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Negative campaigning in Turkey

Written by Emre Toros.

The highly competitive and rapidly changing scenery of electoral activity throughout the world seems to be more chaotic than ever. In different contexts, political actors test various tools in order to influence the voter preferences. Operating in this diverse environment, these actors still have to decide on one common and crucial aspect of their electoral campaigns: whether to prioritise their own assets or draw attention to the weaknesses of their rivals. This decisive choice is conceptualised under the categories of positive and negative campaigning. Recently, the latter, namely the negative campaigning, attracted an increased attention both from academic and non-academic circles.  In that sense, Turkey seems to be an interesting case. The Turkish Republic has been a multiparty democracy since the mid-1940s and although it has been interrupted by three military coups, the party and election system in Turkey has brought real alternations in the government from the very early years of the multiparty system. Accordingly, this study analysed negative campaigning in the Turkish national electoral campaigns between 1983 and 2011 and tried to shed light on the level of negativity in Turkish electoral campaigns and factors that are salient for going negative for Turkish political parties. The study carried out its empirical analysis by utilizing a new data set that covers eight Elections, 28 years and seventeen newspapers with 3919 individual observations. Figure 1 summarizes the basic findings.

Figure 1. Elections and the Tone of the News in Turkey between 1983 and 2011.

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Beyond these basic findings this study also shed empirical light on the link between negativity and party characteristics in Turkey. Research has proved that the parties go more negative when they ideologically diverge from centre. Additionally, challengers send more negative messages compared to incumbents and messages with retrospective focus are more negative compared prospectively focused messages. Findings also supplied empirical evidence that political parties go more negative especially during single-party government periods. This is in line with the idea that when the number of parties increases the risk of benefitting from going negative also increases since voters that are influenced by negative campaigning are not necessarily vote for the attacking party as they may decide to choose from other available alternatives.

Although the coalition intention among the Turkish political parties is low due to the existent political culture, still the analysis show that they took the “coalition potential” into consideration where necessary. Even though that being the case, it is also proved that negativity among the parties that belong to the same ideological family is also significant. Analysis showed that parties on the left are more “negative within” during the times of high fragmentation and used traits more frequently compared to the parties on the right. Similarly for the parties on the right there is an increasing trend in negativity during the years. So it may be argued that, in order to differentiate themselves, the parties that belong to same ideological family also utilize negativity. (You may check the graph on https://infogr.am/negativity_within_same_ideological_families for details)

Turning back to Figure 1, the study displayed the fact that Turkey displays similar characteristics within the European countries like the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, where negativity fluctuates over time. However, the level of negativity is quite high in Turkey when compared to these countries. This extraordinary level of negativity, which is 72.9 per cent on average, needs some further elaboration. Two explanations are possible.

Firstly, it may be argued that this high score is related to the media outlet chosen for the unit of analysis. Newspapers, in accordance with the media bias explained in the theoretical part, highlight and prioritise news with polemics, which can attract readers’ attention and hence caused this high level of negativity.  Second is related with the broader context of Turkish politics. The research on voting behaviour, political parties and party system in Turkey frequently reported that, although changing in time, the social cleavages (centre –periphery, local– national, socioeconomic left–right, secularist–religious/conservative) have always shaped the arena of politics as a polarized one, serving for a “zero-sum-game”, where there can only be winners or losers. In that sense, politics has always been a “battleground” rather than a constitutive activity. That is to say, political activity in Turkey did not shape the economic, cultural or sociological principles that the citizens agreed on. Instead it served as the main tool for gaining power to eliminate the rival camp. A number of other scholars[1] also agreed that the important differences among voter profiles in Turkey, resulted not only from socio-demographic controls or economic evaluations, but also from what is called as the issues and identity variables. Since those variables were meant to represent the dominant cleavages in Turkish politics, there is enough evidence to argue that the party system in Turkey is fragmented. Thus, it is probable that the high level of negativity in electoral campaigns is a result of this highly fragmented characteristics of the Turkish politics in the broad sense.

Emre Toros is the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Public  Administration at Atilim University, Ankara, Turkey. This article is part of the Center for British Politics (CPB) research series into negative campaigning. Image credit: CC by Faruk/Flickr.

[1] Baslevent, Cem, Hasan Kirmanoglu, and Burhan Senatalar. “Voter Profiles and Fragmentation in the Turkish Party System.” Party Politics 10, no. 3 (2004): 307–324

Published inNegative CampaigningTurkish politics

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