Young people in Turkey demonstrated twice this week that they are brilliant at turning President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s words into campaigns against him,
but the question every analyst is pondering is whether they can translate their energy into votes in the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.
The affair began with a sentence of only four words uttered to the AKP caucus in parliament on Tuesday afternoon. In an almost casual way, Erdogan said of the elections, “millet tamam derse, çekiliriz” (“if the people say ‘enough’, we will step aside”).
Less than 24 hours later, no fewer than two million Turks had tweeted “TAMAM” (enough). It had become the Top Trending tweet in the world. “Erdogan shot himself in the foot,” observed Dogu Ergil, retired professor of politics from Ankara University.
Erdogan avoided commenting on the campaign, leaving his lieutenants to dismiss it as a product of bots (automatically repetitive software), Gulenists and PKK supporters. On Friday, he addressed a meeting of young AKP supporters in Ankara. Noticing that while some members of the audience were enthusiastic, others were not, he said: “Gencler, biliyorum sıkıldınız” (“Young people, I know you are bored”). But the word for bored can also mean fed-up. By time of writing, more than 10,000 people had tweeted “SIKILDIK” (“we are fed up”).
The campaigns said a lot about what is happening in the country today.
“Turkey has a very young population and it’s a social media-savvy population,” said Yasemin Acar, assistant professor of political psychology at Ozyegin University in Istanbul. In the five years since the Gezi Park protests were put down by riot police and tear gas, “people became really savvy at using social media to express their political opinions when they are not able to go into the street anymore.”
To counter the “TAMAM” campaign, Erdogan loyalists started tweeting that Erdogan should “DEVAM” (continue). But by midnight on Tuesday, the “TAMAM” tweets had reached 1.45 million and the “DEVAM” tweets were only 70,000 – less than a twentieth of the “TAMAMs”. This reporter noticed that the figure for “DEVAM” was going up and down; indicating Twitter’s computer was throwing out “DEVAMs” generated by bots.
The reason why “TAMAM” out-tweeted “DEVAM” so heavily was that the opponents of Erdogan were driven by stronger emotions. The “DEVAM” tweeters felt obliged to stand by their leader. The “TAMAM” tweeters were angry about what has happened to Turkey under Erdogan’s 15-year leadership.
One exchange between a supporter and an opponent of the president illustrated the different moods. A man called Oguz tweeted: “It is funny how people don’t realise how actually free they are while criticizing and insulting Erdogan and calling him a dictator on the other hand. They somehow don’t seem to understand that they would be executed if he was an actual dictator. #TAMAM is a huge joke.”
In reply, Omer Çayirli, who posted his photograph as well as his surname, tweeted: “You gotta be kidding and obviously not living in Turkey. When you criticise Erdogan directly, you are on the edge of a knife. Get ready to be prosecuted, taken into custody and/or get arrested. It is free to try, if you got the balls! #TAMAM.”
Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said the answer to the “TAMAMs” would come on June 24: “Citizens will have the last word in the election.” And this is the opposition’s challenge.
Professor Acar researches collective action. She told Sigma Insight that for liberals to sustain the “TAMAM” energy they should engage in “small, forward movements”, such as social-media campaigns, door-to-door campaigning for parties, and enrolling in election-monitoring groups such as Oy ve Otesi (Vote and Beyond).
What has discouraged liberals in the past, she said, was that they felt their efforts yielded nothing against the overwhelming weight of AKP rule. But in door-to-door campaigning and poll monitoring, they could see results.
“When people are involved in small-scale initiatives, they feel because it’s small and it has a clear outcome – something they can see, something palpable – people feel empowered. And that’s something that can maintain this (TAMAM) energy through this election,” Acar said.
A cynic would argue that the Gezi protests of June 2013 mobilised the opposition to Erdogan as never before, but resulted in the AKP’s share of the national vote falling by only five percent in the local elections of March 2014.
“A lot has changed since Gezi. The economy is doing worse. The rightwing MHParty has split,” Acar replied. “What’s been going on in the last couple of years is detrimental to AKParty, and I think they recognise that – otherwise they would not have moved up the election.”
Professor Ergil said the strength of “TAMAM” stemmed from the fact that opposition to Erdogan is extremely diverse – ranging from the religious rightwing Saadet Party to the liberal pro-Kurdish HDP – and it needs something to unite behind. “Erdogan himself provided the concept,” he added.
Ergin recalled the success of the opposition’s slogan in Turkey’s first multi-party elections in 1950. The Democratic Party of Adnan Menderes ran a poster showing an upraised palm with the word “Yeter!” – which, like “tamam”, means “enough”.
He predicted the opposition would use “TAMAM” intensively in the election campaign. Like the Yeter! symbol, TAMAM “expresses the feelings of the opposition and discontented people in a very simple but effective way,” he said.