Towards Erdogan and the East: Conspiracies and public perception in post-coup Turkey

By Kimberly Guiler, The University of Texas at Austin

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

Following the abortive July 15 to16 military coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embarked on a series of massive and indiscriminate purges of the military, police, judiciary, media, education sector and, most recently, the Kurdish opposition. Less discussed, however, has been the Erdogan government’s use of conspiratorial rhetoric to fan the flames of anti-Western sentiment and increase popular support for Erdogan’s post-coup strongman initiatives. These rhetorical strategies have set the stage for Erdogan to consolidate power and have prepared the public for a potential foreign policy shift toward to the East.

Criminalizing the West

During the days following the failed coup, President Erdogan accused the West of “supporting terrorism and taking sides with coups.” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, a close Erdogan associate who was Turkey’s Labor Minister at the time, stated in a televised interview that, “America is behind the coup.” The Turkish media went further, directly accusing the United States of trying to assassinate President Erdogan and tactically supporting the bombing of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

Turkey, which has been recently reinstated as the world’s worst jailer of journalists, fosters an environment of media self-censorship where the government can easily control public discourse. In the wake of the aborted coup, one hundred media outlets critical of the government have been closed, 42 journalists have been placed in provisional detention, and many other reporters have been banned from travelling abroad. Just last month, Turkish authorities dissolved 15 Kurdish media outlets and detained the editor and several prominent journalists of Cumhuriyet, one of the country’s most respected and last remaining opposition newspapers.

Conspiracy theories and Turkish politics

Conspiracy theories are not new to Turkish politics. Since the 1960s, whenever Turkey’s generals have intervened in politics, the country has accused the United States and other outsiders of playing a behind-the-scenes role. Still, the Turkish government’s present engagement with anti-Western conspiracy theories is puzzling for two reasons.

First, this discourse positions the Erdogan government in opposition to its Western allies at a time when support from friends abroad seems critical. Political instability in Turkey has put new stress on a country already coping with challenges from the rising threat of Islamist State forces, the nearby Syrian war, a domestic Kurdish insurgency, and a growing refugee crisis. Why would Turkey risk alienating the European Union, its biggest trade partner, and the United States, its ally in NATO and in the war against the Islamic State?

Second, the post-coup conspiracy rhetoric positions President Erdogan as the victim of an external assassination attempt. This image of Erdogan as a fragile victim strongly contradicts the ruthless, strong, and masculine image he generally cultivates.

Why is the AKP government actively disseminating rhetoric that criminalizes its allies and victimizes its leader, Erdogan?

Several of the memos in this series suggest that the AKP and Erdogan have historically positioned themselves as political victims in order to gain sympathy and support from voters. Senem Aslan describes how the party came to power with a discourse that emphasized the “victimhood of the majority at the hands of a repressive, secular, and Western-oriented minority.” Esen Kirdis argues that the AKP has defined itself as the representative of an “oppressed majority” throughout its 14 years in power.

Erdogan has cleverly drawn on gestures and rhetoric to maintain his image as a political victim despite his growing political power and economic wealth. Senem Aslan argues, for instance, that Erdogan sustains his image as a “man who has sacrificed a lot” through acts of public crying. My dissertation, which draws on original surveys with embedded experiments, also advances the notion that voters in Turkey are more likely to feel positively toward candidates, like Erdogan, who have suffered time in prison for their political cause. Furthermore, in a Monkey Cage article written immediately after the 2016 failed coup, Kristin Fabbe and I suggested that the Erdogan government was actively deploying conspiracy theories that victimized Erdogan and blamed outsiders to encourage national unity.

Conspiracies and public opinion

Importantly, public opinion research suggests that Erdogan’s repetitive dissemination of anti-outsider conspiracy theories through his speeches and the media may be both rational and strategic. According to John Zaller (1992), citizens tend to follow elite cues when making judgments about agency and causality in the political world.[1] Elite political cues can alter individuals’ political attitudes by selectively refocusing their attention towards particular politicians or by impacting their political judgments.[2]

Political attitudes are most malleable when prevailing conditions threaten people’s economic or personal security and cause them to feel out of control.[3] Specifically, Whitson and Galinsky argue that individuals who feel they lack control are more likely to harbor beliefs in conspiracy theories.[4] According to these authors, individuals can overcome their lack of control by identifying illusory patterns, or conspiracies, in order to make sense of their environment. Elites can, then, take advantage of anxiety-producing events where people lose their sense of control by “fomenting suspicion and uncertainty and then proffering solutions by identifying a source of blame.”[5] Following this logic, the bloody coup attempt and subsequent environment of uncertainty in Turkey presented a strategic opportunity for Erdogan to position himself as the key victim of a national tragedy and to unite the nation against a common source of blame: the West.

To what extent, however, were Erdogan’s attempts to influence public attitudes successful? Descriptive statistics from the Turkey Coup Attitudes Survey (TCAS), distributed by the author in collaboration with Matthew Cebul and Sharan Grewal shortly after the attempted coup, provide early evidence that an increase in pro-Erdogan and anti-Western attitudes has begun to crystallize in post-putsch Turkey. The survey was conducted with Turkish citizens recruited through Facebook advertisements. While the sample may not be representative of all Turks, it reflects the overall voting ratio in public opinion: 50 percent of respondents say they supported the AKP in the November 2015 elections, 25 percent say they supported the Republican People’s Party (CHP), 12 percent say they supported the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and 3 percent say they supported the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[6]

Importantly, whereas 50 percent of respondents say they supported Erdogan’s AKP in November of 2015, 54 percent say they would support the party in elections today. This increase of 4 percent is noteworthy given speculation that the AKP will hold a referendum soon to push through constitutional amendments creating an executive presidency. Statements by pundits, Turkish politicians, and voters suggest that a de-facto presidential system is already in place in Turkey. Still others assert that officially replacing the country’s parliamentary government with a presidential one would further propel Turkey towards a one-man dictatorship.

