On Sunday 24 June, I will be glued to my TV screen to watch two historical events. The first, and by far the most important, is England’s match against Panama for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup. The second, and perhaps the reason why you are reading this post, is the results of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey.
I have been commissioned to write a commentary for a leading newspaper and scheduled to make a TV news appearance to analyse the election results, so much of my thoughts will be expressed soon enough. However, I was recently asked by a journalism student whether I consider Turkey a democracy. My answer was negative.
On paper Turkey may look like a democracy, but in practice it is far from it. Every democratic system, whether parliamentary or presidential, contains a flaw or two whether they be the voting system, the constitutional boundaries or the role of institutions or executive branches. However, Turkey’s system (before and especially after the constitutional changes of 2017), is an amalgam of the various deficiencies that can be found in different democratic systems. The end result is a structure that resembles a democracy, but isn’t one and just doesn’t make the grade. Checks and balances? Eroded. Fundamental freedoms? Violated. Freedom of expression? Curtailed. Tyranny of the majority? Institutionalised. Civil society? embattled.
Even the electoral process is unfair, and, at times, unfree.
The elections are taking place under a state of emergency. This is the second election to be held under such restrictive conditions which have been in place for almost two years. How can Turkey be called a democracy when last year’s referendum to fundamentally transform the political system in order to entrench the rule and power of the incumbent president take place under a state of emergency? How can it be a democracy when the leaders of the third largest political party are arrested and imprisoned while still on trial without remand, in what is clearly politically motivated charges? Ahead of Sunday’s polls, the liberal and Kurdish oriented People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is experiencing real difficulties to campaign through violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, The HDP’s Presidential candidate, selahattin demirtas, is behind bars under trumped up charges of terrorism.
In Turkey, the resources of the state are intermeshed with that of the ruling party and are used for campaign purposes. After years of co-option and censorship, the media is overwhelming sympathetic to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. Some have counted that around 90 per cent of media outlets are now pro-government. Meanwhile the state broadcaster, TRT, has devoted, by some counts, almost ten times more coverage to President Erdogan than to his challengers. Go to any Turkish city and you will see at least three gigantic AKP and Erdogan posters located in key arteries of the population centre for every backstreet opposition billboard.
Turkey’s 10 per cent parliamentary threshold is a stain on its so-called democracy. This restriction was deliberately designed to prevent Kurdish political party representation. Indeed, if the HDP wins less than 10 per cent of the popular vote, the ruling AKP will be the winner of around 80 seats, all but guaranteeing their parliamentary majority. No wonder the HDP is constantly bullied and intimidated.
The OSCE which monitors elections in Turkey releases an interim report during the election process and another after the voting is complete. Over the years each report has been more damning than the next, but yet its criticisms and recommendations go unheeded. Turkey’s election board has been filled with government allies and the safety of ballots is in severe doubt in some parts of the country, mostly in areas where the aforementioned 10 per cent threshold becomes critical. To make matters worse, ballots without an official seal will be considered valid and safeguards against fraud are not strong enough. Many doubt the elections will be free and fair. And if enough of the population doesn’t believe that the process is transparent, then there is a serious problem.
The opposition has to be congratulated for competing in such an environment, let alone giving President Erdogan and the AKP a run for their money. Some commentators have gone so far as to raise the prospect of a governmental defeat. This is unlikely. Erdogan will probably win the presidency in either the first or second round. It would be a bonus for President Erdogan to have an AKP majority in parliament, but not essential. The new constitution was conceived to give the President enough authority to get things done without parliament causing too much trouble. And what it can do – refuse to authorise the budget and reject presidential decrees, Erdogan will overcome through backroom deals and manoeuvres with a handful of key parliamentary deputies whose support will be required to swing a vote.
Still, the opposition parties and candidates have done well in the circumstances, especially in a system designed to keep them in opposition.
As close observers of Turkey already know, the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was very much tied with the economic performance of the country. The 2001 economic crisis was a significant factor for the electoral success of Erdogan and the AKP in 2002. Their ability to maintain growth ensured their longevity.
Bearing this in mind some have insinuated that with Turkey’s economy on the ropes with the devaluation of the lira against all major currencies, Turkey’s current account deficit, inflation, the lack of independence of the central bank and the President’s unconventional instance that low interest rates reduce inflation, could lead to the opposition doing well in the polls. Some say perhaps they might even win if not the Presidential elections, then at least prevent the AKP from having a majority in parliament.
