The Political Campaign of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party for the upcoming 2023 Elections

Part 2 of the Blogseries about the elections in Turkey in May 2023. Find part 1, part 3 and part 4 here.

What can a populist leader, who has been In power for a long time, and his party do to maintain popularity? This first part of this blog series following the introduction, will pursue the discussion into the social media campaign strategy of Turkey's ruling party and its implications for their election campaign strategy in the current socio-political climate. Political advisors, advertising strategists, academics and media experts in NGOs have evaluated current and past tactics, methods and political discourse of the blocs and parties and which strategies seem possible for the pre-election campaign from their diverse perspectives. This post will focus on the social media strategy of the ruling Justice and Development Party and its People’s Alliance rather than the current and possible interventions of the government and the institutions of the state. We will dive deeper into the regulations, measures and activities undertaken by state institutions in the next posts.

After 20 years in power, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that he will run for the presidency in the 2023 elections, despite the debates over his eligibility to be a candidate for the third time. Erdoğan emerged triumphant from every election so far and has established his image as an invincible and strong leader by his supporters due to his neo-Ottoman and interventionist foreign policy. By a narrow victory, he even managed to change the 95-year-old parliamentary regime with a new presidential system, which helped him to concentrate and centralise his power. He transformed Turkey and dominated its politics by reshaping the laws, regulations, and institutions of the country.

However, the polls and commentators say that these elections will be the most difficult elections for Erdoğan yet, despite or because of his increasing control over Turkey's politics, society, and economy (Khalid, 2023). Even before drawing strong criticism on the post-earthquake rescue operations and management, the elections were expected to be his most difficult due to the growing economic crisis, out of refugee issue, corruption claims, polarization, and severe restrictions on democracy and freedom of speech. However, there are reasons why both AKP and the opponents regard these elections as a matter of life and death. The opposition does not only promise to reduce presidential powers and return to the strengthened parliamentary system but to prosecute Erdoğan and his party over charges of corruption and abuse-of-power. Some commentators even express doubts that he will leave his position and accept the results quietly after being defeated (Dettmer, 2023).

The conflict over social media between the government and the opposition since the Gezi protests demonstrate the continued importance of social media for political purposes and campaigns, at least from the point of view of politicians. Most of the respondents argue that if social media will have a significant impact on the results of the elections, it seems that the opponents of Erdoğan will be the side who will have the advantage of social media. Thus, the general opinion is that AKP will adopt a similar restrictive and repressive social media strategy as before, an even more aggressive strategy for the election period to overcome the supposed advantage of the opposition. The Disinformation Law, passed on October 2022, and the throttling of the Internet was regarded as a sign of this strategy based on controlling, silencing and criminalising dissidents with the help of regulations and institutions. A Social Media Strategist of the Turkey Workers Party comments thus:

“Their social media strategy that we experienced so far is systematically drowning all the dissident voices out with various kinds of insult, offence, and threat without any tolerance. This may be a statement of a politician, the revelation of a truth that may lead to public backlash or a photo showing a public event […]. Their strategy will be not to let the opponents speak. At the moment, it's become common to label a citizen who is not even affiliated with any political party as a terrorist, separationist or traitor. First of all, they have consumed all reasonable and even unreasonable arguments very greedily and they have counteracted any criticism and political dissent. However, these aggressive arguments are becoming unusable over time, as they lose their persuasiveness.

They need to find another excuse, another argument in every challenge, which is not always possible. This strategy of besieging and drowning will continue. In addition to the organised activities by the extensive network of paid trolls, AKP fully exploits the power not only of the government but also of state authorities such as courts and security forces. They place a much greater emphasis on the events that stimulate the interest of public opinion and extend beyond the echo chambers. It is clear that they prefer that these issues are kept within the echo chambers of the opposition and do not come into the light of public agenda. The last example were the large-scale wildfires in the South of Turkey. The public discussion on the poor handling of massive wildfires and the inability of the government to take off firefighting planes extended beyond echo chambers and led to widespread public criticism.”

There is a broad consensus among the respondents that the AKP will likely follow its routine populist communication strategy of polarisation and exclusion. In general, AKP makes use of populist rhetoric based on dichotomic thinking, negative stereotyping, existing societal divisions and antagonisms, aggressive language, and friend vs enemy logic on social media, as the most of the right-wing populist parties in the world. In every election, it identified and scapegoated several local and/or foreign enemies against Erdoğan and Turkey. This populist communication strategy was effective at maintaining popular support and gaining some support from undecided voters. However, the local elections in 2019 showed that this strategy was not as effective as before.

