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Is the Turkish Government doomed to bad PR?

Thomas Scrivener

A foreign journalist flown in to cover the latest terror attacks in Istanbul reminded me how poorly Turkey’s public relations efforts are percieved overseas.

“The Palestinians also used to have this problem,” he said. “The Israeli spokesman would come on TV with flawless English and a lawyer’s arguments, and then a representative of the Palestinians would come on and try to convince you of a conspiracy with broken English and bad logic.”

Despite the enormous sums being ploughed into soft power, the image of Turkey and the Turkish state is now considerably worse than many other states heading towards authoritarianism and even many consolidated dictatorships.

When the Turkish government is in a position of strength, it comes off as a triumphalist and bullying “bad winner”; whenever it is in a position of weakness, it becomes a resentful “bad loser”.

One reason for this may be that the government has not yet understood the rules of the soft power game: it does not mask its realpolitik for public consumption, and indeed publicly flaunts its attempts to gain power and weaken rivals.

Another is that Turkey is at most a regional, middle-sized power whose actions in the Middle East and further afield are still very much limited by boundaries imposed by Russia and the United States. The country’s attempts to break through these red lines are sometimes repulsed, leading to embarrassing policy U-turns the government chooses to publicly interpret as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy against Turkey.

Added to this is the fact that sometimes the country operates in the international sphere not purely in the national interest, but in support of groups, individuals and sects that members of the government believe further their group interests: the cases of the Muslim Brotherhood, Reza Zarrab and the sponsorship of various Sunni rebel movements in Syria are all good examples of this.

At present, the most important interest of the AK Party government, however, is retaining its electability and keeping control of the state. Senior members of the present-day government realise the high personal price they are likely to pay for losing hold of power in a system where prosecuting opposition voices as terrorists has become institutionalized.

Up until the present day, the AK Party has based its electoral strategy largely on being the democratic alternative “national will” in opposition to a system of government in which Islamist parties were repressed through institutions such as legal sanctions against political parties using religion in politics, military intervention against attempts by religious parties to govern the country and the institution of the presidency, which was initially meant to be a check on the power populists could muster.

However, having repeatedly purged and reformed the judiciary, the military, and the bureaucratic institutions of the state to the extent where very few checks and balances remain on their power, it is becoming difficult to portray secularists or a “deep state” as the hegemonic threat to democracy.

Since the party hit the psychologically-important figure of 50% of the vote (rounded up) in the 2011 general elections, the lack of a compelling domestic electoral narrative has come increasingly to haunt the AK Party, lowering electoral turnout and enthusiasm for the government while allowing the coalition of disparate interests brought together by the party in 2002 to crumble. Galip Dalay argued the same in a paper for Al Jazeera before the June 2015 elections:

“[The 2002 election] was cast in the lexicon of the victory of a new and responsive politics over the old and decadent politics. Turkey entered the 22 July 2007 general election with competition between civilian politicians and the military over the selection of Turkey’s next president […]

“With the defeat of the civil-military bureaucratic establishment and the further boosting of its self-confidence in the background, the AK Party entered the 2011 general election with the promise of building a ‘new’ Turkey. Believing that its struggle was primarily aimed at deconstructing the undemocratic civil-military tutelary structure, the establishment of a “new” Turkey, though ambiguous and fuzzy, became the party’s primary narrative in the 2011 general elections.”

Now, however, they have had six years to build their “new Turkey”: notwithstanding the party’s many successes, the return to an everyday technocratic political agenda would not only further reduce electoral turnout among the party’s base, but would also encourage more criticism of the corruption and nepotism which has set in at the highest levels of the state. Those around the president, therefore, appear determined to maintain the narrative that their struggle is an epic moral battle between good and evil – and like American neoconservatives after the fall of Communism, they needed a new demon in order to justify the struggle.

The most pressing problem facing Turkey today, though it may not turn out to be the most important in retrospect, is terrorism. There are terror groups from at least 3 different ideological camps actively committing atrocities in Turkey at present, and the government has repeatedly made the claim that a fourth – the Gülen movement – is aiding, abetting or participating in acts of terror. A large part of anti-terror efforts have so far been aimed at the punishment of people associated with these ideological currents, particularly Kurdish nationalists and Gülenists, through firings, arrests, and sentencing these individuals to years of defending themselves through the enormously overburdened court system.

This has not, however, had the effect of halting terror attcks. It is unclear what proportion of attacks are intercepted by Turkish intelligence, but the fact remains that around one a month has succeeded on average over the past two years – and that is outside Turkey’s southeast, which has been turned into a warzone. The pressure to punish terrorists and stop terrorism in Turkey is high, and the AK Party risk losing support over their failure to succeed in doing it.

In consequence, what we have seen in recent years is a shift towards blaming the United States, and to a lesser extent Israel and European powers, for all types of terrorism in Turkey. This has the benefit of justifying any and all behavior by the Turkish state abroad, however far it may appear to sacrifice the Turkish national interest to the interests of the government and its allies, as “chess moves” being intelligently played against a cunning opponent (the usual media term is “the mastermind”) which ordinary voters cannot even begin to grasp.

Attacks on the U.S., Israel, and occasionally “imperialist” European countries have been a feature of the Turkish media environment for time immemorial. But the intensity and seriousness of attacks on the West have now reached a pitch where they are becoming a serious obstacle to Turkey’s international relations – and an even larger obstacle to its attempts to defend itself in the international court of public opinion.

Like the Palestinians of yesteryear, the present AK Party government has chosen to sacrifice the logic of international discourse for a deliberately unintelligible moral high ground that solely makes sense for domestic consumption.

The AK Party is by no means the only “post-truth” populist regime in the world today, but may well be breaking records for damaging their country’s international interests by trying to sell it abroad.

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