How and why has Erdoğan run out of words?

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Why has President Erdoğan become less skillful in determining voter preferences? Could this be explained solely by the poor performance of the Turkish economy?

Click CC in the bottom right corner for English subtitles.
Broadcast date: 16 May 2019

Translation: Mert Erinç, Cansu Şafak, Edgar Şar, Alphan Telek, Oğul Tuna, Aylin Yardımcı
Subtitles: Egemen Gök
Edited by: Melissa Clissold

Hello, good day. President Erdoğan’s recent statement has drawn a lot of people’s attention. He said “We have been keeping them full, answering all their needs, but they are still not voting for us.” In fact, this is not surprising at all. It indicates that Erdoğan has had trouble in mobilising society for some time now. It is a defensive position and perhaps even a little desperate. I define it as the coming of the end or the end of Erdoğan’s word. Actually, during his inaugural years in politics, Erdoğan had always been the sort of politician that has impacted people through his speeches. This has hold true for a long while now. However, from a certain time onwards, we see that Erdoğan has not really been saying anything at all.

What’s going on? While defending the constitutional amendment package, which would turn Turkey into a presidency, Erdoğan said: “Once we adopt this system, we will have a great breakthrough.” Nevertheless, the exact opposite has been seen in the case of the economy. Currently, Erdoğan cannot go beyond promising good days after the elections, as he was doing for March 31 and as he is now doing for June 23. He was not always like this, particularly during his times at carrying out politics within the Welfare Party or his first years in power. I believe that we have gradually witnessed the disappearance of Erdoğan who was always spoke with a future-oriented, progressive perspective until the Gezi Protests or his fight with the Gülenists. 

When I say “spoke with a future-oriented, progressive perspective”, it is with regards to the statements made regarding promises to change, novelties, progress in human rights, freedom, rule of law and democracy. On the contrary, Erdoğan has gradually turned into a politician, who for the sake of preserving the status quo, has taken the country backwards step by step in terms of rights, liberties and freedom of press. Now we are confronted by a politician whose own political survival is much more important then the survival of the country. A politician, who is not in favour of change but defends the status quo during every social challenge in order to ensure his position in power… This, naturally, is reflected in both in his discourse and practices.   

In the past, Erdoğan had asserted to bring certain freedoms to the forefront. Now, he is bringing about prohibitions instead. Instead of being the person who in the past complained about the state of  society and who claimed to change the system with society’s support, we are now face to face with an Erdoğan that has become a person who in order to protect the system and the status quo – which happens quite often – takes on society and the public.

The most important reason for Erdoğan’s success is that he managed to carry a fraction of the society that had been marginalised for years, the conservatives, to the centre of the system. He is still reaping its benefits to an extent. There is also popular support attached to this. However, he can no longer guarantee them maintaining their centrality anymore. I want to repeat an observation that I expressed in one of my previous videos. The ones who gained alongside Erdoğan don’t want to lose alongside him.  This is basically what is happening right now. This is the reason behind Erdoğan’s disappointment reflected the quote “We have given all what they needed, and still they don’t vote for us”. Some fractions of society may have some debt of gratitude to Erdoğan, especially the religious fractions.

However, they think that the way Erdoğan is governing the country, especially issues regarding the economy, democracy and rule of law, are endangering all of what they have gained. As a result, they are holding him at arm’s length. Erdoğan hasn’t yet found a way to respond to this loss of affection. The main reason he is having trouble finding the response he wants is that he is having trouble finding the words to express this distance. Perhaps, he doesn’t want to face it. Here, we move to “how”. 

First of all, there is an Erdoğan that speaks all the time. In any occasion, in opening ceremonies, in rallies, before he departs from an airport, when he arrives at one, etc. Every time he speaks, it is broadcasted by dozens of channels, published by dozens of newspapers. The more he speaks, the less value his words carry. He doesn’t realise that. It is surprising that he doesn’t, but it’s been like this for a long time now. He also doesn’t let anyone else speak.

However, in the early years of the AKP until some point, others were able to talk as much as Erdoğan. Sometimes there were other voices, other opinions diverging from Erdoğan’s words. However limited, this variety of opinion let the AKP maintain discussion inside and to also move on more easily. Now, Erdoğan has monopolised both the government and speech. As he monopolised speech, we have seen that his words carry less value. From the days when Erdoğan was the head of the Welfare Party’s Istanbul Organization, I observed him as a man of valued teamwork. He has been one for a long time. He still is. He has many advisers. However, there is a sharp decrease in the quality and impact of his advisers.

When he was Prime Minister, his advisors could really change something. Honestly, I don’t know if there is that kind of advisor now. Currently, there are the usual advisors around him advising Erdoğan with what he wants to hear. Some of them have already become trolls. Their words do not have much meaning. There are also certain advisors who come forward with their tweets and op-ed articles. People have their doubts about which ideas have been given by these advisors to Erdoğan.

The most important thing is that there is no one playing the devil’s advocate around him. This is a trap into which politicians and rulers usually fall. Politicians usually prefer people telling them what they want to hear. Yet, successful politicians need people that disturb them. In the past, this was in the agenda of the government when the AKP was successful. But it has been a long time that we see people criticising or explaining their rejections about ruling actions; they been liquidated or marginalized. I don’t think that there is a qualified and influential community around Erdoğan that can nurture him or make Erdoğan’s words valuable. 

On the other hand, a somewhat Islamic intelligentsia in Turkey had been formed. There were some among them who read, discussed, followed the world and translated and adapted all of this into Turkey. But an undeniably important part of them have been bureaucratized and become technocrats first within the Welfare Party’s municipalities and then the AKP’s rule; in other words they have become apparatchik. And they have lost all their originality and ability to criticise. The ones who have not lost their originality have been excluded and neutralised, and thus they have withdrawn. Therefore, the AKP and Erdoğan are not receiving any  intellectual nourishment.

