The Turkish leader has perfected his rhetoric during 16 years in power, maintaining control with an effective interplay of coercion and attraction
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has done it again: maintaining his hardline control of the press and the opposition, he has been democratically re-elected as president of Turkey. With the dismissal of more than 2,700 journalists, the incarceration of more than 130 others, and the closure of more than 170 media outlets in 2016 alone, Turkey’s international image has suffered. Combined with his actions against foreign journalists and the imposition of anti-democratic policies, such as the crackdown on independent domestic media in the past couple of years, Erdoğan’s international profile has transformed into that of an authoritarian, isolationist leader.
His image, however, still seems to appeal to a large portion of the Turkish electorate. Erdoğan shapes this image – a tool for engineering consent – through his rhetoric and actions, successfully combining them within a smart power methodology of coercion and attraction.
Identity and familiarity
In 2015, two general elections took place in Turkey. A few days after the second vote, Erdoğan delivered a speech at the 14th Muhtarlar (local authorities) meeting in which he conveyed a series of vivid images, arguing that EU member states were “trying to even sink refugee ships sailing from the Mediterranean Sea” while Turkey was “welcoming refugees and saving refugees from the sea”. Images and symbols can be hugely effective in communicating messages. Symbols are especially important in expressing identity – and identity often motivates political activity. Symbols enable people to create bonds with one another, share a sense of cause, and rally around common values.
The idea running through the main body of the speech is one of unity within Turkey and the threat to this unity. Erdoğan speaks of Turkey being one nation, where no one should love one another because of their financial status and regardless of ethical backgrounds. He warns of not falling into discrimination, as this would split the country into pieces. The language he uses is passionate and emotional. Emotion motivates; reason persuades.
The speech is most repetitive in its use of the word “nation/national” and the term of address “valuable brothers and sisters”. The term creates a familiarity between the speaker and the audience, expressing his respect for them. The repetition indicates their importance to the speaker. Erdoğan’s use of repetition intensifies the connection between him and the audience, creating a space in which he can shape their thoughts.
Vulnerability and sincerity
On the morning after the attempted coup against him in July 2016, Erdoğan delivered a speech to a crowd of cheering supporters at Istanbul Atatürk Airport. Unlike his address to the 14th Muhtarlar meeting, this speech seemed to be almost a dialogue with the audience. Erdoğan began by praying for a bright future and national unity, before talking about how Turkey had “suffered from parallel governments” over the past 40 years – a reference to the Gülen movement. After halting the speech for several minutes to pray, Erdoğan discussed the meaning of the symbols on the Turkish flag – as he did in the Muhtarlar speech. The language he used to talk about the flag is almost identical to that in the Muhtarlar speech, indicating that it is core to his public rhetoric.
To conclude the speech, Erdoğan used one of his most powerful rhetorical weapons: his signature poem, which he asks the audience to repeat at mass rallies. The poem originates in the lyrics of a romantic Turkish song. He employs it to convey the idea of a romance between him and the public. The poem – which displays Erdoğan’s mastery of soft power through apparent vulnerability and sincerity – has become a tradition: “We have walked this path together. We have gotten wet under the showering rain. And now in the songs that I listen to, I am reminded of you. Everything reminds me of you! Everything reminds me of Turkey!”
Erdoğan’s use of repetition intensifies the connection between him and the audience, creating a space in which he can shape their thoughts
The problem with combining coercion and attraction
The influence strategy Erdoğan used in both speeches focuses on nationalist, emotive rhetoric designed to build a connection with the audience. This style has similarities with that of another world leader from a humble background who shifted between the posts of prime minster and president: Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Both men have strengthened their influence using religion – Sunni Islam in Erdoğan’s case, Orthodox Christianity in Putin’s. Both have also vilified the West. For instance, Putin has described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an attempt to prevent NATO aggression, while Erdoğan has hinted that his country will drop its bid to join the European Union in favour of accession to the Beijing- and Moscow-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Erdoğan’s focus on nationalism, religion, and identity politics – along with his constant use of symbols and traditions, such as his signature poem – has cemented the basic support network that keeps him in power at home. His dedication to his religion, particularly his belief in Islamic morals and values, boosts his support among the likeminded. The attempted coup against him failed due to his domestic soft power skills, which he has applied while simultaneously increasing his coercion of the opposition. Yet this dual approach has created a split in his country.
Since the coup attempt, Erdoğan’s efforts to build international support for his foreign policy and model of society have taken a back seat. Having won re-election, he now needs to apply his soft power skills to the international stage. In a world that is increasingly interconnected and in which information flows ever more freely, sooner or later he and his policies will be subjected to greater scrutiny.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.