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With Twitter, Google, YouTube, Turkey’s opposition overcomes media blackout

Screengrab Felicity (Saadet) Party YouTube | Cartoon shows Felicity Party candidate Temel Karamollaoglu, as Superman, saving Turkey

With most Turkish TV stations controlled by the government or its supporters, the opposition has been forced to find ingenious, often funny, ways to beat the media blackout and bias ahead of Sunday’s vote. But will the jokes work?


When the giant screen lit up with an image of a clean-shaven man in a crisp black suit, the crowd at a campaign rally in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir went mad. Waving purple-and-green flags of the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democracy Party), they screamed, “Selo! Selo!” – the nickname for Selahattin Demirtas, the party’s candidate in Sunday’s presidential race.

With the faintest hint of a smile, Demirtas began his videotaped address. “Dear brothers and sisters, the beautiful people of my country. I greet you with my warmest feelings, with love, yearning and longing,” he said. “I am unfortunately forced to address you from Edirne F-type High Security Prison,” he continued with a slight, resigned smile.

The 45-year-old Kurdish politician is one of six presidential candidates running in Turkey’s high-stakes elections on Sunday. The problem for Demirtas though, is that he’s conducting his campaign from a prison cell, where he has been locked away since his arrest more than a year ago in a sweeping crackdown on the opposition by Erdogan following the July 2016 coup attempt.

The incarceration has not stopped Demirtas from staging a rather unusual campaign, relying mostly on Twitter, via his lawyers who post his messages, ferry questions from foreign journalists, and circulate his columns to international newspapers based safely away from Turkey.

The HDP has proved to be ingenious at getting their candidate’s message through, employing seemingly every social media tactic, including a video recording of Demirtas’s phone call to his wife in the family's Diyarbakir home packed with loved ones.

In an op-ed published Wednesday in the New York Times, Demirtas blasted the terrorism charges filed against him, asserting once again that his arrest was politically motivated. “I remain a political hostage,” he wrote.

Demirtas – whose nicknames include “the Kurdish Obama” and “the Kurdish Mandela” -- is not the only candidate conducting a somewhat unorthodox campaign in the 2018 race. The June 24 vote marks the first time Turkey is holding presidential and parliamentary elections on the same day. The stakes for the future of this NATO-member country straddling Europe and Asia are sky high. But with most of the Turkish media under the control of the government or close associates of the Erdogan family, opposition candidates had very limited airtime on the campaign trail.

From May 14 through 30, state television coverage of Erdogan and the ruling AK Party amounted to over 67 hours, while the main opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) and its candidate, Muharrem Ince, received six hours. The Good Party candidate, Meral Akşener, got 12 minutes, and other opposition parties less, with no coverage at all for Demirtas’s HDP, according to Human Rights Watch.

>> Read the profiles of Turkey’s presidential candidates

Exactly a week before the elections, Demirtas finally got a 10-minute slot on the public broadcaster, TRT, but that was after every single opposition candidate repeatedly complained about the lack of media access at campaign rallies across the country.

“They made it an issue. The CHP’s Ince and Aksener constantly brought it up at every political meeting, criticising the way the news channels were ignoring them. They played the victim card – and it worked,” explained Emre Demir, a Paris-based Turkish journalist at Kronos news site and former editor of Zaman France.

‘Complete Internet freedom,’ rib Google ads

Opposition campaigns quickly grasped that Erdogan -- with all his foibles and petty machinations -- is a particularly effective target for satire. “After 15 years of AK Party power, they have realised that humour is the biggest weapon against Erdogan. He doesn’t like cartoons, he doesn’t like cartoonists. He doesn’t like humour and the opposition is aware of that,” noted Demir.

And the opposition is making the most of it – hilariously.

Aksener’s Good Party, for instance, used Google ads to outwit the Turkish government’s sweeping media blackout. For a while, searches for hotel vacancies in Turkey displayed an ad above the search results playfully announcing plenty of space in Erdogan’s controversial, new presidential palace, with its garish, 1,100 rooms up for the taking after Election Day.

When netizens typed “VPN” -- the virtual private network services that many Turks have to pay in order to circumvent online censorship -- the Good Party came up with an ingenious popup message that read, “Don’t waste your money, save it for when we are in power to enjoy complete Internet freedom.”

The head of the secular opposition CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, for instance, appeared in a YouTube animation video featuring Turkish youths. The lively, rap-rhythm audio had the scholarly, 71-year-old Kilicdaroglu promising to increase Internet download speed, eliminate censorship of TV shows, increase the number of special effects on Snapchat and the number of filters on Instagram. He also promises to forbid cheating on video games. At the end of the clip though, he maintains, "But first, you need to vote."

