Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Twitter and the March 30th Elections

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My prediction that Turkey would not ban twitter was disproven in remarkably short order.  Starting midnight Friday Turkish time twitter was blocked.  The ban failed spectacularly with millions of Turks using DNS and VPN networks, tricks that have become common knowledge in Turkey from the days of the YouTube ban, to circumvent the block.  Tweets in Turkey were up 138% from average in the the hours immediately after the ban.  Within a matter of hours, news of the ban had gone viral worldwide and everyone from the US State Department to Russell Crowe put out statements condemning it.

Despite  the world-wide condemnation (which Erdogan famously stated he did not care about), the ambiguous legality of the court orders instituting it and the epic failure of the ban to prevent anyone from using twitter (besides party die-hards), the blockade has still not be lifted.  Sunday, Erdogan once again denounced Facebook and YouTube, leading to fears that these social networks will be blocked shortly.  Of greater concern is the fact that DNS networks were blocked over the weekend and rumor has it, thanks to the new internet law, the government will soon have the ability and legal authority to block specific IP addresses, making subverting social network bans much more difficult for the average person.  However as Zeynep Tufekci observed, only a full block of the internet would prevent Turks from finding ways to get online.

Some have dismissed the twitter ban as technological and political naivete, or the last desperate efforts of a tyrant on his way out.  Though the ban in many ways has been a complete failure and is no doubt an indicator that Erdogan fears for his political future, there is shrewd political calculation behind this move.  Erdogan is betting that the ban will do more damage to his opponents than to himself in the final days leading up to the March 30 elections.  Evidence of Erdogan’s motives appeared shortly after the ban was put in place  when the hashtag “we’ll go to the streets for Twitter” began trending in Turkish.  Government critics and opposition figures countered this sentiment, calling for calm, and it was soon discovered that the hashtag was most likely spread by government trolls.  Erdogan was likely expecting the banning of twitter, a platform that figured prominently during the Gezi protests last summer, to trigger more protests.  In the year since Gezi, Erdogan and his political allies have been using the threat of “Gezi People” trying to destroy Turkish democracy and overthrow a duly elected government as a way to strengthen their hold over their conservative base.  Protests in response to the ban would have only served to strengthen his case.

It is also widely believed that the twitter ban may be a preemptive strike against the release of even more serious evidence of Erdogan’s involvement in corrupt activities, or possibly even a sex tape, in the last week before the March 30 elections.  Although the block on twitter would do little to stop the dissemination of such tapes, bans on YouTube and Facebook in addition to the blockage of IP address might indeed slow their spread among all but the most technologically savvy Turks.  However, it is important to note that such new evidence, if it does exist, may not do much to change the mind of current AKP supporters. At least some supporters do not believe the party’s denial of corruption charges.  Multiple reports have found that Erdogan supporters are willing to ignore or accept corruption because of the economic and infrastructure improvements the AKP has brought about over the last 10+ years.

Like the corruption allegations, the twitter ban indeed appears to have done little to diminish Erdogan’s popularity among his base supporters.  He was cheered after announcing his intention to shut down twitter at a rally in Bursa Thursday and was again met with approving cheers when he spoke of doing the same to Facebook and YouTube at an even bigger rally in Istanbul Sunday.  Unlike Mubarak, whose attempt to ban twitter was indeed an indication that his rule was coming to an end, Erdogan is a legitimately elected head of state.  Despite the fact that he is increasingly despised by 50% or more of the population, the fractured and ineffective nature of the opposition parties means that the AKP still enjoys a plurality of support among Turks, and that’s all they may need in order for the party to continue to control the key cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

Given the symbolic importance that both the government and the opposition have ascribed to this election, analysts and pollsters have already spent months trying to predict its outcome, especially in the mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara.  Turkish polls are notoriously biased (one of the leaked tapes revealed Erdogan personally fixing a poll before it was released) and methodologically unsound.  However, given the recent gerrymandering of local election districts, the resilience of the AKP’s base and the weakness of the opposition, the AKP may very well legitimately maintain power in Turkey’s two largest cities.  Despite the fact that the odds are arguably in their favor, there have been concerns about the possibility of election fraud, which has not been the case in decades.  The EU has offered to send observers and the government has at least officially welcomed the offer.

Even if these elections are monitored, I foresee accusations of fraud no matter which side ultimately prevails.  Given the importance of these elections for the AKP’s self-declared mandate, observers have rightly worried that they will have no qualms about stuffing ballot boxes.  However, a potentially more dangerous scenario would be for the opposition parties to take Ankara and Istanbul legitimately, only to have the government question the legality of the elections.  This could lead to the canceling of the elections and Erdogan securing an even tighter grip on power, having more “proof” that there is a 5th column trying to revert to the bad old days of secular dictatorship.  This would be a worst-case scenario, but most credible predictions about Turkey’s immediate future look bleak.  Unless a strong opposition party emerges, and the AKP collapses, Erdogan will continue to push the country into two ever more entrenched camps.  The more polarized the country is, the more difficult it will be for the two sides to reconcile within a democratic system.

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