There’s less than a week to go before Turkey’s critical general election. On June 7th, Turkish voters will go to the polls for the third time in two years (after voting in local and presidential elections). The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for 13 years, but only now is the party leadership talking about the possibility of a coalition government, repeatedly warning citizens how detrimental this would be. The AKP’s potential loss of power depends on how the pro-Kurdish HDP performs in the polls. If this latter is able to cross the 10-percent threshold, it will take 40 seats from the AKP.
So far, the ruling party has been able to maintain a parliamentary majority because of the high threshold. It obtains most of the seats in Kurdish-inhabited cities because candidates from Kurdish parties have to be independent in order to bypass the threshold, which in turn decreases the total number of seats for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The Research Institute on Turkey, a grassroots initiative, has provided simulations about the possible number of seats that the HDP could get. I believe that some voters who are opposed to the AKP but are not convinced by the HDP might well decide to vote for it anyway for tactical reasons in order to weaken the ruling party’s parliamentary power.
In recent elections, there were bans on the use of social media and thus we did not witness much online institutional campaigning. However, this election run-up has been different, with nearly all the parties choosing to invest in major social media campaigns and Turkish citizens being relatively free to use social media.
I would say that this election campaign has been less tense than previous ones, although I would not say that there has been no tension at all. Simply, the opposition parties have generally chosen a less confrontative approach to counter President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s angry rhetoric, whereas he continues to use confrontation to consolidate his voter base.
My overall observation is that the HDP has been much more successful with its social media campaigning than the other parties. There are two major reasons for that: The use of political humor and grassroots activities, as it is volunteers who do most of the party campaigning, rather than it being organized centrally. Most of the civic initiatives related to the Gezi Park protests that began on May 28th 2013 seem to have allied themselves with the HDP and have helped to produce valuable content. The HDP leadership appears to be pleased about this. For his part, Erdogan could well sue, as he did in the case of the cartoonist Musa Kart in 2006.
This is another example of campaigning: https://twitter.com/Sigara_Fan_Clup/status/604285109919866881
The AKP has probably spent more on online advertising than any of the other parties. It advertises on social media platforms but also on other digital channels. Despite the president’s harsh stance towards online critical voices, almost all the AKP’s local branches have their own official Twitter and Facebook accounts. Nonetheless, most of the party’s campaigning is centralized. The AKP’s hashtags are not on par with those of the HDP. The AKP has also been known to use trolls, which were recently rendered legitimate by New Turkey’s Digital Office. Pro-HDP accounts can also sometimes be very aggressive. On the whole, however, AKP volunteers act like the party leadership and their Twitter hashtags are generally created to counter others.
The Republican People’s Party (CHP) started out with a strong campaign which then slowed down. Like the AKP, it relies on professional social media agencies and after a massive media campaign launch, the output ground to a halt. Many pro-CHP citizens are social media savvy but they are not as active as their HDP rivals who have introduced daily campaigns.
The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has been rather silent in the digital world. Occasional Twitter hashtags have become trending topics, but generally the party’s online activity has been limited.
Some of the smaller parties can sometimes be sighted trending on Twitter, but my suspicion is that this is mostly due to automated Twitter bots or because tweets have been paid for.
The parties have also used more online tools. I have started a series of them at Global Voices.: Election News mapping, Data sets documenting attacks against HDP offices, mapping and documenting where election rallies occur or fact checking of party leaders’ statements.
Online media may currently not be the most decisive means of influencing election results in Turkey nationwide, but the growing number of younger voters and the fact that social media are playing an increasingly significant role generally mean that in the very near future election campaigns and media wars will surely be fought digitally.
Erkan Saka is an assistant professor at the School of Communication at Istanbul’s Bilgi University. He teaches New Media Cultures and Cyber-Anthropology. He earned BA and MA degrees at the Sociology Department of Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. He received his PhD at the Anthropology Department of Rice University (Houston, USA). He has been a political blogger since June 2004. He has been member of The Bobs jury in 2014-2015.