But at this exact moment Turkey is not in recession or financial crisis, but rather on the proposes of one. There are dark clouds on the horizon but they are not quite on top of us yet. Therefore, the extent to which economic uncertainty will be detrimental to Erdogan and the AKP depends on the success of their political campaigns as well as those of the opposition. A couple of weeks ago I touched on an important component of electoral campaigns, political branding. But now, allow me to discuss the importance of the political slogan.
In simple terms, a slogan is an effective, easily identifiable and repeatable refrain or motto which encapsulates the message or ideology of the candidate and/or political party. Just like a brand it is supposed to capture an emotional and intellectual connection with voters and accompany them into the voting booth. It can be chanted at campaign rallies, feature on billboards and uttered by politicians in a speech.
There have been some excellent political slogans over the years. Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 “Labour isn’t working” managed to capture widespread public discontent with Britain’s ruling Labour party’s inability to get to grips with the recession. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” was simple, uplifting and catchy. Love it or hate it Donald J. Trump’s “America First” was effective, albeit terrifying for the student of history. Perhaps the greatest of all time was the slogan of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation”, a rallying cry against British imperial rule during the 18th century and currently used by residents of DC who strangely find themselves constitutionally without congressional representation. My personal all-time favourite slogan is “Up Yours, Delores!”. Not affiliated to a particular party per se, it was first featured in a 1990 British tabloid newspaper headline. The phrase was then chanted at demonstrations in reaction to the French politician Jacques Delores’ advocating the ECU, the precursor to the Euro.
A couple of weeks ago, President Erdogan handed the opposition a slogan on a silver platter when he stated that all the Turkish people had to do was say “tamam” and he would step down, in this context “tamam” meant “enough”. And sure enough, millions of Turks were tweeting #Tamam.
The good news for the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the dominant party of the National Alliance (CHP, IYI, SP, DP) and its presidential candidate Muharrem Ince is that they used a variation of “tamam” in their slogans – “Artik tamam” meaning “enough already” is an obvious allusion to the hashtag. The CHP’s other slogan, “Millet icin geliyoruz!” roughly meaning “we are coming for the nation” is also a play on the Erdogan speech where he says all the nation has to do is say enough. Another CHP and Ince slogan is the rhyming “Turkiye’ye guvence Muharrem İnce”, roughly translating to "Muharrem İnce, an assurance to Turkey".
Quite catchy with clear messages, the CHP’s slogans have so far been ok, not bad, pretty good. But they are not exactly wow either. Although certainly an improvement on the CHP’s lame June 2015 election slogan, “Milletce alkisliyoruz" meaning “we clap as a nation”, the CHP’s 2018 message does not hit hard enough, especially not on the economy. A really good political slogan finds the incumbents’ weak spot and presses it hard and relentlessly until something gives way.
A good example of this is another all-time great, Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”. Coined by James Carville, one of the best politically campaigners of the modern era, the Clinton slogan was able to beat the incumbent US President George Bush Snr in the 1992 elections. The fact that Clinton won was remarkable as he defeated an incumbent US president who was basking in the glory of the successful Gulf War. In 1991 Bush enjoyed a whopping 90% approval rating. However, having found Bush’s weak spot, the recession of the previous year, Clinton was relentless on economic issues until slowly but surely Bush’s popularity all but evaporated. With this in mind the CHP’s slogans, quite frankly, need to be better, especially on the economic downturn on the horizon.
Now let’s evaluate the slogans of the current ruling party and president, the dominant forces of the People’s Alliance, a coalition between the AKP, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the smaller Great Unity Party (BBP).
So far, the AKP’s election slogans, just like its campaign in general, have not exactly been thrilling. “Vakit Turkiye vakti” roughly translating as “the time is Turkey’s time” is somewhat effective in that it relates to the time conscious period of the holy month Ramadan when Muslims fast during the day and break bread at sundown. The use of religious motifs in AKP electioneering is not new. Back in November 2015, one of the AKP’s main slogans was “Haydi Bismillah", a common religious refrain in Turkey. The AKP’s other current slogan is “Guclu Meclis, Guclu Hukumet, Guclu Turkiye” meaning “Strong parliament, strong government, strong Turkey” which echoes President Erdogan’s ambitions to transform Turkey’s political system.
