Political observers often criticize politicians for focusing on scandalous activities of their rivals or emotional but unnecessary measures concerning national security, as a means of distracting voters’ attention from “real issues”. Does scandalous or emotional information about a candidate or panic call concerning national security interfere with voters’ behavior? Or does the electorate have a reflex to look for a hidden agenda behind emotional information?
Two options can be considered: One possibility is that scandalous information may only facilitate, rather than interferes with, recall of political situation and voter is not affected by emotional show. A second option argues that scandalous news about the candidate or emotional information attracts substantial attention from individuals thereby interfering with previously stored information. Examples below demonstrate different cases of exposure to scandalous or emotional information which may be hazardous to voters because the information is aimed at distracting them to the real consequences of the hidden agenda.
In 1988, Ronald Reagan, the incumbent President of the United States, was vacating the position after serving the maximum two terms. Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, won the Republican nomination, while the Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis, Governor of Massachusetts. George Bush defeated his rival thanks to a successful campaign in which he called for penal sanctions for the crime of burning the US flag. During this election campaign, a number of rumors were reported in the media about Dukakis that his wife had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War. According to the statistics this crime was not committed more than 10 times in a year. Despite the low rate of the crime, a bill had been passed by congress with 90 % support but it was thrown out by the Supreme Court.
In February 1989, newly elected President George Bush announced to the American public that he would set up a programme to rescue the stricken Savings & Loan industry. The announcement made plain the seriousness of the depth for the first time. This financial difficulty was predicted but barely mentioned during Bush’s campaign because it was less emotional but more expensive than the defence of the flag. The financial crisis cost a lot to US tax payers.
The burqa ban in France succeeded Sarkozy’s fiasco of the regional elections. Despite the low number of burqa wearers in the country the importance of the ban in public places has been highlighted in many discussions. On the other hand, French exchequer’s loss and the cost after the “plan de sauvatege” of French banks in 2008 did not appear so emotionally in the public discussions while the Devil was wearing burqa.
In August 2010 French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a plan to expel 700 Roma people by the end of the month. This plan is part of a scheme to tighten national security. Unfortunately, evictions of Roma camps and expulsions of Roma people are likely to increase racist and xenophobic feelings in Europe. It did not come as a surprise that the expulsions took place during the holiday season when all France is virtually dormant but right before the launch of protest by France’s strong trade unions to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
While trade unions are mounting huge protests across the country of human rights, Sarkozy insists on the pension reforms as he claims they will reduce the public deficit and preserve France’s A credit rating. One more time, fears on national security were used in order to shade financial problems and eventual nasty measures.
A referendum in Turkey on constitutional reform set for the 30th anniversary of a military coup has targeted to stir memories of 80’s. Prime Minister Erdoğan has primarily based his referendum rhetoric on the settling of accounts with the perpetrators of the coup, encouraging Turks to vote “yes” so that the coup plotters can be tried.
While Erdoğan is arguing that the package of reforms will strengthen democracy, his critics highlight that it will give the ruling AK Party (Justice and Development Party, but “AK” means “white” as well and this abbreviation is preferred by the party’s sympathizers) control over the judiciary who almost succeeded in having the ruling party banned in 2007 for having Islamic ties. Submitting the case for constitutional change in parliament, Erdoğan and his MP fellows choked back tears as he read aloud the final letter of a far-right youth hanged after the 1980 coup. Yaşar Okuyan who was a leader of one of the rightist movements before 1980 was imprisoned after the coup. He sees the reforms an answer by Erdoğan to purge judges and prosecutors and alleged that Erdoğan is “crying in front of the nation in order to save his skin”.
Until now, the crisis with the military usually serves to benefit the AKP as Erdoğan victimizes him self as “the child beaten by the cruel father”. Once again, the public is displaying a silent reaction as it did when the military intervened during the 2006 elections. I think that organizing the referendum at the 30th anniversary of the 12 September coup will promote more “yes” votes. With their new Constitution, Turkish people will start realising what lies behind the tears as from 13th of September.
Who says that 13 is an unlucky number?
Zeynep Pelin Ataman