The AKP’s Election Strategy: Controlling the Corruption Narrative

I am breaking my silence. I am still committed to finishing my dissertation before the end of this academic year, so I don’t expect to post many more blog posts before June. However, the recent corruption allegations have prompted me to take a break from my dissertation.

On 3 February 2014, Jeffrey Lewis, Melissa Hanham and Amber Lee published an article detailing how they used open source information to locate the primary facilities for North Korea’s ballistic missile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) assembly. The availability  of open source information now allows for analysts to identify North Korean missile facilities, Iranian nuclear sites, Turkish nuclear weapon storage facilities, and to track the construction of villas in a remote bay on Turkey’s Aegean coast.

Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey’s intelligence agency, wrote his PhD dissertation on the subject. He also happens to be one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisors. Thus, like in the case of Ahmet Davutoglu, whose dissertation provides invaluable insight into his worldview, Fidan’s research provides the model by which Turkey analysts should analyze the government’s handling of the recent corruption allegations.

To recap, on 24 February an anonymous person – who is certainly part of the Gulen movement – leaked a long audio recording, comprised of five different phone calls, that directly implicates Prime Minster Erdogan in the corruption scandal. The Prime Minister is heard directing his son, Bilal, to “zero out” all of the cash they have stored in the house. The cash referred to in the call suggests that Prime Minister had more than $39 million on hand. Debates are now raging about whether the recording is authentic. Roy Gutman had quite the scoop today. He wrote:

Erdogan on Tuesday called the five purported conversations an “immoral montage” that had been “dubbed.” But he acknowledged that even his secure telephone had been tapped. The only apparent “montage” was combining the five different conversations into one audio file, said Joshua Marpet, a U.S.-based cyber analyst who has testified in court on the validity of computer evidence in other Turkish criminal cases. He said there was no sign that the individual conversations had been edited. “If it’s fake, it’s of a sophistication that I haven’t seen,” he said.

Needless to say, the pro-government media has presented their own evidence indicating that the recordings had been altered. The truth, at this point, doesn’t really matter – and that is very very depressing.

Anyways, after the recordings were uploaded online, Erdogan held a late night meeting with Hakan Fidan, Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay, and Interior Minister Ekfan Ala. Why Fidan? The recordings, it appears, were perpetrated by Gulenists working for TUBITAK, who were able to tap the Prime Minister’s encrypted cell phone (Bilal, it seems, was talking on a normal house phone. So much for operational security in the post-Snowden era). TUBITAK is the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. Thus, it seems clear that Erdogan would want to include the country’s spy-chief to get some answers about the apparent ease with which the Gulenists were able to tap his phone. Yet, more broadly, Fidan’s fingerprints are all over other elements of the AKP’s response to the corruption allegations.

Erdogan addressed the allegations the following day at his weekly address to the party at Parliament. As has become typical, he used the word coup countless times, in what I believe is a concerted effort to portray what is happening in Turkey as a direct affront on the “democracy that the AKP has built since 2002.” Erdogan cynically tells the Turkish people that the West is frightened of Turkey’s economic growth, that profiteers are upset that they can no longer are able to take advantage of Turkey’s previously weak economy, and that the villains of coups past stand poised at the gate to throw him in jail. (The last one may be true.)

He has paired these efforts with sweeping changes to the country’s internet law, which, despite claims the contrary, is a concerted effort to control online content. And, it is here, where we can see Fidan’s influence. Fidan wrote:

Non-state actors heavily benefited from the information age at the expense of state power. Systemic changes are occurring as a result of countless interaction between system level and unit level actors. These actors are empowered with information age tools and concepts … In the information age the concept of power not only is changing but also the power itself is shifting to non-state actors.

To be fair, he was talking about terror groups, but the same logic applies to the crack-down on the Gulen movement. Fidan continues:

the state has lost the ground to non-state actors on many information and intelligence related issues; secondly the data produced and broadcasted by someone else other than state would manipulate the targeted audience in a different way than state wishes to see; thirdly, the decision-makers of especially democratic states feel obliged to react and address to what has already been created by media in the people’s mind and heart on specific issues. A key dimension of the information revolution’s impact on international relations is that an ever-widening range of actors now has access to powerful tools for the rapid collection, production and dissemination of information … The spread of internet across the world provides governments, businesses, non- governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as terrorists and criminals with capabilities that use to be the privileges of the most powerful governments … Instant flow of information in the modes of voice and video enables media to inform the world and/or public in real- time. As a result of this transformation and changes in media, public opinions have become even more critical and important for decision makers. (Author added emphasis)

And there it is. If Fidan is giving Erdogan similar advice, than one would assume that the crux of his message is that the AKP has to take the data produced and broadcasted by someone else other than state and manipulate it for a targeted audience. The AKP must then take steps to limit the instant flow of information. The thrust of the political counter-offensive need not be to disprove the recording’s authenticity, but rather to frame the recordings in such a way as to promote a broader political message. And what is that message? The message is that this is a coup attempt, implemented by dark forces, working with numerous lobbies, to tame Erdogan, who, according to himself, has become too powerful. And, if paired with, say, greater authority for regulators to close down websites, than one could attempt to wrestle control of the spread of information away from non-state actors and place it back in the hands of government.

