ANTALYA, Turkey – Tourists in this resort city were surprised last week when they googled for “vacant rooms” in the area: The top-sponsored result wasn’t for a glamorous new hotel, but rather a campaign ad from an opposition party promising there will be plenty of rooms available if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is booted from office.
The tongue-in-cheek ad by the Good Party (iYi Party) – which is running against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday June 24 – was referencing the lavish 1,100-room Ak Saray (“White Palace”) that the Turkish president built for himself in Ankara, at a cost of some $650 million, in 2014.
The online ad was just one example of how opposition parties in Turkey are creatively using online marketing strategies and social media to try to get around Erdogan’s tight grip on mainstream media, which critics say has grown even stronger ahead of the snap elections this month.
A search for “VPN” – the system many Turks use to get around the government’s internet restrictions – was met with another message from the Good Party: “Don’t waste your money, wait until we are in power to enjoy internet freedom.”
With over 175,000 websites already banned in Turkey (including Wikipedia) and some 800 Twitter accounts blocked, Erdogan recently moved to secure greater control of the internet with a new law that would require many media outlets to seek a license to broadcast online.
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Meanwhile, Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), decided to use the biweekly phone call he is allowed with his wife to deliver a campaign speech instead. Demirtas has been detained since November 2016, on terrorism charges largely based on claims that he was involved in the activities of the PKK – the militant Kurdish group involved in a long-standing struggle with the Turkish army.
The 45-year-old human rights lawyer, who denies all charges, had been the main hope for anti-Erdogan progressives in Turkey in the last few years. However, he was jailed alongside a dozen MPs from his party amid a crackdown on the opposition following the attempted coup of July 2016.
“Every day while my hands are tied, the government officials, without pause, continue the smear campaigns against me in the newspapers and on TV. While I can’t even use my right to respond, they continue their political ruse by making all kinds of fabricated allegations,” Demirtas said in the video recording of his phone call, which was then distributed on social media by the HDP.
Last week, Demirtas also held an online news conference of sorts. Questions were sent to him via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with hashtags such as #AskDemirtas and posed to him by his lawyers, who then shared his responses on social media.
Erdogan’s main challenger is ex-physics teacher Muharrem Ince, who is the presidential candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the party created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Ince is also struggling with limited access to coverage in the country’s largely pro-Erdogan media, though to a slightly lesser degree than other opposition candidates. This is reflected, among other things, in his frantic campaign schedule, which often includes two or three rallies in different cities in a single day.
Ince was also quick to pick up on a Twitter campaign against Erdogan in May that started spontaneously on social media after the president declared he would step aside if he was to lose the elections. “If one day our nation says ‘enough,’ then we will step aside,” he said, using the Turkish word “tamam,” which can translate as “OK” or “enough.”
When the hashtag #tamam went viral in opposition circles online, with millions suggesting they had indeed had “enough,” Ince and his party took up the slogan in an attempt to reach voters.
Ince slammed Turkey’s “pathetic” television industry in an interview with the Financial Times (“Erdogan opponent warns of Turkey’s ‘society of fear’”), complaining that TV stations often cut short his rallies but give full coverage to Erdogan’s events, thus making his on-the-ground campaigning less effective.
Jane Louise Kandur, a columnist for the pro-government Daily Sabah and former head of the AKP’s women’s branch in Istanbul, dismissed such complaints as groundless.
“There is a perception that Erdogan is given more airtime – which is backed up by the fact that Erdogan is president, so he is more likely to be in the news. But statistics show the distribution of airtime allocated to the campaigns is actually fair,” she told Haaretz.
At a conference held by the European Parliament last month to mark World Press Freedom Day, Turkish journalists warned that with the recent sale of the Dogan Media Group – one of the largest media conglomerates in the country – around 92 percent of the entire media landscape is now under direct control of the government.
Dogan was considered the last part of Turkey’s mainstream media to have a degree of autonomy from the government. However, it was bought by Erdogan Demirören, an entrepreneur close to Erdogan, for $1.2 billion at the end of March and renamed Demirören Media Group. A few weeks later, the president revealed his decision to call snap elections. This is seen as an attempt to head off a looming economic crisis and to secure the presidency until 2023, when Turkey celebrates 100 years from Atatürk’s establishment of the Republic.
Demirören died last Friday and the media group is now being controlled by his son, Yildirim Demirören, who previously held the position of vice chairman in the organization. The conglomerate owns the prominent newspapers Hürriyet and Posta (Turkey’s first- and fourth-biggest circulation dailies), the Dogan News Agency, as well as the TV entertainment and news channels Kanal D and CNN Türk, and other smaller outlets.
In 2009, a $2.5 billion fine for unpaid taxes (later lowered to $700 million on appeal) had already forced the secular-leaning previous owner, Aydin Dogan, to soften the group’s editorial line on Erdogan’s party in order to stay afloat – according to observers who saw the penalty as politically motivated. In 2013, CNN Türk famously aired a documentary on penguins as the Gezi Park protests against Erdogan were taking place, drawing widespread criticism from the opposition.
Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish journalist who lives in exile from Turkey, said at the Brussels conference that “90 percent of the Turkish public gets its news from TV” and that, after the sale of Dogan Media, “there is only one noteworthy opposition channel left: Halk TV.”
This means that journalists who are critical of the government can reach urban youth through news websites, but have “little hope” of reaching the majority of voters, he added.
At the same conference, the Istanbul-based Turkish correspondent of The Economist, Piotr Zalewski, pointed out how the lack of media freedom is a long-standing issue for Turkey, since well before Erdogan came to power.
“What needs to happen down the line is a change in the media culture that has flourished under Erdogan and the AKP, but predates them by decades. It a culture that allows no room for investigative journalism; a culture where dissidents and opponents of one group or another are tried and convicted in newspapers before they are tried in courts, where columnists act as brokers of political influence,” he said.
With an economic downturn threatening Erdogan’s popularity ahead of the early election, the president is relying heavily on positive media coverage to de-emphasize his government’s faults. The currency crisis, which has seen the Turkish lira plummet in the last few months to record lows against the dollar, is attributed by pro-government outlets to a vaguely defined “high interest rate lobby” – whom Erdogan has even accused of being guilty of treason.
These reports never refer to the fall of the lira, but rather to the “hike” of the dollar against it. They also ignore the insights of many analysts who warn that Erdogan’s obsession with low interest rates as a way of boosting the economy has led to unwise choices by the central bank.
If Erdogan wins on June 24, he will also enjoy greater powers following a referendum on the presidential system in April 2017. Yet while many joke that the lira is the only real opposition to Erdogan left in Turkey, his opponents have been making some inroads.
According to a poll reported by Reuters last week, Erdogan may be forced to face a second round in the presidential election (he would need to secure over 50 percent of the vote in the first round to avoid a runoff). The poll also suggests his party could lose its overall parliamentary majority. The poll figures also suggest HDP leader Demirtas may secure enough votes to enter parliament, even though he will still be stuck behind bars.