AKP congresses show a Turkish government divorced from reality

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been holding regional party meetings across Turkey, bringing thousands of people together in confined spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The opening of the regional party congress in Ankara was likened to a “pop concert” by one Twitter user, but this comparison doesn’t really do the bizarre spectacle justice. It was like a cross between a Hollywood film trailer, a Fox News intro segment, a Turkish historical epic drama, a football match and a pop concert, all rolled into one.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s supporters chant his name before a montage of military images and bombastic music introduces the president himself. At one point, one of the president’s fans gets up and starts wildly gesticulating to demonstrate his love of the president. “OK, I love you and believe in your love”, Erdoğan replies.

It is particularly hypocritical of the ruling party to be holding such big rallies when businesses remain closed in Turkey. Millions of businesspeople are prevented from working and supporting themselves, and yet the AKP can promote itself - a perfect example of where the law simply does not apply to those connected to the president and his party. 

Another video showed people entering the AKP’s Izmir rally, packed together in a clear and dangerous violation of social distancing rules. 

On Feb 17. the pro-government Sabah newspaper reported that the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases had been reported in two cities in the Black Sea region where the AKP had held its last two rallies. 

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca later tweeted that “each of us must follow the precautions more in order to return to normal life faster”. Journalist Ahmet Şık suggested this was hypocritical given the health minister had just attended a large public funeral.

"Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca warns citizen Fahrettin Koca."

Erdoğan also spoke at the funeral Koca attended, where social distancing rules seemed to have been completely ignored. This kind of obvious flouting of their own rules is exactly the kind of thing that makes the AKP seem like they are divorced from the lived reality of ordinary Turkish people. Erdoğan recently told a worker complaining  that he couldn’t afford to feed his family to enjoy a nice cup of tea instead.

Meanwhile, other political parties say the government has blocked their activities, using the pandemic restrictions as an excuse to ban political campaigning. The Turkish Communist Party’s branch in Manisa province said their members had been fined for leafleting and “harassed by the security forces for some time and tried to be prevented by using the excuse of pandemic bans”.

There is a sense of unreality introduced into this world where public life has completely stopped, except for AKP rallies. Turkish people know that the economy is failing but the government cannot admit that this is the case. Instead, they create over the top spectacles to dramatize the struggle which Erdoğan believes he is leading against all manner of enemies. 

The rallies are an attempt to consolidate a ruling coalition fraying at the edges and project an image of power that cannot be challenged. On Feb. 1, Erdoğan urged party members to reach out to friends and family who had become disillusioned with the party and to try to reintegrate them. 

“Let us recruit our friends who have been separated from our party due to any reason,” Erdoğan said, addressing party meetings in Adana, Antalya, Muğla and Bursa by videolink. “We do not marginalise anyone, and we do not judge anyone. We respect everyone’s opinion as long as they do not get involved in terrorism, immorality, perversion and violence,” he added. The president regularly calls anybody who disagrees with him a ‘terrorist’ without a shred of evidence.

For French cultural theorist Guy Debord, spectacles and consumerism were ways to create passive citizens who could be easily managed. “The more you consume the less you live,” he wrote in The Society of the Spectacle. If power is questioned and challenged, it becomes more important to create a spectacle to give the impression that everything is fine.

But everything is not fine in Turkey. The economy is not fine, the political system is not fine, the media and education and the healthcare systems are not fine. Yet the government has set its sights on turning 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, into a spectacle that celebrates the AKP’s triumph in ‘Making Turkey Great Again’. Nothing can be allowed to interrupt this dream of greatness, which is why the pandemic is so inconvenient. 

Through their almost total control of the media, the AKP has created a society where they alone control the messages the public receives. As Debord said: “The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: ‘What appears is good; what is good appears.’ The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”