August 30, 2015

Why is the AK Party still popular if it’s authoritarian?

Sevgi Akarçeşme

If President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is autocratic and oppressive, why is he still supported by the people?

This is a question any outside observer of Turkey would wonder after hearing about the tremendous problems with freedom of expression and democracy in the country.

Let me first note that I will use Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) interchangeably since Erdoğan is the de facto leader of the party, although the Constitution stipulates that he should be impartial. We went beyond the issue of impartiality a long time ago.

Turkish society is unprecedentedly divided and polarized at many levels. In addition to ethnic lines, thanks to Erdoğan's campaign against the Gülen movement, even religious families are divided. As admitted by the AK Party's once heavyweight Bülent Arınç, at least 50 percent of Turkish people hate the AK Party. Yet they still retain a solid support base of roughly 40 percent, despite blatant and large-scale corruption, divisive rhetoric and problems with the rule of law.

How is it all made possible? Thanks to the huge media machine that Erdoğan has established over the last decade, the majority of TV stations and numerous newspapers have been doing everything in their power to manipulate public opinion. It would be an understatement to say that they are pro-AK Party. The AK Party's business cronies, who receive lucrative public tenders in return for their loyal broadcasting of Erdoğan, own these media institutions. Due to them being financed by a pool of businessmen, they are referred as “pool media” among critics in Turkey.

One of these media owners even referred to his love of Erdoğan as resembling that of Shams-e Tabrizi and Rumi.

These newspapers do not shy away from fabricating stories to defame anyone and anything that is critical of Erdoğan's regime. Along with a thousand others, the fabricated story about the assassination of Erdoğan's daughter stands out to represent the shameful record of pro-AK Party media in the years to come. Since these media outlets' sole aim is to please just one person, they are not concerned about credibility at all. One day they target the Gülen movement, the next day the Doğan media group. Since the targeted institutions are forced to defend themselves, journalism in Turkey turns into an internal debate and is further compromised. In the meantime, the real issues are sidelined and the public is exposed to news which only benefits the AK Party in its effort to avoid challenging questions.

The multiple channels of public broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) are very instrumental in Erdoğan's effort to influence society, especially in rural areas and among the elderly. Funded by taxpayers' money, TRT is no different than the “pool media” in its efforts to demonize the opposition parties, the Gülen movement and anyone who dares to voice criticism.

In that respect, the “pool media” is one of the worst disasters Turkey has faced as, in the absence of an independent and ethical media, citizens are not offered the information to make sound and fair decisions. Opposition in Turkey has already been weak, fragmented and is not able to instill hope among the general public. It lacks the means to express its stance in the media, and in this way the problem and absence of opposition further deepens. However, failure to mobilize society at a time when Erdoğan announced a de facto system change and refused to give the mandate to form a government to the second party in violation of the Constitution is clearly a weakness of the opposition.

Over the years, Erdoğan has referred to his own position as the underdog. Now, it is the opposition that is victimized by him. While the AK Party has exploited the term “national will,” the opposition is unable to convey the message that it is now Erdoğan and the AK Party that do not respect the national will by deliberately failing coalition talks and hijacking the opposition's constitutional rights. It is clear that in addition to the Erdoğan problem, Turkey has a problem of opposition. An alternative could only be born from center-right politics, but the AK Party has eliminated the conditions that could enable the emergence of a new challenger. Who would fund a new opposition party under such a climate of pressure in media and business?

Against such a backdrop, it is only expected that the AK Party will retain its popularity. Yet, the curtain across the eyes of the people has begun to be opened. The decline of the AK Party is not a matter of if, but when…

Published on Today's Zaman, 29 August 2015, Saturday