ISTANBUL — In a decade-and-a-half in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has often turned to oratory skills that are the envy of his foes to rouse supporters with speeches, poems and stories.
Now the Turkish leader is picking up the microphone to sing, complete with hand gestures, to rally supporters of his ruling AKP Party for March 31 local elections.
Music has always been a powerful tool in Turkish politics, but with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), it has now become one more way to galvanise his support base before a potentially tricky vote.
With Turkey in recession and inflation in double digits, the AKP is turning up the nationalist rhetoric to try to win over voters hurt by high living costs.
“I get goose bumps when I listen to the songs everyday,” said Ilknur Can, at an Erdogan rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, where the president grew up.
“I really understand, through this music, what patriotism is,” she added.
Erdogan’s critics say he has eroded rights by cracking down on dissent at home.
But for supporters, his electoral style taps into their image of Erdogan as the strong leader Turkey needs who speaks for them.
In this month’s municipal elections, the AKP will likely remain the largest party even if some experts say it could win by a smaller percentage of the vote.
‘Where we are now’
Music is everywhere in Turkey, blaring out in taxis, shops and restaurants. Political events also have regular, and often extremely loud music.
The Turkish leader has deployed theme songs played on speakers at rallies in past elections, which have kept him in power since 2003.
But in the upcoming polls, it is Erdogan himself who is singing at almost every rally.
“Nereden nereye geldi Turkiye” (“From where Turkey came to where we are now”) Erdogan crooned from the stage at a recent event.
The song repeats a line from his election campaign tune about how far Turkey has developed under his rule.
“He already has an organic connection with his grassroots, but these songs are a new strategy to widen support,” associate professor Dogan Gurpinar, of Istanbul Technical University, said.
Political events have also been the subject of songs.
After a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan, one song had the lyrics: “Democracy took a blow and the nation was puzzled… the commander-in-chief gave the order: take to the squares.”
That was a reference to Erdogan’s call during the coup attempt for loyalists to take to the streets.
Another song entitled “Dombra” chants the president’s name, drawing cheers from party faithful.
“I am over the moon whenever I listen to Nereden Nereye,” said supporter Ayse Duru, as she sang along to Erdogan’s recent campaign song.
‘Instrument of politics’
The composer of Erdogan’s latest campaign tune and performer of it when the president himself isn’t singing it is Turkish pop singer Altan Cetin.
“It was not hard for me to write [the AKP song] and put it into a project. Believe me, it can sometimes be even more difficult to do a pop song,” he told AFP in his studio in Istanbul.
Cetin said that it took almost a month to finish.
“Our president uses every instrument of politics very successfully and very professionally,” he said.
In Europe, it is rare for a candidate to sing at election rallies.
But in the United States, former president Barack Obama sometimes sang on the campaign trail, and in 1992, Bill Clinton famously played the saxophone before an audience — helping to cement his popularity with young voters.
The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez also often broke into song at rallies and speeches, rousing supporters with the national anthem or folksongs.
Cetin said that music was “like a glue” for people that “brings them closer”.
“Music is about synchronisation. It creates a sincerity, a unity and a power with everyone who feels it.”
Cetin said that he wrote what he had “lived through” in Turkey, saying he was happy to see the country’s leader singing his music.
“A president accompanying a song with a microphone in his hand in a rally is a source of pride for the song’s composer,” he said.
Gurpinar, of the Istanbul Technical University, said that music was the most direct way to reach people.
“Turkey is a country that looks for tools to reach out to the masses more easily compared to other Western states,” he said.
Compared to the AKP, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) often struggles to establish similar bonds with its old school, left-leaning, protest song repertoire, Gurpinar said.
However the CHP is now also trying to attract more voters with modern songs — one is a rap tune by two young amateur musicians.
“It can have power only when the music and candidate merge,” CHP’s Istanbul candidate Ekrem Imamoglu told AFP when asked about music’s role.
But he said that positive expressions like music should replace heated rhetoric.
“I wish we would see and feel such nice things in politics,” he said. “We are happy with our songs. Honestly, I didn’t listen to the others.”