Will Binali Yıldırım’s 180-degree strategy change work?

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Prior to the March 31 local elections, it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan instead of Binali Yıldırım that was competing in the race – and it was an aggressive campaign. Ahead of the June 23 re-vote, we are witnessing a more positive campaign. But will it succeed?

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

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

Hello, good day. The Ramadan holiday is still continuing for many, but we at Medyascope have gone back to work. And we are of course continuing to discuss the election. Some of you may have seen that I couldn’t resist and I made a video on the Pontus speculations in my hotel room in Geneva where I was for the International Press Institute World Congress. Now we’re back in the studio. I once again celebrate Ramadan, which has now passed, but the holiday is still ongoing. There isn’t long left before the election now, and two candidates are head to head. In the previous elections, on the 31st of March, there was a nationwide election in play and it was the parties that were competing. The individual candidates had certain significance of course. However, now there is only one election left. The most important one: Istanbul. Rather, it isn’t left, it was finished, and won by İmamoğlu. But somehow the YSK was pressured by the government into repeating the election.

Everything is being done in this short period of time to allow Binali Yıldırım to win. And most strikingly in all of this, is that Binali Yıldırım’s campaign has made a 180-degree turn. There are many changes. Firstly, prior to March 31st, the AKP and consequently Binalı Yıldırım was running a negative campaign in Istanbul, in the same way that they were doing all across Turkey. There was a campaign language and rhetoric dominated by the issues such as “beka” (survival), and “zillet ittifakı” (alliance of the despicable), a language that identified their opponents as despicable, and associated them with terror, regarding anyone who did not vote for them as a supporter of terror. As of now, it appears that this language has been completely abandoned. Instead, an attitude of “we will love those who do not love us” seems to have become prevalent, and actually this is just a repetition of the approach CHP has articulated before March 31st as “radical love”. Another significant difference from the last election is that the focus of the campaign was Erdoğan then, not Yıldırım. It was Erdoğan’s pictures, speeches, rallies everywhere. And in fact, Yıldırım let Erdoğan deliver the election promises instead of doing this himself.

Now Erdoğan is hardly seen. They don’t appear together much at all. Erdoğan does things on his own, for example, in the famous namaz prayer in Yenikapı, Binalı Yıldırım wasn’t around. It was alleged that this prayer was instigated by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, however this clearly was not the case. It was obvious rather that the Directorate of Religious Affairs was simply delivering what was ordered by the government. Binalı Yıldırım is on his own, and Erdoğan is not with him. So there is a big change in that regard. And in fact, the campaign company in Istanbul has also changed. I know this through a contact who was working on that team, in the previous campaign. This company doesn’t actually have a strong connection to the AKP, they are a professional company, and their campaign ended up being a complete failure. Now the AKP has taken over as a party, and are doing this the way they like it.

Binali Yıldırım is making concrete promises in this election. A large portion of these promises are improved versions of the promises made by Ekrem İmamoğlu. Fares, fare discounts, incentives for young people, positive discrimination for young people and positive discrimination for women are among the concrete promises he mentions. But the extent to which these promises stick in one’s mind remains a question mark. Another very important difference is that Binali Yıldırım had carried out a campaign using the state protocol. It was a campaign in which he was greeting at people from afar, and not coming into contact with them too much.

Now he is trying to do what İmamoğlu is doing. He is trying to step in to crowds, and to contact people. When we look at him, we see that he has been attending Ramadan dinners with young people, and taking selfies with them. He was in Diyarbakır recently and he went around hands with local shopkeepers. This is brand new. This didn’t happen prior to March 31st. We know this. Instead of a Binali Yıldırım who used to go around with an army of bodyguards, distance himself from the people and wave at them from afar, there is now a Binali Yıldırım who is trying to make as much direct contact as possible with the voters.

