A well-crafted animation film, shared by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) social media accounts, became a boomerang that turned into a major hit in the face for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. It was, however, only an indicator of the chaos, fueled by incompetence, they are in — and the last act of the drama became AKP deleting the video after two days of facing a historic counter-campaign.
‘Lies Production Center’, screamed the caption they wrote with capital letters. The 3-minute animation starred a stereotypical, mad-looking scientist with white and messy hair with the spokesperson of the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), Faik Öztrak, and CHP’s leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Together, as the story goes, they choose lies among options that were created by a ‘lie generator’. The scientist tells them that they should also drink the ‘parrot’s elixir’ which will make them repeat the chosen ‘lie’ over and over again. After Kılıçdaroğlu takes a sip he starts asking the same question whatever response he might get: ‘Where are the 128 billion dollars?’.
The whole drama was actually an infamous attempt to spin a campaign that CHP launched a few weeks ago which became almost the only dominant political discussion in Turkey: The opposition asked where the 128 billion dollars worth of reserves the Turkish Central Bank had gone to. They put up billboards that had featured only a single question, the question that the ‘parrot’s elixir’ made Kılıçdaroğlu ask once again, ‘Where are the 128 billion dollars?’. Once the government used the police force to put down the billboards, the campaign went even more viral and dominated the whole political debate.
Erdoğan’s government had to respond to the question but they were not able to craft a consistent messaging. Instead, the head of the central bank, Şahap Kavcıoğlu, who took the role when Erdoğan once again fired his predecessor with a presidential decree, talked about some ‘protocols signed with the Treasury’ and argued that the money was in circulation. In contrast, Erdoğan first stated that ‘the money was used to fight the pandemic’ and then argued that ‘it was all in Central Bank’s safe’. By simply highlighting the inconsistencies of these claims, CHP’s campaign gained even more ground. Accordingly, their humorous response to the animation was a cartoon that revealed the ‘mad scientist’ who generates the lies as Erdoğan himself.
The government still has not given a full explanation on how the 128 billion dollars were spent. However, with Covid cases soaring again and a new lockdown, without any considerable economic help, introduced, that debate lost its heat over time. Then came the animation that changed this drastically.
While the AKP expected their labelling of the opposition as ‘liars’ to dominate the discussion; their boomerang hit them in the face. The opposition did not even need to craft a creative response to the animation; most of them only reminded the question once again: Where really was the money that they could not explain? In only a few hours, the hashtag #WhereIs128BillionDollars surpassed AKP’s campaign.
It spread the word to AKP’s base as well. As Jay David Bolter rightfully shows in his book, ‘The Digital Plenitude’, different voter bases mostly do not come across the same content on social media and stay within their echo chambers. AKP’s juvenile film broke those echo chambers and Kilicdaroglu tweeted: ‘Thinking the youth will like it, they made a cartoon movie… The young people will make an animation out of them as soon as the next election arrives.’
Now, the whole country once again was discussing what happened to the central bank’s reserves. Clearly, it was a great failure of political communications. However, a young marketing executive inside the AKP, Emre Cemil Ayvalı, tweeted that ‘even though they want us to take the content down — we will not’. Other AKP members went to Twitter’s Spaces to discuss how to combat this counter-attack, coming short on finding a solution. So, eventually, what did they do? They took the video down. And Ayvalı deleted his tweet as well. As Turkish journalist Deniz Zeyrek wrote in his column, humour indeed served the reality once again.
As political commentator Ruşen Çakır also emphasized, it was a strategic error from the beginning. It was not clear who the film targeted. Was it AKP’s base? Then it was a revelation that they could not convince them with the contradictory explanations state authorities gave. Was it the young people? This is even a more dramatic dead-end. In a country that the youth unemployment rate is running higher than 25% even by the state’s allegedly manipulated figures, an animation can only show how out-of-touch the government is. Latest polls confirm this: Metropoll’s data from last month show that the young people, who are a dominant base in Turkey with its population’s average age being only 32, is becoming much more unlikely to vote for Erdoğan’s AKP. Overall, spending resources with childish political games instead of solving people’s real problems clearly reveal that the bright minds that once made historic campaigns for the AKP are nowhere to be seen now.
Until only a few years ago, Erdoğan was the master of setting the political discourse: After his party lost control of the Parliament in June 2015, and a coalition was not built, the country talked only about law and order till the ballot box arrived only in 4 months. The country suffered from multiple terror attacks that summer and Erdoğan’s message of stability once again gave him a majority.
Similarly, according to trusted pollster Bekir Ağırdır, when the country went to polls in 2017, voting on the new authoritarian Executive Presidential Regime that gave unchecked power to the president, Erdoğan was able to make the case to enough people that the new system was going to provide more effective government and less bureaucracy. He won that vote with 52%. Since then, the country went downhill in basically every manner possible — putting his pledge into question. Now, Ağırdır the head of research company KONDA, reveals polls that suggest nearly two-thirds of the population is disappointed by the new system of governance.
The opposition learned from their mistakes as well. In 2019, during the municipal election campaigns, CHP did not play Erdoğan’s games. The president wanted to talk about ‘national security’, as if lawful candidates for mayor can threaten it; the opposing candidates talked about opening kindergartens to every neighbourhood. Erdoğan was on election rallies speaking of terrorism; his rivals were arguing for affordable transportation. Erdoğan was off people’s agenda — the opposition was spot on. Unsurprisingly, it became the greatest ever victory against Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime with the opposition controlling nearly all the big cities, including Istanbul and Ankara.
However, especially with an opposition that is more united than ever and the government failing in the health and economic response to the pandemic, Erdoğan’s ability to engineer the political discourse is failing even more miserably. People’s priorities triumph over the political games they want to play once again. People seek solutions to concrete problems — not movies. But, it seems, they lost their problem-solving capabilities. Chaos is all that they can give. The infamous animation film ended with a promise that the campaign was going ‘to be continued.’ The opposition definitely hopes so.
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