19 March 2014
UPDATE: The ad has apparently been banned by Turkey’s High Election Board because it was found to use religion and nationalism in violation of article 298 of the elections law.
This morning I came across a video that my friend Ozan had shared on Facebook. It is a commercial put out by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK-Party) for municipal elections that take place at the end of this month.
The threat in the message could be any of the various enemies that Prime Minister Erdoğan has been talking about over the past year: the finance lobby, the porn lobby, atheists, the robot lobby, or the preacher lobby. The most likely candidate is the latter — a reference to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, the alleged mastermind behind a series of investigations that have led to major corruption charges against the AK-Party since December of last year. The involvement of Gülen’s network in these investigations seems highly likely. Likewise, the charges, which include illicit gold trading, rigging of state tenders for construction contracts, direct interference with the sales and operation of Turkish media, and hands-on meddling with judicial investigations, appear to be based on very strong evidence.
What interests me, though, is the imagery of the body pile. As Ozan noted in his Facebook post, it bears a striking resemblance to that from last-year’s blockbuster film World War Z.
It is hard to conceive of a situation in which the creators of the AK-Party ad could have been unaware of the parallel between their short film and the scene from World War Z. After all, the scene is the climax of a trailer that has been watched almost 30 million times on YouTube, and the film itself was one of the top 5 foreign films in Turkey last year.
If this is the case, then I have to wonder about the implicit message of the spot. Aside from the clear portrayal of people coming together to protect the honor of the nation, a painfully blatant interpretation is that the AK-Party views its supporters as an army of tireless zombies. Indeed, the rhetoric of armies and crowds has been on the rise since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, when Erdoğan threatened to unleash “his 50%” to the streets. (He said he had been holding them back, suggesting a violent force waiting to burst forth.) Similarly divisive and threatening rhetoric has been used by other top AK-Party politicians.
One fascinating aspect of this situation is that some AK-Party supporters appear willing to perform the role of Erdoğan’s tireless and faithful army. Polls that came out shortly after the corruption investigations began indicated that, while 77% of voters believed the corruption charges against the AK-Party, 48% still planned to vote for them. This represented only a minor drop from pre-corruption levels and, though it is probable that the latter number has shrunk somewhat by now, it is still likely to be very large. Turkish columnist Mustafa Mutlu recently related his experience with an anonymous phone call from an AK-Party supporter that gave a personal side to such statistics. The caller turned every objection to Erdoğan around, suggesting, for example, that if the PM actually had the hundreds of millions in foreign currency he is alleged to have taken in various bribes, this was only because he intended to use it for the good cause of Islam. While the caller in question seemed most interested in baiting Mutlu, other supporters stake more serious claims. As Alexander Christie-Miller has recounted, some will follow Erdoğan “until the end, until death”, giving a rather grizzly testament to the zombie-like imagery from the election ad.
These polls and anecdotes are strands I grasp at while trying to make some sense of the perplexing political scene here. My intention in writing is not to demean the people who plan to vote for the AK-Party. They may well have good reasons to do so, as the most powerful opposition parties don’t seem to have much to offer in the way of alternatives. What’s striking to me is a general trend revealed by this ad: the lack of respect for Turkish voters. This echoes to a large degree the disdain for Turkish viewers of TV and film that I study, and though I think there is something to be said for the role of willful, cynical ignorance in Turkish politics (and TV watching), what I’m more interested in is the discourse and imagery that helps fuel impressions of ignorance. This ad, with its clear reference to zombies, suggests a profound lack of respect for voters from the AK-Party itself, and that is, indeed, troubling.