And Yıldırım is insistent that his campaign is one about Istanbul, and not about Turkey… For this reason, he doesn’t go into political matters. He is trying to set the stage solely around the Istanbul municipality  – the metropolitan municipality. This was actually voiced a few times by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan too. This of course is one aspect of winning the elections, but another one is that this is a move to make people forget about the proposition “He who wins Istanbul wins Turkey, and he loses Istanbul loses Turkey”. And the one who voiced this proposition for the first time 25 years ago was Recep Tayip Erdoğan.

This means that if Ekrem İmamoğlu wins the repeat election again, it will have very grave political consequences. To prevent that from happening, both Erdoğan and Yıldırım are trying to emphasize that this isn’t an election that concerns Turkey, but is one that concerns only Istanbul.

Binali Yıldırım went live on İsmail Küçükkaya’s program on Fox TV. He went on Halk TV too. And of course, he accepted to participate in a live TV debate with Ekrem İmamoğlu. As a matter of fact, we understand from his most recent statements that Yıldırım is the one that wants this debate more. When it was first asked to him whether he would take part in a live debate, his answer was: “We have to talk about it.” This was interpreted as him requiring Erdoğan’s approval. Later on, to put himself in the forefront, he started saying things like “Looks like İmamoğlu also has Kılıçdaroğlu’s permission, we will do the debate”.

Why does he do this? He would not do it, and he did not, under normal circumstances. He did not attempt such things during the 31st  March. But now he is. Since the initiative is certainly by İmamoğlu’s side. The election results are already apparent. The events in the aftermath of the 31st  March are already apparent. The experiences after YSK’s election decision are clear. Therefore, this kind of thing can be an opportunity for a person who does not have much to lose, like Binali Yıldırım, he thinks in this way. But it is very likely to say that the person who is in dire need of such thing is Binali Yıldırım. But anyway, this debate will be good for Turkey as well as Istanbul. It will also pave the way for next elections.

It might be very speculative but my guess is that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, if he runs again in the next presidential race, would want a debate with other candidates on television. Since the point in question is that it is a movement and political power who does not win anymore but lose. And I think that all options are in way or another on the table to stop losing. So, Erdoğan would want such TV debates, as Binali Yıldırım does, with its potential rivals and opposition figures in the upcoming elections.

As a matter of fact, the first place that comes to the mind is TRT, trusted by them and it has a potential to do it. There is absolute and influential government power in this place. Therefore, these debates would never be equal in terms of its participants. In other words, no matter who presents and moderates these debates, they would not be equal, specifically the debate between Yıldırım and İmamoğlu.

But still, Ekrem İmamoğlu does not have to run away from this. There is someone who expresses such views. I think there is not much need for an escape. Since İmamoğlu is self-confident and he is well prepared in his field especially for İstanbul. We saw it before 31st March, too. I do not think he would have to escape from such a debate. But that Yıldırım wants such kind of debate results from the fact that he needs this. 

Then there is the Kurdish issue. This is one of the most critical aspects. Binali Yıldırım went to Diyarbakır and uttered the word “Kurdistan”, even though he retracted it later on. This is a clear confession of the fact that he is in need of Kurdish votes – which was also the case before March 31st. He had declared that he was seeking HDP votes. But in the meantime, both Erdoğan and Bahçeli were using such negative language that these remarks by Binali Yıldırım went unnoticed. Now that he is on his own, he has found the opportunity to voice this more directly and more clearly. And it is interesting that he felt the need to visit Diyarbakır in order to garner Kurdish votes from Istanbul.

This is a very symbolic incident. Younger people may not remember this so well, but with this, we are witnessing once again what happened during Süleyman Demirel’s rule – namely the recognition of the Kurdish issue. He has recognized this reality once again. But I am not sure if this would generate votes. Yet still, this is another indicator of the 180-degree change. In the meantime, of course, we see that they haven’t been objecting to speculations about the possibility of the HDP base to vote for AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım, following the permission given to Abdullah Öcalan to meet his lawyers and family. I don’t think these speculations are convincing. But still, they are not in need of silencing these speculations.

