Can Twitter save Turkey from corruption?

Twitter's logo, transposed in black
Photo via Flickr user Andreas Eldth

The Money, Politics and Transparency project tries to offer insight on what works and what doesn’t in terms of money’s impact on a specific country’s elections, but sometimes we have to read between the lines to begin to discern whether there is any hope for improvement. Such is the case with Turkey, which held its first direct presidential elections on August 10. The lead up to the election, as well as the result, suggests that there is very little cause to believe that entrenched leadership marred by corruption will take steps to improve transparency of money in politics specifically, or its democratic institutions more broadly. The only slim glimmer of hope for transparency and an informed public comes from a perhaps unexpected place: Twitter.

The results are in, and to no-one’s surprise, the winner is former Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, with 52% of the vote, garnered a large enough majority to avoid a runoff later in the month. Before the election, Erdogan made no secret of his intentions to alter the position of president into something more powerful, including appointing a prime minister who will allow him to continue governing Turkey as he has for a decade as prime minister, in much the same way Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did in 2012.

Erdogan’s victory stems largely from improving economic conditions in Turkey, but may also be due to the overwhelming advantage Erdogan had in terms of resources to aid in his election. He dominated state-run television, which cut the live broadcast of an opposition party as he was criticizing the election coverage, and threatened to take another party’s candidate off the air. The Erdogan campaign is also reported to have distributed toys, food and headscarves in door-to-door campaigning, raising additional concerns that taxpayer money might have been used to boost Erdogan’s campaign, despite a ban on public funds being used for elections.

A report issued in June by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted additional concerns about the transparency of Turkey’s campaign finance system. Candidates are required to submit campaign finance information to an oversight body within ten days of the election results being finalized, and are given an additional month to correct any errors. The post-election reporting scheme provides little incentive for candidates to adhere to campaign regulations and yields little information for voters.

So where does Twitter come into play, and how does it inspire any hope in an otherwise grim transparency regime? The story starts on a negative note, when the Erdogan administration banned Twitter and YouTube after reports of corruption in the municipal elections that took place last March began circulating. Yet Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled the ban was unconstitutional and, after a brief delay, the government acquiesced to the court’s ruling, which according to the law professor who challenged the ban, was “a major victory for democracy and freedom of expression in Turkey.”

Of course, one victory does not a transparent democracy make. As one scholar noted,

“Twitter was effective in terms of organizing the opposition and informing them about the extent of the corruption in which the AKP [Erdogan’s party] was mired. Yet, this opposition was relatively small in number, educated, young, and urban; what appeared on Twitter (and, other social media outlets) had minimal impact on the rest of society, which is large in number, less educated, older, and more suburban and rural than urban.”

The vast majority of Turkish voters is likely much more reliant on state controlled television and other traditional forms of media in which Erdogan exerts influence.

Social media may provide a toehold for advocates seeking greater accountability and more transparency in Turkey, but only if they find a way to expand its reach. In the meantime, the presidential election demonstrates that in terms of anti-corruption measures including transparency of money in politics, Turkish citizens are mostly left in the dark.