But this message has already been made, especially during last year’s constitutional referendum. The slogan is therefore rather dull. Not only did the AKP already win the constitutional referendum, but the slogan also recycles the June 2015 AKP phraze “İstikrara oy verin" (vote for stability). Back then, the AKP only won just under 41 per cent of the popular vote, something which the AKP will hate to repeat this time round. The stability card in my opinion, is quite desperate, almost as needy as the November 2015 election re-run slogan of “İlk gunku askla" which roughly translates to “with the same love of the first day”, as if the people’s relationship with the AKP was one of a married couple trying to rekindle the magic of times past. Erdogan and the AKP needs to up their game if they want to win their majority in parliament and the presidential run-off in the first round.
Let’s have a look at Meral Aksener and the IYI Party, part of the National Alliance. The slogan "Türkiye ve milletimiz iyi olacak", which roughly translates to “Turkey and our nation will be good” is certainly cheesy, but it’s not terribly bad either. It suffers the same problem as the CHP in that it does not hit hard enough about the economy, the soft underbelly of Erdogan and the AKP. However, the underlying message is one of positivity, and it has the potential to make the voter link their patriotic views of Turkey with the party whose very name means “good” when it’s time to cast a vote.
The best political slogan in this race is that of the HDP, “Senle degisir”, meaning “it changes with you”. It is a very empowering phrase and encapsulate the liberal and democratic spirit of the HDP. It is also clever as words can be put in front of the slogan, for example, “one man rule, it changes with you” or “everything, changes with you”. This is not unlike the 2014 election slogan of Selahattin Demirtas, "Bir Cumhurbaskani Dusunun" meaning “imagine a president…” a phrase left open ended so that another word or two may be added such as “who unites”, “brings peace”, “doesn’t discriminate”, etc. Obamaesque, no doubt. Also for the 2018 election there’s the rhyming “Yurttas, Yoldas, Arkadas Demirtas” (countryman, comrade, friend, Demirtas). This is also quite effective too. The problem of the HDP and Demirtas is not their slogans or branding, but their ability to campaign which is severely crippled due to security constraints and politically motivated attacks against this largely Kurdish party. Yet the HDP might just get past the 10 per cent threshold if they continue to do and say the right things.
As the campaigning continues I’m sure you will notice that some slogans will be dropped and others adopted. It is always interesting to observe what catches on and how the nature of campaigning evolves during an election cycle. I’m sure some new slogans will be ringing in our ears over the next few years. I can’t wait to hear them.
It took a hashtag to heat up election season in Turkey. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that if the public want him to step down all they had to do was say “tamam” (in this context meaning enough). Within hours there were over a million tweets with the hashtag #Tamam. The next day Erdogan’s supporters were tweeting “devam”, meaning “continue”.
This brings me to a related issue, one which I had already planned on addressing: branding and brand identity in the Turkish political context.
Perhaps more than anything in this world people are consumers. We make purchasing choices all the time - what food to eat, what clothes to buy, what car to drive. Successful businesses seek to steer our decisions towards their products or services.
The idea of a brand is more than just the name of a product like, say, “Coca-cola” or “Burger King”. The brand is the encapsulation of the attributes of a particular product or service that communicates a strong sense of association, perception, feeling or emotion. Not only does it do so in a way which is brief and concise, but it also has the potential to reach a broad audience.
Central to a successful brand strategy, at least in recent years, is the idea of a narrative or personal story. Often this is described as a “journey”. Go to the website of any new brand. Whether they sell bed linen or blouses, there will probably be a section that details the personal background of the owner and how he or she created the product. The idea is to create an illusion of intimacy between the brand and the consumer. By purchasing the product, you become part of the story.
Branding in politics is not so different. Just as we are consumers, we are also voters. Let me sketch out the brand identities of the leading presidential candidates and political parties in Turkey to illustrate my point. In doing so, I hope you will see who are the frontrunners in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June as well as their chances for success.