Another aspect is that Devlet Bahçeli is out of the picture. You may remember that he was supposed to “camp” in Istanbul and carry out a campaign for June 23rd . We see that this hasn’t been the case. My guess is that Binali Yıldırım might have asked for this personally. Because every statement by Bahçeli within this time period would be detrimental to the 180-degree change in Binali Yıldırım’s strategy. I don’t think he wants it. Of course, some spokespeople and representatives of the AKP keep acting up despite this change in the campaign strategy. The Pontus issue was a leading example for this. The occasional fake news stories, the distortion of Ekrem İmamoğlu’s remarks, the claim that İmamoğlu made a call to PKK and Gülen on Habertürk TV “to govern this country together”… These incomprehensible lies continue. And the “terrorism” debate is also under-handedly being continued by some people. This shows us how much the AKP has moved away from being that iron-disciplined, united party it once was.

So what do all these 180-degree changes lead to? Will they help Binali Yıldırım win this time? I don’t really think so. Because the AKP initially set out with the following proposition: “On March 31st , we offended some of our own voters. They gave us a message, and we’re going to ask them for their vote this time, telling them that we got their message.” In other words, the main strategy of the AKP was expressed as a strategy of restoring its offended base. But until now, we see that Binali Yıldırım has been trying to address all the voters of Istanbul beyond AKP voters. This is actually something that cannot be achieved in such a short time. I think he is wasting his energy widely. Instead, it would be wise to concentrate fully, with the party organization, on persuading its voters, its base that did not go to the polls on March 31st. But there is a serious problem. They could not produce a plausible explanation as to why the YSK chose to repeat this election – neither the seven members who voted for the cancellation of YSK, AKP representatives, spokespersons, nor the President Erdoğan and Binali Yıldırım. “Because they stole it,” they said – despite the fact that it was determined in the YSK decision that no one stole anything. And there is a question of equality here; the AKP base takes much into consideration that the issue is not fair. Of course, uncompromising AKP voters, Erdoğan’s blindfolded devotees may believe, but there is a remarkable segment within AKP voters, that I constantly try to express in the publications, which act rationally, act with conscience and reason. And so far, nothing has been offered by Binali Yıldırım and the AKP to convince them. It hasn’t been possible. Therefore, while there is a journey to make AKP voters return, who did not vote on the 31st of March, in addition to win a vote by a group of voters who voted for Ekrem İmamoğlu on March 31st, somehow, Binali Yıldırım has the following risk: It is possible that some of the voters who voted for him on March 31st  will not go to the polls on June 23rd, and some may even vote for Ekrem İmamoğlu. When we look at the 180-degree altered campaign strategy he has carried out so far, we see that he hasn’t actually managed to  satisfy them.

There is this question though: What would have happened if Binali Yıldırım had carried out this campaign before March 31st? I think this is a very important question. I think if Binali Yıldırım had followed this strategy before March 31st in Istanbul and if Tayyip Erdoğan had done the same in the entire country, that is, if they had adopted a soft, calm and inclusive discourse to gain everybody’s vote instead of portraying the elections as a survival issue with a very polarizing, incriminating discourse, accusing people who are not on their side with terrorism, he wouldn’t have been defeated on March 31st. As a result, March 31st became the biggest strategic mistake of Erdoğan’s political career and I don’t think there is a quick and easy way out of this mistake. Had their campaign before March 31st involved such a moderate tone, I believe that Binali Yıldırım’s chances of winning Istanbul would have been significant. However, I don’t think that’s possible anymore. Voters are probably observing the change of the campaign’s discourse from being aggressively negative and hostile to a completely different tone. I’m not sure how convincing this would be. Although a little late, Binali Yıldırım has gained, or was given, the control over the process. However, Ekrem İmamoğlu achieved to create a huge gap between them in many dimensions. I don’t think it will be easy for him to close this gap. That is all I have to say, have a good day.

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