In another example of online campaign humour, an animated video of a minor, anti-Erdogan Islamist candidate recently went viral, outreaching the expectations of the Felicity (Saadet in Turkish) Party candidate, Temel Karamollaoglu.

The clip begins with a cartoon of Erdogan driving a car emblazoned with the word “Turkey” against an audio backdrop of his eponymous campaign song, a tune Turks have been unable to escape for over a decade. Just as Erdogan is about to drive the country over a cliff though, the 77-year-old Karamollaoglu appears – as Superman, no less – to stop the car and magically transport it back to the pre-Erdogan years, before rights and liberties were systematically stripped.

Overcoming the fear factor

But satire also requires a degree of freedom to flourish. If there is no freedom of expression, at the very least, opposition figures need to overcome the fear factor to enable them to make fun of autocratic strongmen or regimes.

This was not the case last year, when Turks went to the polls in a constitutional referendum to change the country’s parliamentary system to a supercharged executive presidency.

While the pro-Erdogan “Yes” camp dominated the Turkish skyline with giant posters of the Turkish strongman accompanied by the ubiquitous “Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” song blasted on loudspeakers, the “No” camp ran a lackluster campaign restricted mainly to the pro-secular opposition pockets of western Turkish cities such as Istanbul.

This election season though, the contrast in tone – and pluck -- is stark. “There was a sense of fear during the referendum campaign. The opposition was much more silent, careful, scared. The country had experienced a coup threat, followed by the purges, and a state of emergency. This time, the biggest change has been that candidates such as Ince and Aksener are much more fierce in their opposition. They do not hesitate to call Erdogan a liar. This is a huge step, to be talking to Erdogan, publicly saying things that people were afraid to say in their own homes. It almost created a sense of euphoria,” explained Demir.

#Tamam – enough already

The 2018 vote -- Turkey’s sixth poll in four years – is also being held under a state of emergency that has not been lifted since the July 2016 coup attempt.

But in an ironic twist of fate, the lifting of the curtain of fear can be credited, in retrospect, to an unwitting faux pas by Erdogan.

At an AK Party meeting early in the campaign season, the Turkish president infamously proclaimed that his enemies, “have just one care – to destroy Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If, one day, our nation says ‘enough’, then we will move aside". He used the word, “Tamam,” which can mean “okay” and “enough” in Turkish to convey his message.

The response from ordinary Turks weary of Erdogan’s power grab and autocratic style was immediate and electric.

Within hours, Twitter erupted with creative uses of the hashtag, #Tamam”.

Some posted the word as many times as Twitter’s character limit enables. Presidential candidates joined the fray, with Ince tweeting, “Vakit tamam,” or “time's up”.

A group of young musicians then recorded a video of a song written by an anonymous university professor who lost his, or her, job in the post-coup attempt purges.

Recorded on the streets of Istanbul, the upbeat music video featured Turks across age, class and gender divides singing, "Sikildik" (We are exhausted) and "Usandik" (We are fed up), followed by a rousing, “Bitti artik Tamam,” – or, “Okay, enough now”.

Messages from the tea kettle

Few Turks believe Sunday’s vote will actually usher Erdogan out of power. After a non-stop, 15-year run on power, the AK Party’s leader has proved a master player of the election process.

In June 2015, when his party lost their parliamentary majority and the opposition was unable to form a coalition, Erdogan promptly called a re-election six months later. He then proceeded to scrap a peace process with the proscribed PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), launched a military campaign in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, and declared himself the only man who could secure the country. The ruling party ended up wining the November 2015 revote.

In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, opinion polls show Erdogan falling short of the 50 percent needed to prevent a runoff. If that scenario comes to pass on Sunday, the HDP, with an unwavering base of Turkish Kurds -- who constitute around 20 percent of the total population -- is likely to play a kingmaker role.

Demirtas supporters maintain that the HDP’s kingmaker fate is written in the tea leaves, an analogy they tie to a potent symbol of their jailed candidate’s appeal: a teapot.

The electric teapot turned into an unwitting star on the 2018 campaign trail when Demirtas posted a message about the reaction of his Turkish prison guards shortly after he allowed his lawyers to use his Twitter account last year.

Fearing the prisoner had tweeted from his Edirne prison cell, the guards rushed in to search the room. “Naturally they could not find any tweets in the room,” he joked on Twitter. “There was a tea kettle, but they concluded it is not able to send tweets.”

As the electric tea kettle symbol spread across the country like wild fire, two high school students were arrested earlier this month for spray painting a kettle on the wall of their Istanbul house.

Locked behind his prison walls, Demirtas himself was late in responding to the fast-changing social media trends. But when he finally tweeted his response, the message went viral, with more than 23,000 retweets and 92,000 likes in barely 40 days. “There was a complication with the tea kettle,” Demirtas noted. “That’s why I’m late. TAMAM.”

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