Turkey’s voters kept in the dark

The standard by which the modern world judges elections is whether they are free and fair.

In this case, “free” means that citizens entitled to vote have the right to register to vote and are free to make their choice, without external pressure. On this count, Turkey generally performs well.

“Fair”, in the case of elections, refers to all registered political parties having an equal right to contest the elections and campaign for voter support with meetings and rallies. It is here where Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, falls woefully short.

In less than two weeks, Turkey heads to the polls to elect local leaders - city mayors, district mayors, village leaders and municipal councils. The March 31 vote marks the country’s first since Erdoğan consolidated his new presidential system last June, and the first since the government lifted the state of emergency a month later.

This last point is important, as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticised Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections last June, saying the state of emergency had limited freedom of expression. In 2015, a year before an attempted coup and subsequent state of emergency, the OSCE rated Turkey’s parliamentary elections as fair.

Still, last year the OSCE did acknowledge that government control of the media meant parties did not compete on an equal footing. That is a bit of an understatement.

During a three-week period before the June vote, state broadcaster TRT gave the AKP alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) 37 hours of coverage - more than 10 times the three hours of coverage given to its main competitor, the opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP). The nationalist Good Party got 9.5 hours, while the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received no coverage at all in this period.

Independent outlets did scarcely better. For the month of May, CNN Türk and NTV devoted 70 hours to the AKP-MHP alliance, while covering the CHP for less than a third of that time (22 hours).

We have seen more of the same in the lead-up to this vote. In February, TRT devoted 53 hours to the AKP-MHP alliance, while offering the CHP-Good Party alliance six hours of air time, again nearly a 10-to-1 ratio.

As for private stations, a recent incident summed up the state of election campaigning. Ekrem İmamoğlu, the CHP candidate for Istanbul mayor, was taking part in a rare live interview on CNN Türk last Wednesday.

“I am very experienced,” he told host Buket Aydın. “I would take the task by the ear…”

The screen cut to a graphic promoting live coverage of a breaking news event, and suddenly Turkey’s president appeared onscreen, delivering yet another campaign speech.

Observers were outraged, driving the hashtag “CNN Türk censors” (#SansurcuCNNTürk) to the top spot of trending topics in Turkey.

In the most prominent of all races to be contested, this is how Turkey's ostensibly independent media outlets treat the main challenger: cutting him off mid-sentence to air a humdrum speech by a politician not even running in the election.

“It is clearly disrespectful,” İkbal Aytaç, deputy candidate for Çanakkale for the Good Party, said in a tweet sharing the video.

Indeed, this sort of on-air dismissal might be understandable for a taxi driver or housewife being interviewed on the street about some minor local news event. But not for a leading candidate for the most important post up for grabs in the polls, and not when there is no breaking news to be covered.

“Turkish TV channels run in constant fear of punishment by the presidential palace,” BBC Turkey correspondent Mark Lowen said in a tweet in which he shared the CNN Türk video.

That fear is more intense this time around. Turkey just entered its first recession in nearly a decade. Recent surveys, and sources close to the AKP, suggest that the races in big cities, including Istanbul, Ankara, Bursa, and Antalya, are expected to be tight.

The post of Istanbul mayor, the position that launched Erdoğan’s political career, is the jewel in the local elections crown. It has been held by the AKP for 25 years, and now İmamoğlu is facing AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım, a former prime minister, in a heated battle for the post.

It should come as no surprise that he received such treatment. Last June, when CHP presidential candidate Muharrem İnce’s candidacy was gaining steam, CNN Türk and other outlets cut away from a live broadcast of one of his campaign rallies after the crowd began chanting “Tayyip the Thief”.

The Ankara mayoralty is the second most important post being contested on March 31. The AKP has also held this office for a quarter of a century, yet here its fears are even greater.

CHP candidate Mansur Yavaş might well have claimed the mayoralty in the last local election, in 2014, but for a curious cat, according to the AKP version of events.

On the evening of the election, vote counting suddenly stopped at several Ankara polling places that tend to favour the CHP. The official explanation was that a cat had gotten into an electrical transformer and short-circuited it. When the count resumed a few hours later, incumbent AKP mayor Melih Gokçek’s 3,000-vote lead grew to 20,000 votes in a matter of minutes.

For this vote, the ruling party jumped on its Ankara opponent much sooner.

A few weeks after polls put Yavaş in the lead, pro-government daily Sabah and AKP officials began accusing Yavaş of abusing his position as a lawyer a decade ago, including harassing his client and using a false signature.

A court accepted an indictment against the CHP candidate last week, meaning he could soon face trial. Yavaş vehemently denied the charges, as did CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

A few pro-government news outlets posted statements of denial by Yavaş online for a short time before removing them. Several major outlets did not publish them at all.

“We have been waiting for Yavaş to speak on the claims on media, a behaviour that a responsible politician should do, but he did not,” said AKP spokesman Ömer Çelik, ignoring the CHP candidate’s denials.

In response, Turkish author Yıldıray Oğur pointed out that Turkish citizens did not know how Yavaş had responded to the accusations because only one station had covered them.

If a tree falls in the woods when nobody is around, does it make any sound?

Yavaş’ self-defence is likely to have the same impact as İmamoğlu’s CNN Türk interview. In both cases, a candidate posing a legitimate threat to AKP dominance in a crucial contest lost face, thanks to deeply unfair electoral practices on the part of the ruling party.

Anyway, the president has already changed the subject. This past weekend Erdoğan denounced the shooter in the Christchurch mosque attacks, which killed 50 people, saying that Brenton Tarrant had “targeted our country, our nation, and myself”.

While speaking, he screened a montage of video snippets from the attack - video that Facebook, YouTube and other social media outlets had hurried to remove from their websites as offensive and promoting extreme violence.

Erdoğan essentially forbids the broadcast or publication of statements by his political opponents, often linking them to terrorism. Yet he is happy to share terrorist-made videos of real-life mass murder if it serves his purpose.

Turkey’s leader is well aware that the people most prone to fear are those who have been kept in the dark.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.