Meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's biggest fan: Gursel Cephaneci, a Turkish actor in his 60s. It is not unusual to see actors praising the president on various occasions, but Cephaneci was speaking to staunchly pro-government channel A Haber in a "random" street interview.
Camera and mic teams go around asking people on the street who they will be voting for and why, as the March 31 elections are fast approaching. Then these recordings are posted online, with the most attractive bits and pieces becoming trending videos on social media.
On Feb. 24, it was Cephaneci's turn on camera. He spoke passionately about his love for Erdogan and shouted angrily about Erdogan's opposition.
On Feb. 25, journalist Can Bursali tweeted, “I spoke with the owner of the casting agency Cephaneci works for, Kemal Ekenel. He said that A Haber had contacted him, and Cephaneci was assigned to talk to A Haber.” Observers on social media promptly engaged in fact-checking Cephaneci’s statements, particularly his criticism of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
A Haber was adamant about rebutting claims that it had hired Cephaneci through a casting company and paid him to appear in front of cameras. So on Feb. 26, the channel carried a special program interviewing Cephaneci and Ekenel. Both men stated it was not a planned interview. Pro-government media savored what they referred to as “another failed attempt to slander A Haber,” whereas those critical of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) didn’t seem convinced that Cephaneci was randomly interviewed. This is just one of the recent examples of how far pro-AKP media will go to display Erdogan fans' exaltation.
Yet there have been some unpleasant instances that render Erdogan difficult to cherish. For example, on Feb. 8, the day his official campaign launched, Erdogan scolded his Sivas province audience for demanding jobs. He said, “Don’t expect anything from us. We gave all that we could. And don’t provoke this rally!” On March 2, Erdogan was in Rize province when substitute teachers asked for jobs. He angrily told them to ask elsewhere.
Why does Erdogan keep on rallying while there are no new promises he can make, and he is not willing to listen to the public's complaints? The campaign has turned into a two-track process: Sustain Erdogan’s popularity and demolish any opposition at any cost. What's behind this perpetual struggle?
“Erdogan loves the rallies," a political science professor who works for a state university told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "He feeds off the people’s energy and wants images of himself being applauded and cheered to in the living room of every home in the evening. A populist leader has to remain popular. As long as we [Turkey] can sustain an image of him being loved, we can sustain his popularity."
He added, "We can't necessarily solve local or national problems, but we can remind people, 'Erdogan is with you, and you love him.' For those still not convinced, we tell them that for the love of the country there is only one option in this election and it's Erdogan. If there's no competition, victory is guaranteed.”
Timur Kuran, a Turkish-American economist and Duke University professor of economics and political science, told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan’s regime once rested on genuine support. That's no longer the case. If free and fair elections were held, and the opposition was allowed to bargain openly to form a sustainable counter-coalition, he and his cronies would be booted out through a landslide, and they would all be put on trial."
He continued, "Under the circumstances, what sustains the regime is a climate of fear. This depends partly on the ongoing show-trials, discourses about Turkey’s enemies plotting to bring it down and frequent arrests that the state-owned media use to fuel a sense of insecurity. But it also depends on the perception that no one is willing to protest, or even to support citizens who speak the truth about ongoing problems. Repeated images of people adoring Erdogan reinforce the perception that dissenters will lack support. They also make potential dissenters think that, if they dared to act, a huge pro-Erdogan base would turn on them.”
Kuran concluded, “If the media were allowed to show Erdogan confronted with dissatisfied citizens, the perception that supports the climate of fear would weaken. That's among the reasons why he insists on being seen as a revered president."
Ayse Cavdar, an anthropologist and journalist, emphasized the importance of the escalating economic crisis that is now affecting every household in Turkey. She said, “Since November 2015 Erdogan has been telling the masses, 'If I am not in charge there will be a crisis.' But since then, with each election cycle, both economic and political crises have deepened and multiplied.”
Cavdar noted, “If there were no crisis, there would be no necessity for Erdogan. The question now is, what's the limit of the public's or Erdogan’s supporters for crisis tolerance? This is being tested with the municipal elections.”
She added, “Even though both the AKP and opposition parties repeatedly state that the last election results were legitimate, there are unrelenting rumors about widespread election fraud. The political parties’ statements aren't convincing.” Cavdar asked if elections are still worthy political tools.
There is indeed growing doubt about poll security.
Most of Erdogan’s campaign is based on telling the masses that his coalition is patriotic whereas the opposition is not. Indeed, Erdogan and Cabinet members openly claim the opposition parties work with terror organizations. At this point, one can't help but ask why Turkey is even holding elections, if most parties are supposedly collaborating with terrorists?
Cavdar said, “This might be the biggest trap Erdogan set against himself. Elections were the only mechanism that legitimized his power grab. But Erdogan shook people’s trust in elections by making the election campaign process unjust for his rivals. So now he has to find other ways to legitimize his position, which is not easy. That's why his mantra of 'They love me, they can't give up on me' has to continue."
Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, concurs with many other scholars that personal popularity is all Erdogan has left.
“At this point the Turkish president realizes that he needs to appeal to AKP voters’ emotions rather than their rationality. Given the economic hardships, voters who prioritize their economic interests are likely to hold him accountable for the economic mismanagement, and vote for the opposition," he said. "However, if Erdogan succeeds in reframing the municipal elections as a referendum about charismatic leadership, he could still appeal to his disgruntled followers. This requires choreographing spectacles of love and devotion to show the public that Erdogan remains a charismatic and popular figure despite the downturn in the economy."
Most media outlets present Erdogan as a leader who is unconditionally adored and obeyed despite all hardships. Images of these fans’ adulation at rallies helps these pro-government news outlets present Erdogan as representing the will of the nation. The power of these rallies is indeed insidious.
Erdogan recently said he no longer trusts opinion polls — only his people. Therefore, Erdogan’s campaign team has to keep the image of widespread love and dedication alive. Even imagining the possibility of losing is unspeakable, unthinkable. If the majority appears dedicated to Erdogan despite all financial hardships, then those who do not support him can be labeled unpatriotic, even terrorists.
“This policy of portraying Erdogan as a beloved leader goes hand in hand with criminalizing the entire opposition in the country," Erdemir noted. "Ultimately the AKP wants to reframe the elections as being between a charismatic leader who deserves loyalty and adoration regardless of his performance, and terrorists who should not be trusted regardless of what they might deliver in terms of economic and social policy.”
This obsequious show of infatuation is not likely to end with the March 31 elections. Erdemir predicts Erdogan "will need the loyalty of his followers, who will be struck by an even bigger economic crisis once the elections are over.”
But as long as the populist leader keeps up the appearance of being popular, he will remain unbeatable.