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Conspiracy Theories, Election Campaigns and Voter Perception

Dr. Erol Sağlam, Seren Selvin Korkmaz, Gülşen Doğan, Nevzat Taşçı

This research examines voter orientations at the intersection of conspiracy theories and election campaigns prior to the May 14, 2023 elections. For this purpose, it delves into how the growing visibility and effectiveness of conspiracy theories influence voter thoughts, discourses, and practices. In parallel with the impact of conspiracy theories, it also investigates how voters perceive the polarizing-unifying messages and fear-love themed discourses utilized by political parties in their campaigns, and how this perception influences political behaviors.

(You can find the executive summary of the research and access the full report above in PDF-format)

The findings of the research indicate that the conspiracy-laden, fear-mongering, and polarizing discourses that have dominated Turkey's last decade. Based on  findings, the research also raises the question of whether focusing on everyday and tangible issues and employing inclusive political discourses could serve as an important mechanism against populist and polarizing politics.

The research is based on focus group discussions involving a total of 82 participants, grouped according to age, gender, socioeconomic status, and the political party/alliance they voted for.  The research was conducted prior to the devastating Kahramanmaraş Earthquakes that occurred on February 6, 2023, leading to profound suffering and devastation in 11 cities of our country. Additionally, the brief departure of the Good Party from the Nation Alliance (Millet İttifakı), was not included in the discussions. Therefore, neither the earthquake and its political ramifications nor the crisis within the Nation Alliance in early March were addressed in the focus groups.

The Source of Common Problems and Those Responsible for Them Vary Among Voters

Similar to the findings from various focus group research conducted by IstanPol on various topics, supporters of the People's Alliance (Cumhur İttifakı) and the opposition share common ground on the country's core issues. (see Korkmaz & Telek, 2021; Sayan & Dizdaroğlu, 2022; Sayan & Şar, 2021; Şar & Korkmaz 2019). For almost all voters participating in the research, the most important problems Turkey has faced in the last decade are economic instability and the issue of irregular migration. While there is agreement among the participants regarding the country's problems, their narratives diverge based on their political leanings when it comes to identifying the causes. Supporters of the People's Alliance mostly attribute the source of economic issues to foreign actors they commonly refer to as "foreign powers" or "foreign forces," as well as local economic actors they describe as "hoarders/opportunists." Conversely, for voters in the opposition bloc, the source of the problems lies in the government's flawed policies and insufficient administrative capacity.

"We Were Able to Handle Things During Good Times, But Not During Difficult Times"

Despite the relatively prominent presence of conspiracy narratives in explaining economic problems, supporters of the People's Alliance link the source of these problems to the global issues arising from the Novel Coronavirus Disease(COVID-19) and the supply chain and energy transmission issues associated with ongoing international conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.  However, this research observes that supporters of the People's Alliance also point to administrative weaknesses stemming from the Presidential Government System. It has been observed that the notion of "strong and effective management" promised by the People's Alliance is being questioned in light of the current economic crisis, as exemplified by a participant's statement, "We were doing well when conditions were good, but we can't seem to manage when things go bad."

Conspiracy Narratives Are Becoming More Widespread, But Their Credibility Is Diminishing

It has been noticed that conspiracy narratives commonly associated with supporters of the People's Alliance, such as "foreign forces" or "foreign powers that oppose Turkey's progress," have also influenced opposition voters. The research findings further support the argument that conspiracy narratives have become widespread and visible, extending beyond specific socioeconomic indicators or political party preferences. Concurrently, it should be noted that the influence and appeal of conspiracy narratives are also diminishing. Based on the characterization of the narratives revolving around "foreign forces" as "nonsense" by many participants, including supporters of the People's Alliance, it can be understood that the impact and credibility of these narratives have diminished due to their widespread and frequent use by those in power.

Politics Is Both the Source and the Solution of the Problem for Voters

Despite having different perspectives on the source of their problems, both supporters of the ruling party and opposition voters acknowledge narratives suggesting the manipulation of economic parameters for various motives and the exploitation of this process by certain economic-political actors. On the other hand, processes such as currency exchange rate fluctuations, price instability, and the increasing cost of living are viewed as political outcomes, and their solutions are sought within the realm of politics. Consequently, it has been observed that attributing the source of problems to non-political actors is not accepted among voters from different wings of the political spectrum. Regardless of their political stance, voters question the decisions made by the political institution when it comes to identifying the source of problems and finding solutions.

The Voters of the People's Alliance are Also Worried about the Government's Immigration Policy

A key area of agreement between supporters of the People's Alliance and opposition parties is their shared stance against irregular migration. Opposition voters believe that immigrants are brought into the country through a deliberate state policy to compensate for the declining electoral potential of the ruling party. On the other hand, Justice and Development Party (AK Party) voters do not align with their party on the issue of immigration and express criticism towards both their party and government policies on the matter.

Voters Are Uncomfortable with "Belligerent" Politics

Supporters of both the People's Alliance and opposition parties have expressed their discomfort with the increasingly harsh tone in politics. Voters have pointed out that politicians used to have a more polite and inclusive discourse and they now criticize the language currently used by politicians. For instance, while the term "slut" (sürtük) used by President Erdoğan has also received criticism from the supporters of the People's Alliance, the "I will fight" themed messages previously employed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate of the Nation Alliance, were not well-received.

Positive Voting Campaign for Inter-Bloc Vote Shifts

Fear-based campaigns evoke feelings of anxiety and apprehension among voters. It can be argued that these emotions push voters to remain loyal to their political stance and rally around the party they support. Positive messages, on the other hand, evoke positive emotions in voters, prompting them to pay attention to the relevant political actors and parties. As a result, positive election campaigns are gaining importance, especially in elections aiming for cross-block vote shifts and in politically polarized environments. Regardless of their political preferences, it has been observed that voters recognized Ekrem İmamoğlu's "Everything Will Be Alright!" (Her Şey Çok Güzel Olacak) campaign during the 2019 local elections and the Justice and Development Party's "One More Time" (Haydi Bir Daha) campaign song used in the 2011 elections as the most memorable election campaigns. The "Almost There" (Az Kaldı) themed campaigns of the Good Party have also been well-received by voters from both the ruling and opposition blocs due to their inclusive and reconciliatory image.

Kılıçdaroğlu's Gesture of Reconciliation

While his "I Will Fight" (Kavga Edeceğim) discourse received negative reactions, Kılıçdaroğlu's message of reconciliation has been well-received by a considerable number of the participants. However, some participants have mentioned that they find the content positive but not necessarily convincing.