Despite overwhelming support for Erdogan and his recent use of repressive tactics, Turkish citizens remain committed to key principles of democracy. Among TCAS respondents, only 35 percent agree that the president of the republic should be more powerful than the parliament. Similarly, only 28 percent say that a strong leader is preferable to a democratic leader. Turkish citizens also remain hopeful about Turkey’s future. Despite ongoing purges of the military, police, judiciary, education system, media, civil service sector and opposition, 53 percent of respondents say that Turkey is better off after the failed coup.

Survey results also indicate, however, that popular support for the West-Turkey alliance may be among the failed coup’s casualties. Turkish mistrust of Western institutions – fueled by recent disputes with the United States over strategies for combatting ISIS, disagreements with the European Union over the migrant crisis, and the weakening Turkey-NATO relationship – are crystalizing in the aftermath of the putsch. Findings from the August 2016 TCAS can be contrasted with those from a July 2015 survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund. Whereas a plurality (39 percent) of respondents in the July 2015 German Marshall study said they preferred cooperating with the West to other alternatives, only 4 percent of respondents said they favored cooperation with Russia. Results from the TCAS about a year later and after the coup, in contrast, show the opposite trend. Whereas only 39 percent of TCAS respondents say they support a continued relationship with the United States and only 50 percent support a continued relationship with NATO, an overwhelming 77 percent support a strengthened alliance with Russia.

Additionally, an overwhelming 88 percent of TCAS respondents report that they think the coup plotters received help from abroad. This finding suggests that Turkish citizens believe – or are at least claiming to believe – the government’s framing of the coup attempt as an attack that was supported by foreign (namely, Western) elements. A poll cited in the Economist in August similarly reported that 84 percent of respondents thought the coup was supported by elements overseas and that 70 percent of Turks suspect that America played a role in the aborted coup. When the pro-government Daily Sabah asked Turks in a poll conducted on Twitter which U.S. institution provided the largest amount of support to the coup plotters, the vast majority of respondents (69 percent) chose the CIA. Fewer respondents blamed the White House (20 percent), Department of State (6 percent) and FBI (5 percent).

Erdogan’s Strategy

Taken as a whole, recent survey data and insights from a budding literature on public opinion and conspiracy theories lend support to the notion that Erdogan has been deploying anti-Western rhetoric for a strategic purpose. The bloody attempted coup enabled Erdogan to position himself as the central victim of a tragic national event. It also presented a rare political opportunity for Erdogan to unite his co-victims – Turks from across the political spectrum who opposed the coup – against a common external enemy, the West. Turkish citizens, steeped in collective memories of the economic, political, and personal consequences of past military coups, were more likely to accept Erdogan’s inflammatory accusations due to the destabilizing post-coup environment. In the language of Whitson and Galinsky, citizens who “lack control” in the post-coup milieu are more prone to accept Erdogan’s anti-Western conspiracies because these narratives provide a framework, even if an illusory one, for understanding and overcoming their political and psychological uncertainty.

It is too soon to know whether Turkey’s strained alliance with the West will rebound or decay in the face of mounting anti-Western skepticism fueled by conspiracies. In the end, however, one thing is clear: Erdogan is using his strategic leverage with the West and his hold over public opinion in Turkey to strengthen his standing both at home and abroad. In uniting diverse Turkish constituencies against the Gulen Movement and its supposed Western allies, Erdogan successfully primed the country for his consolidation of power. To stand against the government and its policies has become synonymous with supporting the coup plotters. Given Turkey’s ongoing “state of emergency” and the widespread purge of suspected coup supporters, Erdogan is now uniquely positioned to push through reforms that would further consolidate his control.

As his popularity rises among an anxious and uncertain Turkish citizenry, Erdogan continues to wield influence over his constrained Western allies. Despite increasingly authoritarian behavior and a recent pivot eastwards, the US. government and Turkey’s other Western allies have yet to hold the Erdogan government accountable. It remains to be seen how long Erdogan will be able to simultaneously maintain his leverage over the West and his popularity back home. Recent survey and observational evidence, however, indicates that Erdogan probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Kimberly Guiler is a PhD Candidate in government at the University of Texas at Austin, where she is writing her dissertation on the rise of political Islam in competitive elections.

[1] Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Bartels, Larry M. 1996. “Uninformed votes: Information effects in presidential elections.” American Journal of Political Science pp. 194–230.

[3] Douglas, Tom. 1995. Scapegoats: Transferring Blame. New York: Routledge.

[4] Whitson, Jennifer A., and Adam D. Galinsky. 2008. Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science 322 (5898):115–17.

[5] Radnitz, S. and Underwood, P., 2015. Is belief in conspiracy theories pathological? A survey experiment on the cognitive roots of extreme suspicion. British Journal of Political Science, pp.1-17.

[6] Actual vote returns for the November 2015 election are as follows: AKP: 49.50%; CHP: 25.32%; MHP: 11.90%; and HDP: 10.76%. When rounded to the nearest percent, the TCAS reported vote share for the AKP, CHP, and MHP are identical to the actual returns (50%, 25%, and 12%, respectively). TCAS reported support for the pro-Kurdish HDP, however, was notably much lower than the party’s actual vote share. Respondents may have underreported their support for HDP given the ongoing vilification of the pro-Kurdish party in the Turkish press in the post-coup environment.