Ebru Erdem-Akçay
Dec 17 2017

AKP’s old campaign strategies will not work in 2019

Turkey is two years away from presidential and parliamentary elections, to be held by Nov. 3, 2019. After these polls, Turkey’s transition to a presidential system will be complete; the elected president will have executive powers and the office of the prime minister will be abolished.

Since the April 2017 referendum that passed the constitutional change for the presidential system, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has fixed its gaze on the 2019 elections and is attempting to lay the foundations for a win. Losing is not an option for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but the democratic legitimacy of his presidency is negotiable.

In preparation for 2019, Erdoğan and the AKP are following a two-pronged strategy: an overhaul of the party cadres to address what Erdoğan calls “metal fatigue” and preparing legislation that extends AKP control over the electoral process.

These moves were facilitated by the increasingly authoritarian political environment and will make it even more authoritarian in return. Removing elected mayors and introducing tight restrictions on election monitors do not indicate wholly democratic intentions.

The current state of emergency that allows rule by decree and the ongoing repression of opposition will likely continue until 2019.

However, having all the means of the state, including control over the media, may still not guarantee a victory. The strength of “no” vote in the April 2017 referendum gave it an ironic quality. The very slim 51 percent vote to give the presidency sweeping powers also demonstrated the very real risk of Erdoğan failing to win it.

The “no” campaign almost won the referendum despite an extremely uneven playing field by adapting to the realities of the repressive political environment. As I discussed in an earlier piece, the new conservative Good Party will likely adapt to this environment and carry out a campaign within the many constraints on political challengers.  

The AKP, on the other hand, is struggling to adapt to the very political environment it has engineered. The campaign strategies it has successfully used since coming to power in 2002 were designed to compete in elections considered to be legitimate and competitive, if not democratic, by a majority of the electorate. They are not performing as well under the current repressive regime.

It is well known that the AKP polls public opinion incessantly and adjusts messages and priorities based on the results. But under the current authoritarianism, even AKP supporters are likely not expressing their real thoughts and feelings – a common-sense preservation mechanism scholar Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification”.  The AKP cannot rely on opinion polls to understand people’s inclinations anymore.

But polls are not the only instruments at the AKP’s disposal. The local party organisations at every level – central, provincial, district and neighbourhood - act as a nationwide information network. Information flows from the bottom and political messaging and patronage flows down. The forced resignations of 22 provincial chairs and changes of personnel through ongoing district and provincial level party congresses indicate that this network had more than a few clogged arteries.

AKP-run municipalities are an integral part of the local organisations because they provide the resources for local services and patronage. For example, they sponsor many events that are aligned with the political message the party wants to deliver in a locality. As the party becomes increasingly centralised and a one-man show, the effectiveness of these local messages has diminished.

With the economic downturn, it also became less costly to rely on control of the media and bringing Erdoğan to the people through dominating television coverage.

But relying on traditional or social media gives way to another shortcoming. In recent years, we have seen Erdoğan spin political developments, especially developments in the international arena, thanks to his control over print and broadcast media and the use of online propaganda through a group dubbed “AK trolls”.  

However, people’s trust in television and print news has sunk. Government-controlled media is mocked as “penguin media”, a reference to news channels that showed penguin documentaries during the 2013 Gezi protests, the largest demonstrations against the government yet seen.

Especially after last year’s failed coup attempt, many people either made their social media accounts private or retreated to more discrete messaging applications such as WhatsApp. Government control over the media leads to increasing scepticism, and that in turn reduces the effect of political messages through that media.

The AKP still has two years to develop strategies beyond increasing the level of repression and laying the groundwork for vote rigging, but it lacks the qualified personnel who could help the party adapt to the new political environment. It has become a party of inertia rather than a party of innovation, thanks to the increasing intra-party authoritarianism.  

The June 2011 elections gave AKP its highest vote share to date, 49,8% and the party was able to get close to that only through repression, vote suppression, and irregularities afterwards. To achieve the coveted 50%+1 in 2019, AKP needs to change.

The direction of that change will also determine the type of regime Turkey will have after 2019.