AKP media campaign delves into racism as it runs out of ideas

With weeks left until the June 23 Istanbul rerun, an effective media strategy to counter the popular opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, is proving elusive for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s İmamoğlu won the vote the first time around in spite of a sustained media campaign villifying his party as collaborating “terrorists”. That approach proved fruitless the first time around, and the AKP’s foray into racist discourse in the lead-up to the rerun appears to have been even more ineffective.

Last week’s column noted that the AKP had eased off its media campaign since the lead-up to March 31. This week gave a concrete sign as to why, when the party’s candidate for the Istanbul rerun, Binali Yıldırım, travelled to Diyarbakır during the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

Commentators had already noted a shift in the ruling party’s tone since March 31 when it came to Kurdish political actors.

The campaign for the local polls held on that date had heavily relied on targeting the opposition alliance’s collaboration with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which the ruling party denounced as “terrorists” for its connections to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Yet since March 31, the AKP has taken a far more respectful tone to Kurds including Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader imprisoned on İmralı Island since 1999. As opposition nationalist Good Party leader Meral Akşener noted, the ruling party had gone from calling the PKK leader a “baby killer” to “Mr. Öcalan”.

So, when Yıldırım went to the city considered by many to be the capital of Turkish Kurdistan, it was no surprise to see the former prime minister sending some linguistic messages of his own.

Among other Yıldırım referred to “Kurdistan”, a sensitive issue for Turkish nationalists like the AKP’s far-right elections partners the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

In March, MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli said the region “has not, does not, and will never exist”, and said that uttering the name meant “destruction” for Turkey’s survival. On Friday, the party shot back that Yıldırım’s words had been “wrong from start to finish”, but presumably the AKP man’s attempt to win over Kurdish voters will not scupper the MHP-AKP alliance.

The AKP is clearly counting on conservative Kurds who do not support the HDP to boost its chances in the Istanbul rerun, even as it continues, in more muted tones than before, its demonisation of İmamoğlu as the PKK’s candidate.

It has been jarring to see the ruling party dipping in to naked displays of racism with its attempt to smear the CHP as a “secret Greek” aiding those intent on “turning Istanbul back to Constantinople”.

The latter was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s take on the June 23 rerun last weekend, and it was given wide coverage on front pages on Monday.

But the questions over İmamoğlu’s ancestry stemmed from a report in Greek newspaper Ethnos that described the CHP man as “the Pontic who took Constantinople from Erdoğan”, referring to İmamoğlu’s origins on the Black Sea, the home of the Pontic Greeks.

The smear campaign continued over the week as pro-government Islamist daily Yeni Şafak falsely accused İmamoğlu of building an “idol” to Archbishop Macarios, the first president of Cyprus after the island gained its independence.

Yeni Şafak was reportedly distributed free of charge to citizens’ doorsteps in the Black Sea city of Giresun this week, complete with yet more front-page slurs on İmamoğlu.

It was mystifying that the ruling party chose to focus so heavily on the CHP candidate’s Black Sea origins, given that the region is known as a stronghold of Turkish nationalism.

If the AKP had been seeking a balance that will keep both conservative Kurds and its nationalist supporters onside ahead of the rerun, its plan backfired on the Black Sea. İmamoğlu was greeted by massive crowds as he made his way up the coast from Trabzon to Giresun and Ordu, all AKP strongholds.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.