Road to runoff: Western Media Failed to Grasp the Turkish political culture

    One week has passed since the momentous Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14th. Since neither President Erdoğan nor Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu secured the required 50% plus one in the first round, a runoff will occur on May 28th. Although the 2023 Turkish elections are one of the most important events of the year, capturing the attention of numerous Western media outlets, the latter missed the mark. While hundreds of Western news crews had all the access they needed, even in the most crowded political rallies, they conveyed a misleading narrative coloured by wishful thinking. 

    This potent media machine constructed a tale that the challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was leading President Erdoğan. It also framed this contest most ludicrously, namely as a fight between democracy and dictatorship. Even renowned publications like The Economist succumbed to this simplistic and erroneous dichotomy. This frame is wrong because the practice of democracy has never been more vigorous in Türkiye. In fact, the country has rarely deviated from its democratic path, except for intermittent ruptures caused by military interventions. Showing an incredible lack of acumen, blurred by their conventional liberal delusions, Western news media engaged in parachute journalism, omitting essential factors in the dominant Turkish political culture.

    The Untouchables: Nationalism, Counterterrorism, and Defence

    The prevalent misinterpretations in Western analyses can be attributed to their misperception that links voters’ choices to purely economic concerns. They missed the input of nationalism, a significant factor enmeshed in the Turkish common consciousness. The opposition coalition, the Nation Alliance, lacked a resolute stance on critical matters, such as national security, the defence industry, and counterterrorism. This oversight inevitably reverberated at the ballot box. The HDP, a political party that the government says has links to the terrorist organisation PKK and its affiliates, has endorsed Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. This endorsement was detrimental to the opposition, validating its lack of emphasis on nationalism and national security. 

    Also, the leader of one of the alliance’s parties raised eyebrows with remarks about the privatisation of BAYKAR, a trailblazing company in the national defence industry. This statement backfired as it hinted that a Kılıçdaroğlu-led government would take some negative actions against this company, which further corroborated national security suspicions surrounding the opposition. Although attempts were made to pedal back from this statement, such frontal attacks on sensitive matters, such as national security, do little to inspire confidence in the opposition’s agenda.

    Furthermore, the opposition’s announcement that they would end trustee appointments in some municipalities where terrorist activity is active was seen by many citizens as a drawback. Worse, Kılıçdaroğlu’s promise to grant more autonomy to local administrations in Kurdish areas affected by terrorism added fuel to the fire, leading many to believe that the opposition is in bed with terror groups. 

    As social media amplified these words (dated from 2016), the opposition’s chances were further dented throughout the campaign trail.

    Overall, tinkering with the untouchables is not a wise move. Echoes of the wise point made by renowned intellectual John Mearsheimer still reverberate nowadays in Türkiye. He stated that nationalism often prevails over other ideologies. As we approach the second round, Kılıçdaroğlu’s belated emphasis on nationalism in videos and slogans confirms that he got it all wrong and, with him, hundreds of Western news outlets.

    Awakening Social Memory: Political Instability 

    Another factor eluded Western analyses: the fear of political instability. The turbulent era of the 1990s, marred by economic setbacks, continuous government reshuffling, and an atmosphere of permanent unrest, remains etched in the nation’s memory. Understandably, reluctant to relive such circumstances, voters did not embrace a governance model comprising a president and seven vice presidents. Such a political configuration will lead to irreconcilable conflicts of interest and the accompanying instability that Turkish citizens seek to avoid.

    Even within the same team poised to assume power, a statement made earlier this year by one of the constituents of the Nation’s Alliance during a TV program resonates: should the President make decisions without the consent of even one of the allied parties, a crisis would break out, despite the joint candidate’s triumph. This mention of a potential problem amplifies concerns over political stability amid a multi-party governance structure.

    Dismantling the presidential system and bringing back the parliamentary system was a key promise in the Nation Alliance’s election campaign. This commitment is not viable after the first round of voting since the People’s Alliance succeeded in constituting the majority of the parliament. With the prospect of the Nation’s Alliance candidate assuming the presidency within a political landscape dominated by the People’s Alliance in parliament, there is a genuine concern that the ghosts of past political instability may resurface. This factor alone sparks concern among those voters who had initially voted for Kılıçdaroğlu in the first round. 

    The power of nationalist sentiment in society and the desire to avoid political instability are critical factors that must not be overlooked when examining voter behaviour in Türkiye. Instead of blindly adhering to narratives centred around economic concerns and utilitarianism, which is all too common among Western media and pseudo “experts,” journalists should do their homework and avoid media bias and parachute journalism. 

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