The complex landscape facing Turkey ahead of local elections

To safeguard Turkey’s democratic resilience, concerted efforts are needed. These efforts should prioritise upholding press freedom, promoting political diversity in media, combatting disinformation through digital literacy and restoring trust in democratic institutions.

The 2024 Turkish local elections, scheduled for March 31, carry substantial significance for Turkey’s political landscape. Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan secured victory in critical twin elections, obtaining a parliamentary majority on May 14 and winning the presidency on May 28, renewing his mandate for another five years.

The elections were deemed free but not necessarily fair due to “biased media coverage and the lack of a level playing field”. As the country grapples with economic challenges, the political landscape is further complicated by media censorship and disinformation. President Erdogan aims for a decisive victory, highlighting the importance of regaining the major cities of Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, and Antalya, previously lost in 2019.

Understanding the media landscape

Turkey’s media environment plays a significant role in the electoral landscape. Approximately 90 per cent of traditional media outlets are controlled directly or indirectly by the government. In addition to this worrying reality, a new media law from October 2022 allows the government to jail journalists and social media users for up to three years for spreading information deemed to be false or misleading.

Social networks, often viewed as platforms for free expression, became key arenas for political discourse. With the government’s tightening grip on mainstream media and its efforts to exert control over the internet, the Turkish people have increasingly turned to online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to voice their opinions. These social media platforms have become vital for the opposition groups aiming to connect with their supporters. However, the vulnerability of social networks to disinformation is evident, raising concerns about the reliability of information shared through these channels.

Disinformation presents itself as a notable challenge, as proved by the tactics seen in the 2023 presidential elections. Altered videos and misleading statements have become prevalent tools, utilised by various political entities, including both the government and factions within the opposition. An example involves President Erdogan showcasing an altered video during a rally, which made it look like the PKK leader Murat Karayilan was endorsing the opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

In another more recent instance, as the crucial local elections in Istanbul approach, a manipulated video targeting the opposition mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, has surfaced on social media. This AI-generated video portrays Imamoglu praising President Erdogan’s ruling party, utilising advanced technology to disseminate disinformation.

The mayor’s press aide attributes the video to rivals from the AKP, Erdogan’s party. With the looming local elections, disinformation campaigns, incorporating AI-generated content, have surged. The increased use of advanced technology in spreading misinformation has prompted concerns, as highlighted by BIRN’s Digital Rights Violations Annual Report 2023. The report forecasts an increase in disinformation campaigns before the local elections, aligning with trends observed in the 2023 general and presidential elections.

The uneven playing field

Turkey’s democratic backsliding is not a new phenomenon. Following the 2019 local elections, 58 mayors affiliated with the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish political party, were removed from office in the southeast part of the country and replaced by government-appointed trustees. This move sparked concerns about democratic governance and the erosion of local autonomy. The continued presence of these trustees in place of elected mayors cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process.

President Erdogan and his ruling party have pursued actions including blocking of accounts belonging to opposition figures, adopting of laws aimed at restricting online speech, and the imposing sanctions for disseminating what is deemed false information.

A report prepared by journalist Ali Safa Korkut revealed that Turkish courts in 2022 blocked hundreds of accounts and thousands of tweets on Twitter, primarily citing national security concerns or violations of personal rights. The report, titled Baby, The Bird is Dead: 2022 Twitter Access Blocks Report, funded by the EU, highlights that nearly 4,427 Twitter links, including 487 accounts and 3,940 tweets, were blocked based on 393 court decisions.

Recently, ahead of the 2024 local elections, Turkey has banned access to 16 VPN providers, including popular services like Proton, Surfshark, and TunnelBear. International organizations denounced the ban as evidence of authoritarian tendencies, contributing to Turkey’s “not free” rating in the 2023 Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House.

Despite facing criticism from both domestic and international observers, Turkish officials defend these measures by pointing to similar regulations in other countries, particularly within the European Union. However, Turkey’s regulations extend beyond oversight and are in fact designed to suppress opposition and critical media coverage.

Economic challenges add another layer of complexity to the electoral landscape. Despite promises of reform and improvement, Turkey’s economy struggles with high inflation rates and a depreciating currency. The prospect of an election campaign characterized by populist measures to influence voter preferences, raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of economic policies.

In conclusion, the challenges outlined underscore the complex landscape in the lead-up to Turkey’s 2024 local elections. With significant control over traditional media outlets, coupled with restrictions on online speech and the disinformation, the democratic process faces serious threats. Additionally, the removal of elected officials, economic instability, and measures that suppress opposition voices amplify these challenges, undermining the integrity of the electoral process and democratic principles.

To safeguard Turkey’s democratic resilience, concerted efforts are needed. These efforts should prioritise upholding press freedom, promoting political diversity in media, combatting disinformation through digital literacy and restoring trust in democratic institutions. Addressing economic concerns with sound policies is also crucial.

Finally, a commitment to transparency, accountability, and respect for civil liberties is required to manage these issues and maintain the democratic norms that underpin Turkey’s political scene.

Photo by Anna Berdnik on Unsplash.

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