With the elections looming, the government has to move quickly to control the spread of information – so you get hastily drafted legislation that is rammed through Parliament without any input from the opposition. The AKP – or more specifically, Erdogan – had wanted to use the local elections to cement his party’s power. To be sure, they were always going to win. However, they had to get over 45% of the vote to match their previous vote margins. And, more importantly, if they got over 50% than they could credibly say that they are the “majority” rather than the large “plurality.” The ballot box would have spoken! (It still might.) Erdogan than intended to use the elections as spring board for his run for the Presidency. The main thrust of the campaign was originally intended to be large infrastructure projects, which were increasingly being used a a symbol for Turkey’s – aka Erdogan’s – power. Turkey, the AKP would have had us believe, was on a march to becoming one of the world’s 10 largest economics by 2023. This has changed.

No one is talking about the ambitious goals once put forward. However, the AKP still needs to get more than 45% of the vote. So, they have resorted to hyper partisanship to retain their core constituency. It may work, but at what cost? Even if they win, Turkey will be hyper polarized, which paints a very bleak picture of the near-to-medium term vis-a-vis democratic reforms. (The need to control information will only grow more acute, should, say, a hyper polarized electorate get very angry about an AKP win.)

In the short-term, the messaging vis-a-vis the corruption scandal is now the most important aspect of the current campaign. Fidan writes, “Elections are becoming much more transparent and livelier as the Internet becomes not only a tool for elections but also a means and medium for propaganda during the elections, as the public now have easy access to political leaders.” The AKP has already “announced that it will train 6,000 of its youth members as social-media activists. Under the plan, these social-media campaigners will disseminate information and canvass Internet users to bring them over to the party.” Some follow me. They are obnoxious, but harmless.

Anyways, these efforts are aided by the lack of internet penetration. According to the World Bank, Turkey only has 45.1 internet users for every 100 people. Most people get their news from the TV, or from newspapers.  According to this post, “Erdoganist newspapers make up 41% of newspaper sales.” So, as long as the AKP can successfully prevent the playing of the recordings on television, than it stands to reason that a large number of Turkish voters wont hear their contents. In turn, this means that their perception of the crisis will then be framed on the interpretation of these events on television and in the print media. To borrow from counter-insurgency theory, the AKP isn’t really concerned about the irreconcilables – i.e, the Sozcu readers – but needs to co-opt the soft middle, who could be persuaded to support a different party. How are they doing that? The have resorted to hyper partisanship and media censorship. Thus, more broadly,  they have an incentive to frame the corruption issue in very black-or-white terms. Either you vote for the AKP, or you are indirectly aiding coup plotters. “This election is a choice between old Turkey and new Turkey…Old Turkey means corruption, poverty and bans.” Easy. And, in order to propagate this theme, they need to control the message.

The AKP’s political strategy, therefore, is to influence the ill-informed – and, more broadly, to only inform the people with the information they provide. It is quite cynical and sad (Although it is reminiscent of what Fox News and MSNBC do an a daily basis. However, the situations are in no way comparable.) To do this, they rely on heavy-handed tactics designed to stifle the media, strange conspiracy theories that are then legitimized and repeated by “trusted experts” on TV, and alternative messaging, i.e., this is a coup attempt designed to stifle Turkey’s march to democracy.

In short, the efforts suggest an all out push to strengthen, in the words of Fidan, “the government’s role as a disseminator of information.” In the long term, these efforts won’t work. Fidan makes this point repeatedly in his own work. However, in the short-term, one could try to take advantage of the relatively low numbers of internet users in country, to put in place a legal regime to restrict the flow of information. And that is exactly what they are doing – on all media fronts. It is a sad state of affairs in Turkey.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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2 Responses to The AKP’s Election Strategy: Controlling the Corruption Narrative

  1. clive of india says:

    well done
    nicely stated
    what a mess
    poor turkey
    hurtling into the 21st century willy nilly
    so much for the future sultan of the caliphate

  2. agentlabroad says:

    The phrase “immoral montage” struck me as particularly manipulative of a largely pious and conservative base.

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