Turkey, the Twitter Ban, and Upcoming Local Elections

During a rally last week in the city of Bursa, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared he would “root out Twitter and all that.” He added: “We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

Erdoğan’s announcement is only the most recent development in his long running battle with social media. Early last summer during the Gezi Park protests, he accused social media of having become a “curse” and a channel for “spreading lies.” His dislike of the media was exacerbated after Twitter was widely used to spread corruption allegations against him, his son and members of his government. In addition, the bitter conflict with his former political ally and Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, who leads a world-wide educational and business movement, has become increasingly public with both sides sometimes using profane language. However, what is particularly significant is that Erdoğan’s burst of anger came as the country prepares to go to the ballot box this Sunday.

The announcement of the closure of Twitter actually took some of his advisors and party members by surprise and a number of them openly expressed their disbelief and opposition. After the ban came into effect, the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, chose to circumvent it in a “tongue and cheek” manner by tweeting a smiling face. The Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, followed suit as he declared —
 on Twitter — that the ban was a violation of a restrictive and controversial internet law he ironically had signed into law only less than a month ago. During a TV interview, Bülent Arınç, a deputy prime minister, expressed his belief and hope that the ban would not last very long. He added that he recognized the positive aspects of Twitter and that he himself had more than one million followers. The opposition not surprisingly has been even more critical and has accused the prime minister of trying to stifle information incriminating him in corruption scandals. Academics, business leaders, civil society representatives and journalists have also joined the chorus of bitter criticisms. However, this did not keep Erdoğan from sticking to his decision and ensuring that Turkey’s internet watch dog completely shut down Twitter access in the country.

Turkey’s allies have also aired their criticisms. State Department Assistant Secretary of Public Affairs Doug Frantz likened the measure to “21st century book-burning.” The EU Commissioner, Stefan Füle, responsible for overseeing EU accession negotiations with Turkey, criticized the decision and added that such a decision raised questions about Turkey’s commitments to European values and standards. Similar remarks were also expressed by Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament. The fact that these criticisms occurred against the background of Gül’s visit to Denmark where he was lobbying for support for Turkey’s EU membership was very telling in terms where the Twitter ban left Turkey’s commitment to democratic values.

The ban is a manifestation of a growing confrontation between the prime minister and a public disenchanted with his policies as well as his style of governance. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, winning 34 percent of the votes, and obtaining a comfortable majority of the seats in the Turkish parliament. The party was subsequently able to raise its percentage of the votes to 47 at the general elections in 2007 and to almost 50 percent in 2011. This performance was generally regarded as well-deserved as AKP had become associated with political reform and economic growth. However, in his third term of office, Erdoğan became increasingly linked to a majoritarian understanding of democracy and scant respect for criticisms and dissent. It was against the background of this new trend that street protests in Istanbul broke out early last summer and was then followed in December by a corruption scandal that implicated a number of his cabinet ministers.

These events inadvertently pushed social media to the fore, as traditional media outlets remained subdued if not repressed. The Internet, Facebook and Twitter became channels to circumvent the government’s attempt to control traditional media. Turks became one of the top ten worldwide users of Twitter, with an estimated 12 to 15 million of them circulating news and stories, but more importantly, audio recordings that directly implicated the prime minister and members of his family in corruption scandals. Social media in Turkey has been ripe with rumors about the likelihood of further embarrassing revelations surfacing about corruption in government ranks. Hence, the fact that the shutdown of Twitter occurred ahead of the local elections should not come as a surprise.

Technically, the local elections are not directly about the prime minister himself. Under normal circumstances, parliamentary elections will not be held until the summer of 2015. However, an AKP by-law limits terms of office for party members as parliamentarians and cabinet minister to three. Unless this rule is amended, Erdoğan cannot present himself as a candidate and expect to be re-elected to serve for a fourth term as prime minister. Instead he aspires to run for president later in August this year. Ideally, he would want to win this election in the first round which would require him to obtain just above 50 percent of the votes. Otherwise, the election would go to a second round and this might seriously complicate his chances of winning it. The local elections however are not going to be just about mayors, but are increasingly being seen as a plebiscite about Erdoğan’s legitimacy. Silencing Twitter and general debate about his leadership just ahead of the elections on Sunday becomes critical to making sure AKP’s overall performance remains at a respectable level. What is then this level?

Reliable public opinion surveys are very difficult to find. A recently published Brookings report, Turkey Goes to the Ballot Box, shows how support for AKP has dropped by eight points from around 50 percent in December 2013 to 42 percent in February this year. Against the turmoil that has marked Erdoğan and AKP’s rule during the course of 2013 many analysts consider this to be a respectable performance on three grounds. Firstly, if AKP was indeed going to receive a result around 42 percent this would be still higher than the 39 percent the party had obtained in the last local elections in 2009. All the indications are that Erdoğan is going to frame any result above this level as a victory and endorsement of his legitimacy. Secondly, opposition parties’ performances have not improved significantly. The main opposition party, social democratic Republican People’s Party (RPP), and the right wing nationalist Turkish National Action Party have seen their support level in these polls increase by only four, from 26 to 30 percent, and three points, from 13 to 17 percent, respectively. This is not exactly a stellar performance when judged against the challenges that AKP has been facing especially since December. This leads to the third factor: politically the opposition remains weak. RPP has tried hard to cash in on the corruption scandal that has engulfed AKP but has failed to develop a convincing electoral program appealing to the masses. This failure is reflected in the huge numbers of supporters that Erdoğan has been able to attract to his electoral rallies across the country.

Most significantly, right in the midst of the Twitter crisis, and exactly a week before the local elections, Erdoğan addressed a rally in Istanbul attended by well over a million of his party’s loyalists. These loyalists come from sections of Turkish society who either do not use social media or, like their leader, consider it a “curse” rather than a channel for freedom of expression in a genuinely democratic society. If the size of this crowd and the populist discourse with which Erdoğan was addressing them is any measure to go by, then there is a good likelihood that he may still be able to receive the level of support he needs to pursue his political ambitions. Whether these ambitions will make him more and more authoritarian or lead him to change course and revert back to the very policies that had once set Turkey on to a path of democratic reform and economic growth time will tell. In the meantime it will be critical that the election on Sunday is as fair and free as the previous sixteen general and thirteen local elections that have been held since Turkey joined the community of democratic nations in 1950. Any manipulation of the election results by the government would dramatically undermine the one remaining solid democratic institution in Turkey and risk taking the country into deep instability.