Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defied all expectations when he won nearly half the vote in Turkey’s election on Sunday. This means he’ll face a presidential runoff for the first time, but he looks poised to win a third term anyway, despite his poor governing track record. For this, he has his control over Turkey’s media to thank.
By objective standards, Erdogan’s leadership has been destructive for years now. Even if one didn’t mind his undemocratic consolidation of power, financial mismanagement and government dysfunction have clearly harmed Turkish citizens. Under direct influence from Erdogan, Turkey’s central bank took fiscal steps that sent inflation to nearly 86% last year and eroded living standards across the country.
Corruption also exploded during his time in power, as he gutted state institutions, filled key positions with lackeys and harassed or arrested those who pushed back.
Corrupt regulatory oversight has consequences, and those were on gruesome display after the February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 Turkish citizens. The earthquake was powerful, but many buildings would have withstood the pressure had regulators enforced building codes. The country’s weak institutions were also woefully unprepared to muster emergency services, dooming untold numbers of people who might have survived with a timely response.
How is it possible that this long-standing incumbent might still win, despite how bleak life is in Turkey today?
Turkey’s elections are what experts call free but not fair. Turkish citizens were free to vote for their chosen candidate. They generally did not experience intimidation or coercion at the polling station, and no one meddled with the integrity of ballot boxes.
But the contest was hardly fair. Erdogan’s autocratic moves have given him many undue advantages against any competition. Just before the election, he used public funds to buy affection, raising public worker salaries by 45%, reducing electricity prices and providing free natural gas.
He’s also been setting the stage for years by centralizing government control under himself and weakening or destroying checks on his power. Erdogan not only flooded government positions with his allies but stacked the courts with his supporters too. His government has arrested political opponents and journalists for vague offenses like supporting terrorism. All of this made it easier for him to maintain control and harder for anyone to expose his failings.
But the single most powerful tool at his disposal is control over the narrative in media. Whoever controls the media controls the reality constituents perceive.
Erdogan took a corporate approach to cornering the media market rather than relying on brute force alone. His party encouraged friendly businesses to buy up media agencies, resulting in a highly concentrated and controlled media environment.
About 90% of Turkish media is owned either directly by the government or by large commercial conglomerates that promote government propaganda in return for lucrative government contracts in sectors from mining to construction to telecoms. Corporate interest in maximizing ratings and promoting business-friendly politicians already raise questions about news media bias in the United States and elsewhere, but this approach takes conflicts of interest to the next level.
Erdogan doesn’t hesitate to use business interests to control broader social media too. After all, it’s more palatable than the government blocking social media. Elon Musk has several multimillion-dollar deals with the Turkish government, so his acquiescence to Erdogan’s request that Twitter block opposition content the day before the election fits Erdogan’s dollars-for-censorship approach.
Controlling the narrative has enabled Erdogan to maintain his popularity despite his declining performance. Two decades ago, his party turned the country around in a financial crisis and spurred major economic growth. He made Turkey richer and increased living standards for its people. Turkey was even on a path to European Union membership.
That Erdogan still lives in the minds of many Turkish citizens because Erdogan didn’t allow the narrative to change even as his governance did. By controlling the media, he was able to shape the stories his population read and heard and, as a result, what they believed.
In that story, corruption didn’t cause 50,000 deaths in an earthquake — an unprecedented natural disaster did. Inflation wasn’t due to his bad fiscal practices, but to the interference of foreign financial tools. In that story, Turkey is having a tough go of it, but Erdogan is the solution, not the cause.
If Erdogan is reelected, it won’t be on his governance record but on the propaganda narrative his co-opted media has sold to the public. And, to the chagrin of many defenders of democracy, it will be the public’s choice.
Authoritarians and aspiring autocrats the world over are watching his example and copying his playbook. Hungary’s Viktor Orban won a fourth term as prime minister in a landslide just last year following the same approach.
Whether or not Erdogan prevails in the runoff, let Turkey’s election be a reminder that a free vote means little in the face of a false narrative. Concentrated corporate control of the press can be just as dangerous and effective as direct government obstruction of independent media.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is the author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”
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