On Sunday, the 28th of may, an important election took place. The Turkish people decided, who should lead their country. After a disastrous economic situation, intensified by the destructive earthquake in south-east of Türkiye, observers were wondering if the electors vote for a new government. After all, Türkiye’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in the position of president since almost 10 years and therefore responsible for the current state of the nation.
But why is it important to look at these elections, and especially to investigate possible disinformation in the campaigning of the different parties?
As the chief strategist of Barack Obama's campaign, David Axelrod, said: "The key to a successful campaign is to give voters what they want to hear, even if it doesn't align with the truth". Following this quote, elections are always a sensitive moment to manipulate the people for the own interests. This is especially true in authoritarian states, which can control media to manipulate the voters.
Furthermore, Turkey under Erdoğan’s rule became an influential regional power. Participating in the war in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Nagorno-Karabakh. Even though it is a NATO member state and EU candidate, Türkiye is balancing with Russia by buying Russian rockets and strengthening diplomatic ties with Putin's Russia. This also made Türkiye in interesting negotiator in the current Ukraine war. For the EU, Erdoğan’s refugee deal made Türkiye an even more important partner. This deal insured that Türkiye will get high financial compensations for stopping Syrian and other near eastern refugees from entering EU territory.
To sum it up, Türkiye’s position geographically and in the international political sphere make it in important character both for the EU and for Russia. A different government could change the dynamics of Türkiye’s interventions and engagement.
But how do the Turkish elections work?
Since the change of constitution from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system by Erdoğan in 2018, the Turkish people vote directly for their president every five years. If none of the candidates achieve an over 50% support, there will be a second round between the two most successful candidates, two weeks after the first round.
During the first round, the 600 members of parliament are elected to the Grand National Assembly of Türkiye (Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi) are elected by the Turkish people as well. Since Erdoğan’s reform, the parliament is also elected by absolute majority, not by relative majority, and a threshold clause of 7% was implemented.
This makes it harder for small parties to enter the national assembly. Especially parties for national minorities like Kurdish parties and left parties suffer from this election reform.
Who is taking part in the Turkish elections?
The AK Party
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) describes itself as conservative, while outside observers characterise it as national conservative to even neo-Ottomanist. It can be described as far right on the political spectrum and supports conservative Muslim values. Since the AK Party is governing in an authoritarian style, it controls national media. The power of the party is so strong, that certain privileges are provided, if you join the party. Therefore, many workers in the Turkish administration and even jurisdiction are members of the AK Party.
The strongest opponent of the AKP is the Republican People’s Party Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi led by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. It is the oldest party of modern Türkiye and can be described as social democrat. By following Kemalism values of secularism, the party stands in strong opposition to Erdoğan. The CHP is the strongest opposition in Türkiye and gets support by smaller parties which support any opposition to Erdoğan. One of their strongest program point is the promise to deport all Syrian refugees out of the country within the next two years. This is a quite popular position in Türkiye and a more radical approach to refugees than Erdoğan’s position.
The National Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) is a far-right and ultra-nationalist party. The party is led by Alparslan Türkes and its wing the “grey wolves” Bozkurtlar are a neo-fascist movement. Furthermore, the MHP has links to organized crime groups.
The Left and Kurdish Opposition
Kurdish-Left parties like the HDP (Partiya Demokratîk a Gelan) are suffering from repression. Not only that political leaders are sent to prison, the party suffers a ban procedure. The strong repression of minority parties is increasing the ethical-religious tensions between Kurds, Alevits and Sunni Muslims which can heat up to militant conflicts.
Disinformation and Propaganda in the campaign
As mentioned, the authoritarian rule of the current government manipulates the media landscape in Türkiye. This is executed by sending critical journalists, activists and even opposition politicians to prison. Furthermore, even as a normal political active citizen, you may risk prison by saying your opinion.
What made this possible is ironically a “disinformation law” which was implemented shortly before the elections. According to this law, even to retweet a critical voice can be persecuted and let to three years of imprisonment. This censor law intends to fight “wrong information” but effectively is criminalising the sharing of opinion and the freedom of expression.
Yet, also in the campaigning, both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu used mass gatherings with national symbols to promote their campaign. These classical ways for mobilisation can be quite powerful as they present the candidate as the “strong father of the nation”. Erdoğan took the step even further and hanged huge posters with his counterfeit all over cities, even long before the elections. These large posters have a double function: they can intimidate the opposition by giving the feeling of being watched and also support the supporters by giving a feeling of protection by “the big brother” and mobilize to actually vote.
The style of campaigning differs from country to country. Different political cultures allow different ways to manipulate the voter. Yet, in the current Türkiye elections, mainly the AK Party uses unfair tools for voters manipulation. The censorship and threatening of opposition are autocratic tools which gives Erdoğan’s party unfair benefits. Still, the CHP was able to form a powerful opposition which is threatening Erdoğan’s rule. Nevertheless, Kılıçdaroğlu was unable to defeat Erdoğan because he was not able to campaign successfully against the powerful media and propaganda machine of the AK Party.
About the author: Till Hartig, is a law and politics student from the European University Frankfurt Oder, Germany. He focuses on Human rights law and international law.