Western Media’s Biased Take on Türkiye’s Elections

    For the first time in its political history, Türkiye conducted a two-round presidential election. The country not just successfully passed the democracy test with flying colours, but it did so with a record 85% voter turnout in the first round. 

    As per the official results, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the runoff and assumed his new presidential term. The Turkish elections garnered significant attention not only in domestic media but also in international media outlets. However, the Western media analysis was a major let-down, particularly in the lead-up to the first round. Their narrative was biased, and their tone of voice was borderline obnoxious. Later, when Erdogan’s victory loomed, some Western news media adopted a more restrained stance. 

    Inherent biases and wishful thinking 

    One of the most prevailing narratives in Western media is the use of a binary mode of democracy versus dictatorship. It is as if they conveniently ignore Türkiye’s long-standing democratic experience, spanning over seventy years, and its ongoing democratisation path. Ignoring all that background, they present this election as if the opposition is on a crusade to save democracy, while it is obvious that Western governments only give lip service to democracy when it is convenient for them. Democracy becomes a matter of life or death only when a government does not align with their interests.

    This selective and black-and-white approach leads renowned publications like The Economist to smear Erdogan via his relationship with Putin and use it to frame Turkish elections. This once respected publication did not try to balance its reporting, disregarding Türkiye’s balancing diplomacy during the Russia-Ukraine War. To make their narratives more digestible, they infuse them with catchy slogans like “Erdoğan Must Go” and “Save Democracy”. 

    The New York Times is no exception. It focused its reporting on the relief that the West would feel if Erdogan lost, contrasting it with Moscow’s anxiety. The aspirations of Turkish nationals are not part of this equation. What matters most is what is the desired outcome for the White House. Again, they conveniently overlooked noteworthy achievements such as Türkiye’s role in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which saved many countries of the Global South from certain famine. 

    A similar biased narrative using the democracy versus dictatorship dichotomy was reflected in Le Point’s coverage on May 4th. Labelling Erdogan as the “other Putin,” this French magazine went beyond absurdity, warning that the outcome of the elections risk turning Türkiye into an “empire.” Knowing that elections represent a fundamental aspect of the democratic process, one wonders the point of Le Point’s analysis. Similarly, L’Express featured Erdogan’s face on its cover about the elections with the headline “risk of chaos.” 

    These instances, and many more, not only disregard the vox populi but also thrive on spreading pessimism and fear. They seem to have a penchant for crafting post-apocalyptic scenarios.

    Misreading Turkish political culture

    The prevailing trend of misanalysis in the Western media can also be attributed to a glaring oversight regarding the fundamental factors that shape Turkish political culture. This reductionist approach focusing solely on economic considerations fails to acknowledge the overriding significance of the national defence industry, national security, and counterterrorism in the Turkish context. 

    For instance, a piece published by The Economist in the lead-up to the second round of elections made a U-turn from its earlier position by stating that Erdoğan’s victory over Kılıçdaroğlu seems possible. Thus, the newspaper did a U-turn, recognising this time that the role of nationalism is pivotal. 

    However, nationalist values have always held considerable sway in the Turkish political culture and should never be relegated to secondary factors. Safeguarding national security and resolutely fighting against terrorism always remained vital. Analysing situations solely through the prism of economic variables has led to flawed analyses, as seen in the Western media. 

    Another overlooked factor was the failure to acknowledge that Turkish people had a bad experience with coalition governments. The instability and uncertainty brought by these coalition governments have left a deep scar on the public consciousness. Kılıçdaroğlu’s promise of a wide coalition governance model brought the spectre of political chaos. The scenario where seven vice presidents would assist the president under the Nation Alliance rule evoked painful memories of the turbulent era of the 1990s. Yet, the Western news platforms omitted this aspect, revealing an inexcusable ignorance of Turkish political culture and collective memory. 

    A catalogue of mistakes

    The portrayal of Turkish elections by the Western media has turned out to be a catalogue of mistakes, combining a reductionist approach, lazy journalism, and a lack of homework on the country’s political culture. The superficial analysis that shaped their perspective before the first round failed to delve into the depths of society, while the narrative driven by preconceived notions and expectations did not stand the test of time as the second round approached. 

    As highlighted in a Foreign Policy piece of self-criticism, the past two weeks witnessed the diminishing credibility of manipulative polls and the emergence of a disillusioned outlook. In short, one is reminded of Marx’s famous words: what was once a tragedy in the lead-up to the first round has now become a comedy.

    This article originally appeared in the Analysis section of Anadolu Agency’s website.

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