For these upcoming elections, most of the experts also pointed out that this aggressive polarising strategy may face serious challenges and instead backfire this time. There are several reasons why this strategy might not work, if we put aside the heavy use of legal provisions and restrictions to social media or internet access. First, the AKP seems to have greater difficulty to initiate public discussion and set the agenda compared to the past elections. Propagandist content like the national will, the national and local government, powerful and strong Turkey or the 2023 vision, may not work this time. More than two thirds of people in Turkey stated that they are struggling to pay for food and rent. Despite raising the minimum wage twice and rising pensions, the inflation reached an annual rate of 85 percent in October before the devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and left more than a million people homeless (Alderman, 2023).

The survey conducted by Ipsos showed that 82 percent of people in Turkey described the economy as bad while they named inflation and poverty as the worst problems. Thus, the voters may get more dismissive of self-glorying rhetoric based on a powerful Turkey and national and local investments, products and projects in the face of economic challenges. Rather than promoting election pledges and mega projects that will evoke enthusiasm among the electorate, they seem to prefer to damage the opposition. They may prefer to focus on populist sentiments on social media to target other groups and provoke artificial or existing divisions through coordinated actions of the anonymous and automated accounts as well as existing AKP supporters and trolls. As Bulent Mumay, the editor of the Deutsche Welle has said:

“Social media does not and will not serve their political goals. However, the social media strategy of those in power focuses on not allowing it to be used against themselves. By 2018, the regime totally lost its supremacy on social media. Despite the victory in the 2017 Constitutional and Presidential Referendum, the majority of metropolitans have voted “NO” on his presidency. That was a shocking defeat for Erdoğan. It was followed by the loss of three big cities (Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir) in local elections. From that time, the AKP never gained back supremacy. Differently from their proactive position in the past, they are stuck in a reactive position that they just respond aggressively to. Before, they were able to set the agenda. They were able to start a public discussion with the statements of the President or the Directorate of Communications. However, they had to establish a mechanism to silence and repress. The secret of their success was exaggerating their activities and future projects such as generating content like 'national and domestic' automobile TOGG in order to stoke national pride. In the face of economic meltdown and years of destruction, these do not correspond to any expectations of the society as before.”

A top-down strategy for the AKP’s election campaign achieved astonishing success in past elections. One of the prominent reasons behind this success was Erol Olcok, who was the mastermind behind former election campaigns, but who was killed during the failed coup attempt in 2016. After that, some of the respondents observed a less organised media strategy and the fragmentation of social media supporters into different political and ideological cliques under the guise of a united strong coalition with MHP. A member of a Fact-checking NGO comments:

“We see that various groups within the party have influence within the party’s social media strategy. It seems fragmented and it works through cliques, although you see a supportive spirit. However, it is a matter of curiosity if different messages of different groups work for the benefit of the party or not. There are several cliques of Interior Minister Soylu, ex-minister Albayrak, nationalists and Islamists etc.. Also, the status of the Directorate of Communication is different. This works as an extended coalitional organisation.”

On the other hand, the participation of the nationalist Büyük Birlik Partisi (Great Unity Party), the Islamist Hüdapar (New Cause Party) and the Islamist New Welfare Party (Yeniden Refah Partisi) will also affect political and ideological debates, targets and media tactics of the AKP, which would lead this alliance towards highly conservative and Islamist stances. The inclusion of Kurdish Islamist Hüdapar, already started a debate and the news regarding the terrorist organization Hizbullah reported by two popular journalists İsmail Saymaz and Fatih Altaylı were banned by the court upon the request of the Hüdapar.

However, the radical and extreme Islamist disposition may pose other challenges for the AKP, primarily reaching young people which many call “Generation Z”, the most active users of social media. In Turkey’s upcoming elections, 18- to 25-year-olds will make up 15% of the electorate. These young people have the potential to influence the outcome of the elections significantly. According to the conducted by Gezici Research Center in 2022, 80 percent of Gen Z does not think to vote AKP since they are against the oppression, clampdowns over lifestyles and restrictions on freedom of speech and media. Also, these young people cannot go out and have an independent life due to economic conditions. (EuroNews, 2023). This situation might lead to another important problem: These active social media users might affect the voting decision of their families, who depend more on mainstream media. Thus, the AKP may find it difficult to balance demands between young people and the ultra-conservatives and this may be one of the biggest challenges. An advertising expert comments thus on the problems of the AKP:

They work with several different agencies in the election campaigns or municipalities, after the death of Erol Ölcok in 2016. But their tools became limited. Different social media users of different cliques within the party could express different opinions and views. There is no common political rhetoric due to these cliques like the Pelikan group, the Ebabil Movement, and other religious sects and communities. However, they do not work with one main advertising agency or PR agency and do not produce a common strategy and rhetoric under a centralised organisation. They created a TikTok accounts for targeting Generation Z, the young people who will vote for the first time. They deleted this account after a week, following the reactions from the Islamic groups on the videos featuring a young woman in modern dress. In my opinion, it is not a bad work in theory. However, this type of videos can backfire and is open to mockery. The party is disconnected from the youth and there exists a large amount of mostly critical young people who post negative comments criticising the government. You should have considered these risks before. However, the sudden shutdown of the account shows that there is no central authority on their social media campaigns. The religious sects have gained such a power that they could make the municipalities cancel the concerts of the undesired popular singers in some cities.

Another respondent in the advertising sector highlighted one more potential challenge for the AKP, which may be important for a social media strategy if the parties do not just employ their own supporter teams:

The core of loyal supporters and most of the potential voters do not use Twitter. The priority of the AKP is to keep these voters. However, there are other groups that the AKP wants to reach and persuade as well. Their staff and methods are not sophisticated and are not experienced in the use of social media, their long-term social media tactics as trolling were exposed. They try to improve their tactics, but their tactics do not work as before. For sure, they would like to use social media effectively. At these moments, it is crucial to work with social media advertising agencies that have expertise of targeting a more general audience. However, the problem is that they are not able to establish a compatible client-agency relationship, namely they cannot get along anymore. The other parties are more compatible than the AKP, as creativity needs at least some freedom. If you set rules and regulations they need to follow, this will limit creativity. Do not talk about this, do not mention that, we cannot tell that to the local of this city… For sure there should be some filters depending upon the principles and rules of the parties. Most of the agencies do hesitate to work with them, as they will not be able to do good work together. They run out of content to impress people, what will they do on social media? Young people are concerned about their own personal futures. The argument that economy is the same problem all around the world does not sound convincing anymore.

On the other hand, populist sentiments increase polarisation over daily-life and cultural issues, through hashtag campaigns, serious public discussion on social media and attacks by newly created anonymous accounts. In the past years, hate and threats against members of the LGBTQ community, women and animal rights activists increased after Erdoğan’s statements. Erdoğan had called for a change In the constitution for protecting families from perverse trends, implying LGBTQ community and same-sex marriage (Erdoğan says constitutional change will protect families against 'perverse trends', 2022). This may point to a cultural populist strategy, which may be troubling as it may stoke new divisions and promote hate speech and polarisation. As one media scholar comments:

They follow an unstable strategy. They try to do some campaigns targeting the young people, then they draw reaction, they withdraw. One famous livestream featuring Erdoğan received thousands of dislikes and criticizing comments. The AKP is a political party which invests much in digital media. However, their activities are so uneven, they are very disorganized. We can expect more actions due to their high budget and labor force with a directorate of communication now. The trolls may increase their efforts, they are now focusing on culture wars. The most concrete example are the increased attacks and hate speech against the LGBTQ community with a heavy emphasis on a new family concept.

The spokesperson of a fact checking institution comments:

They seem to use every means possible to make people forget the economic downturn, as this is the key issue for voters. They may implement short-term policies to show that they stabilize the economy and control the economic crisis. They follow a polarizing strategy based on dividing people over social and cultural issues.

Erdoğan and the People’s Alliance seem to face several challenges for social media campaigning for the 14 May elections. It is hard to estimate whether social media could change voting decisions. According to the KONDA research in 2018, 44% of AKP voters use Facebook, 13% Twitter, 43 % Whatsapp, 22% Youtube and 24% Instagram. However, the ratios for all voters in Turkey are: 51% Facebook, 20% Twitter, 50% Whatsapp and 28% Youtube and 31% Instagram. If we also analyse the lower support among young people, this may tell us that social media seems to be more critical for the opposition during their election campaign. However, we should keep in mind that there was no TikTok and the survey was conducted 5 years ago. Still, AKP and People’s Alliance need to decide which strategy they will follow, how to reach them or how to oppress these platforms. Also, some experts pointed out that some Twitter accounts increased, which seem like opposition and produce controversial content to provoke divides in the opposition.

In the next posts, we will discuss if we can expect a similar Cambridge Analytica–Facebook scandal that targeted undecided voters in the Brexit referendum and 2016 US elections as some pollsters like Metropoll highlighted that the elections will be determined by undecided voters and the opposition Homeland Party Leader (ex- CHP presidential candidate) Muharrem Ince, who has the potential to divide the votes of the opposition.