“Debate” has completely disappeared. Most of the things that count as “debates” are sloppy, so-called instructions  that are voiced by a number of shadowy figures, or newcomers. In today’s Turkey, those who first come to mind when one thinks of the Islamic movement are below average, both by Turkish and international standards, void of any positive contribution intellectually. But a certain portion of these people are treated with great respect, with the assumption that they satisfy the needs of the lower segments of society. And this  trivialises not only the words of Erdoğan, but also of this movement, the AKP movement, and the Islamic movement in Turkey.

The party has lost its function. The Justice and Development Party used to be a very dynamic party, but it no longer is. It functions more like a company, or a bureaucratic agency. And I don’t think anything nourishing comes out of this. The parliament is now obsolete. Since 2002, the AKP’s parliamentary group has always had a certain dynamism. There, members of the parliament were influential over commissions or ministers – in some instances even, they were somehow able to directly reach the then Prime Minister Erdoğan. And they were able to voice objections, or other matters of interest.  But as of now, I honestly don’t know what it means to be an AKP lawmaker other than receiving a salary and benefits. They no longer have much function.

The same thing applies for the Council of Ministers. It served a purpose of sorts until the AKP introduced the presidential system, until Erdoğan became President, and even during Davutoğlu’s presidency.  The Council of Ministers, in some way or the other, had a function. Being a minister meant something. This is no longer the case. Even though I’m a journalist, I don’t know the names of most ministers, and I’m not even curious. We don’t have much information about what the ministers are up to. When they often lash out on certain topics, we just read about it in social media. I don’t think that these ministers are easily reachable even by AKP lawmakers and party organisations. Therefore, there is a great rupture between the party’s base and administration. And my view is that this rupture exists between Erdoğan and his base too.

Erdoğan’s greatest quality and advantage was his image of being a  “man of the people”. He’s used this image from the time that he was running as a mayoral candidate. However, I now see that there is a large gap between him and the public, sometimes under the pretext of security etc. but you will have noticed this in recent times. It is the image of the ministers or Binali Yıldırım that is being shared. Their fast-breaking meals in poor, underprivileged homes, student homes are shared. It is obvious that these are to a large extent orchestrated because of the election, because of the economic crisis. But, for a while now, with regard to relations with the public, the AKP and its candidates… remember, in the lead up the 31st of March elections, Ekrem İmamoğlu led a campaign in which he repeatedly made contact with the public, and even with those in the AKP strongholds. Binali Yıldırım instead made contact from a distance. In some recent photos he is trying to portray an image of him reaching young people, and the public.

But this is a characteristic of the AKP – because the AKP is now the system. AKP has completely appropriated the system. Within that system, the AKP has made some amendments that may be to its benefit; however, it has largely maintained the system that was already in place in Turkey. And now, the AKP’s main concern is to protect, shield and prevent any change in the system that it has become synonymous with. Therefore, the AKP has become a party of the status quo, and Erdoğan, a politician of the status quo. And because he represents the status quo, his opinion becomes less valuable and he has less to say. As a result, his raising the issue of survival to the forefront, especially in the last election is not surprising. For a movement that has been – for years – advocating change, whether that change was good or bad, right or wrong, to now be vehemently adopting a slogan of survival is not at all surprising.

The merit-loyalty balance… This is already gone. A movement that is only sustained by those who are loyal, cannot contain criticism or debate. Particularly if a uniformed, “shoulder strapped” media – Ragıp’s ears will be ringing – is to prevail in Turkey, there is no way for any sort of debate, dynamism, new ideas, new horizons to emerge. When you look at the dominant media today, well, their dominance is also history. For a long time now, they’ve had no readership, no viewership, and no ability to influence the public. When you look at them, they’re all of the same mould, and we see also that the “news” an editor might write, is not news, it is something else. It can be published in various places, simultaneously, without so much as a comma changing.

Any statement by any government official is announced as an important statement via the media, yet when you look at them, you do not see anything significant. Such media already shows that the promise has come to an end for the government. There is a struggle to be efficient on social media, where there is a real dynamism through legal intervention and the activity of trolls. However, we witnessed on March 31st  that their impact has diminished.

Finally, there is a lot to say, but, I cannot pass without mentioning the Pelican affair. Pelican got Ahmet Davutoğlu into trouble and somehow maintains its power; there is a serious problem since an approach to purge someone within a group within the government by purification or the use of media and social media has almost become an official policy. We do not see any effort to overcome this problem.

Thus, we are at a point where the promise has come to an end. In this way, the promise of this government, which is nothing more than Erdoğan, has come to an end. Now, Istanbul is heading again to another election. A significant part of the promises for Istanbul have been stolen from Ekrem İmamoğlu. Just as the motto “It’s going to be better” evolved from İmamoğlu’s “Everything is going to be alright”. The election results show that notions such as “heartfelt municipalism” did not work and did not answer the purpose. Yet the defeat on March 31st, especially in metropoles, the most dynamic parts of Turkey, demonstrates that Erdoğan cannot come up with the words corresponding to the search and need for change.

Before March 31, President Erdoğan has organised countless rallies, he has appeared on numerous television programmes. He has spoken constantly. But he has not promised anything that the people can keep in mind. On June 23, he will organise and show up again. Let’s see if he can win people over, talk about anything that may attract the people– I do not mention utterances that may cause fear because he already speaks in this way, but something that may be attractive. I do not think so. That’s all I have to say, have a good day.

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