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Zülfikar Doğan
Dec 13 2018

Five years after Gezi, Erdoğan embraces trees, social media

Last week, as Turkey’s political parties honed their strategies for local elections in March, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would mount an environmentally friendly digital election campaign.

“We are leaving behind electoral propaganda methods that create noise and visual pollution, and will run a digital campaign for the local elections,” Turkey’s leader told the party in a speech at its headquarters.

This was the same Erdoğan who as Prime Minister in 2013 responded harshly to the protests that sprang up via social media against the planned destruction of Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. He derided the protesters’ use of Twitter and promised to go ahead with the plans to remove the park’s trees and build a shopping mall.

Opposition circles have evaluated Erdoğan’s sudden shift in favour of the environment and social media as a political manoeuvre and an attempt to drive the opposition out of town centres and put pressure on their campaigns.

Mahir Ünal, an AKP deputy chairperson responsible for publicity, discussed details of how the ruling party planned to run its eco-friendly digital campaign, including the creation of a virtual headquarters where the party’s 1.5 million members can carry out their work.  

The president’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, would also play a role, said Ünal. While the first lady continued her own waste reduction programmes, and as the importance of environmental protection grew in Turkey and around the world, it would be unacceptable to run an environmentally unfriendly campaign.

Ünal accepted that the campaign would still include the classic elements of television and newspaper advertisements as well as political rallies and slogans.

It will not, however, cause noise and visual pollution in Turkish cities, Ünal said, inviting other political parties to match this promise.

“The agenda is no longer created on television or in newspapers, but instantly, on social media,” Ünal continued. “Thus we have created a new social network at our headquarters allowing millions of organisation members to communicate instantly. The age of wasteful campaigns of the past is over, the age of digital campaigns has begun.”

Ünal’s point is backed up by statistics: 51 million Turks out of a total population of around 80 million use social media, spending an average of 3 hours a day on apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The announcement of the digital campaign is, therefore, an admission of sorts. The AKP has relied in recent campaigns on its near total dominance of traditional media outlets, and with an estimated 90 percent control of newspapers by readership and similar control of television channels, it has been able to use these to transmit a unified message to citizens.

The decision to focus on a digital campaign, however, shows that the ruling party has become dissatisfied with the traditional style of campaign. Maybe it feels its influence is waning.

“Up until a few years ago, Erdoğan was calling social media the mother of all evil, now look at the point we’ve come to,” Engin Özkoç, a deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Ahval.

No newfound sensitivity to the environment motivates the new campaign, Özkoç said, indicating the slew of environmentally damaging construction projects the AKP continues to push on with, including Istanbul’s new airport.

If the AKP was sincere about the environment, he said, “they wouldn’t call those who protest against new tenders opened up in the meadows of the Black Sea or the olive groves of the Aegean traitors and terrorists”.

For Özkoç, Erdoğan’s attempts to rebrand himself as an environmentalist are even less credible given the president’s support for the heavy-handed police interventions against the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

At the time, Turkish police officers were condemned internationally for violently intervening on protesters, several of whom were killed after being struck by tear gas canisters fired directly against them by police officers.

Despite this, Erdoğan proclaimed the police heroes. More than five years later, Erdoğan has criticised French police for their aggressive response to the “yellow vests” protesters – another clear demonstration of the president’s lack of sincerity, said Özkoç.

Ümit Özdağ, the deputy leader of the nationalist opposition Good Party, sees the digital campaign as a sign of the ruling party’s fears after recent polls showed a marked decline in support.

“It’s obvious Erdoğan wants a low-profile electoral campaign. He’s scared of the results, so he wants to play down the importance of the elections,” Özdağ said.

“It’s nice to be environmentally conscious, but was it not Erdoğan himself who led the AKP through some of the greatest environmental destruction the country has witnessed over the 16 years of its reign? Their aim isn’t to be environmentally conscious, they want to declare an opposition that is already unable to make its voice heard through traditional media as enemies and remove them from the fight in town centres.”

Mithat Sancar, a deputy for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), believes the AKP’s call for an eco-friendly campaign conceals the far more cynical aim of disarming an already weak opposition.

The HDP has learned through bitter experience how the AKP government targets opposition parties: many of its deputies and leaders, including former co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ have been hit with prison sentences, and over 100 officials affiliated with the HDP have been replaced by government appointees – a repeat of which Sancar says is a distinct possibility after the elections next March.

“The opposition has no chance to make itself heard through media channels,” he said. “The only thing left to us is the classic campaign, and getting ourselves across on the streets and across towns through election offices, candidates’ brochures, flags and posters.”

“Digital campaigns and environmentalism are all very well, but when opposition figures are arrested and put on trial for their social media posts, and when courts continually issue bans on websites, the only thing left to us is the classic campaign,” he added.

Ayhan Bilgen, the HDP deputy for Kars in northeast Turkey, shared Sancar’s view.

“Now (the AKP) aims to make unlimited use of the digital sphere,” he said. “But it’s clear what happens to a party or member of the opposition that shares videos, photographs or criticisms (aimed at the ruling party) when they use social media.”

Bilgen expects the elections in March, like previous elections, to be carried out unfairly, and his party will use all avenues to reach voters while respecting the environment.

Meanwhile, Sancar highlighted another AKP advantage: making use of its command of parliament, the ruling party has proposed a 71-article omnibus bill that will determine how funds will be assigned by the presidency to municipal projects. Under the bill, the sole responsibility for funding allotment lies with Erdoğan.

Another article in the bill promises to allocate 51 percent of the funds held by Turkey’s state-owned development and investment bank İlbank for urban renewal and housing projects around Turkey.

The amendment has no relation to the remit set out for the bank upon its foundation in 1933, and speculation has mounted that the funds will be transferred to AKP municipalities and used to create projects that prop up contracting firms with ties to the government during a difficult period for the construction sector.

Another article in the omnibus bill sets out to create a new Financial Stability and Development Committee under the president’s control. This new institution will grant Erdoğan sole responsibility for setting any kind of measures to deal with risk and negative conditions in financial markets, as determined by the committee.

The extraordinary authority granted to Erdoğan with this regulation means he alone will decide which banks and companies to bail out or seize. At the same time, critics say, the new İlbank regulation will ensure the money continues to flow to the municipalities and companies that support the ruling party.

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