The party which has the strongest brand identity is the ruling AKP. Just its name, the Justice and Development Party, hints its political agenda – the quest for justice for those, particularly the pious or traditional, who despite being the majority were marginalised by the secular elite. The Party stands for rectifying this injustice while developing the country into a vibrant, innovative and modern economy. The official name of the AKP is the AK Parti. AK, meaning clean or white, denotes purity. Not only does this speak to the religious or those concerned with family values, but it also implies that the party is transparent. Love or hate the AKP, this is a highly effective brand message. No wonder the AKP has won every election it has contested and remains the frontrunner ahead of next June.
President Erdogan’s personal brand is a rag to riches story, a man of the people who encapsulates the quest for the rectification of past injustices while fighting for the prosperity of the Turkish nation. A religious man with a pious educational background, Erdogan is the man that “they” could not prevent from rising. A man of the people, Erdogan’s success is your success. A vote for Erdogan, the message goes, is a vote for yourself. What is more, his brand is that of being a doer whether that means putting foreign leaders in their place or managing the economy. Erdogan’s brand message continues to be highly effective. However, recently it’s been taking some knocks. Sometimes Erdogan comes across as beleaguered and his flashy expensive suits seem out of kilter. Also…well actually I’ll stop there. Don’t think I really want to give out advice.
Let’s turn to the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP also has a clear and consistent brand which everyone knows. Come on, say it with me, “the CHP is the party of Ataturk”. This clearly implied in the party’s logo, the six arrows of kemalism on a red background mirroring the national flag. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand per se. Its failing is that it is old fashioned. It also lacks a narrative beyond that of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In this day and age the story of Ataturk has been appropriated by many different sectors of society, leaving the CHP’s brand narrative rather dull. It doesn't speak to innovation, the future or the Turkey of the 21st century. As a result, the CHP consistently hovers around the 25 per cent range of the popular vote in recent elections. This is unlikely to change.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of the CHP this election was not putting forward its party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its presidential candidate. From a branding perspective, I think this decision will prove catastrophic. When Kilicdaroglu became CHP leader in 2010 he was quite cleverly marketed as Turkey’s Gandhi. But this brand weaned in subsequent years and Kilicdaroglu appeared more like a boring bureaucrat than a toga wearing non-violent revolutionary. However, this Turkish Gandhi image was revitalized after the 2016 attempted coup and the ongoing state of emergency. Justice marches, rallies and civil action campaigns, Kilicdaroglu’s brand was becoming effective. He wasn’t wearing a toga, but he was pictured in a string vest eating a modest meal while breaking bread with ordinary citizens while on his Ankara to Istanbul march. Not bad. Yet, after all this the CHP chose Muharrem Ince as its candidate. Ince, who certainly has some fire in his belly and cross-party respect, might be an ok candidate, but time is not on his side to develop a publically recognizable brand. I think he stands no real chance.
This is in contrast to IYI Party founder and leader Meral Aksener who led a break-away faction from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). In reality, this split should not have been a big deal – the activities of a renegade faction from a country’s 3rd or 4th largest party normally fades from the news cycle quite quickly. But Aksener was somehow able to brand herself as a political warrior leading a fight against those in the MHP who were succumbed by the allure of power. I guess you could say they were seduced by the dark side of the force. Noble and defiant, Aksener’s stands for the honor of fighting for your principles. The problem with Aksener’s brand is that it completely overshadows her party. I suspect the election results will show poor votes for IYI Party (although part of the opposition coalition), but significant votes for Aksener in the Presidential run-off.
Finally, let us turn to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its Presidential candidate, the imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas. Both have an effective brand image as the country’s liberal and democratic pro-Kurdish Party. This image does not speak to the entire Turkish population, but doesn’t attempt to; the HDP is not trying to turn atheists into believers, or, in this case, ardent nationalists into progressives. The unfair incarceration of Demirtas who is running for President while in prison only adds to the HDP’s effective brand. It also plays into the image of Demirtas as a man who stands for hope, reason and change (remind you of anyone?). The brother of a PKK fighter but who chose the path of peace with an outstretched arm to his Turkish brothers and sisters of all faiths and backgrounds, Demirtas and the HDP have no problem with their brand, but rather a huge problem with their inability to effectively campaign. Restrictions, incarcerations and physical attacks, it’s an insurmountable obstacle.
So, there it is, an overview of branding in the Turkish political context. I hope this helps explain some of the dynamics of the forthcoming elections. More to come soon.
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