streets and polling stations by 5 am (and, in the snow in eastern cities) to make sure that their votes counted. But the AKP government tried to block news agencies from instantly accessing the election results as they were reported, confining everyone to the state news agency (Anadolu Ajansi).

Although in most cases such efforts yielded no results, the government was able to block the website of the premier reporter of election results, the Cihan News Agency, with a systematic cyber attack. Similarly, the major Turkish daily Zaman, its English counterpart Today’s Zaman, and the liberal Taraf newspaper had their websites under attack for most of the day. These measures aimed at limiting reporting by major independent news resources allowed Erdogan’s media to create an unquestioned atmosphere of electoral victory, thanks in large part to the partial reporting of the state news agency.

The aftermath

Most concerning about these elections is the aftermath. In his victory speech, PM Erdogan declared that the opposition and enemies would “pay for this,” referring to their opposition campaign in the face of corruption charges. Erdogan also suggested, using his usual rhetoric centered around vengeance and retribution, “We will enter their lair,” and charged the opposition with threatening the national security of Turkey. There is great concern abroad of an impending witch-hunt. Rumours are circulating suggesting plans for rounding up scores of journalists, shutting down schools, newspapers, and businesses for no crime other than not submitting to the AKP line. Erdogan seems to have taken his 45% of the vote as an outright acquittal of the corruption charges against him and a mandate to engage in this personal vendetta against his opponents. 

It is time for the opposition to rethink its strategy about bringing those involved in corruption to account; the road to such accountability must employ means besides Twitter and other social media outlets, including traditional mass media tools.

About the author

A.Kadir Yildirim is assistant professor of political science at Furman University. His research interests include political Islam, democratization, Middle Eastern politics, and Turkish politics.


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