Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters from a balcony at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, on June 24 as they celebrate him winning five more years in office with sweeping new powers after a decisive election victory.Photo: AFP / Turkish Presidential Press Office / Kayhan Ozer
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves to supporters from a balcony at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, on June 24, 2018, as they celebrate his winning five more years in office with sweeping new powers after a decisive election victory. Photo: AFP / Turkish Presidential Press Office / Kayhan Ozer

When Turkey’s political elite square off next year in a general election, one element of the democratic process is almost certain to be absent: political debates. The televised airing of ideas and differences, ubiquitous in many Western democracies, hasn’t been a feature of Turkish politics since Recep Tayyip Erdogan was first elected prime minister in 2002. 

In now-President Erdogan’s “New Turkey,” the lack of political debating has absolved leaders from working for people’s votes, and disfranchised an already skeptical electorate. Put another way, the longer politicians stay away from the lectern, the shallower Turkey’s democracy becomes.

The spectator sport known as political debating first appeared on Turkish television in 1983. At the time, millions were drawn to their screens to watch as politicians defined and defended party platforms. The primetime tradition of watching public servants duel with words got so popular that it trickled down from national politics to the local level. 

As elsewhere, debates have made (or destroyed) Turkish politicians’ careers. Erdogan himself rose to national prominence on the debate stage. In the 2002 campaign for prime minister, a primetime debate on TV propelled the then-Istanbul mayor and Justice and Development Party (AKP) chairman to the country’s highest office, as Erdogan bested the Republican People’s Party (CHP) chairman Deniz Baykal. 

In 2007 a debate sank the aspirations of AKP vice-chairman Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, who resigned from his post two months after his 95-minute debate with CHP member of parliament Kemal Kılıcdaroglu. Kılıcdaroglu, who was later made chairman of the CHP after trouncing Ankara mayor Melih Gokcek in another debate, accused Firat of corruption. It was political theater at its most informative – and entertaining.

Since then, it has been quiet at the podium. Despite several invitations from challengers, Erdogan, a skilled orator, has stayed away from the debate stage. The former editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, Murat Yetkin, says Erdogan even banned other AKP members from appearing in televised debates themselves.

The prohibition on debates is yet another erosion of Turkey’s democratic freedoms and further evidence of Erdogan’s political consolidation. 

The ban on politicians debating onscreen is especially domineering in Turkey, where television is the main source of information and news. For instance, KONDA, an Istanbul-based polling company, found that 67% of Turks first learned about the 2016 coup attempt from television.

Indeed, Turks spend most of their free time watching TV. A 2020 report from the TV Audience Research Company estimated that Turks spend four hours and 33 minutes a day watching television. Of course, not everyone is tuned into news 24/7, but the amount of time spent watching television demonstrates how central the small screen is in most households.

And yet news coverage in Turkey is decidedly partisan. Ilhan Tasci, the CHP party representative of Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), exposed that opposition parties get almost no airtime.

During the 2018 election campaign, which ran from April 17 to May 6, public broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Company gave no airtime to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), three hours and four minutes to the CHP, and 36 hours to AKP. 

Lost generations

Compounding these concerns, half of all eligible voters for the upcoming general election will have little or no memory of ever seeing a televised political debate. Members of Generation Z, some 5 million people born after 1997 – 16% of the electorate – will cast their first vote in a national election next year, while Millennials, born after 1981, make up 33%. 

The last time Turkey’s voters saw anything resembling a political debate was in 2019, a staid and stiff onscreen meeting between the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım and the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu campaigning to be the mayor of Istanbul. Neither man engaged directly with the other. There was no hard talk, no substance, nothing that would have influenced the outcome of the mayoral election.

Given this two-decade decline in Turkey’s debate scene, and evidence from other countries that such events have little impact on election outcomes, it’s worth asking whether the demise of Turkey’s onscreen political sparring even matters. Worth asking, but hardly worth answering. 

Put simply, the disappearance of transparent political discourse has excluded entire generations of voters from the political process, and prevented young people from fully grasping their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

Millions of voters have come of age never witnessing a politician work for their vote or being publicly called out for their wrongdoings. Subconsciously, Turkey’s young voters have been trained not to expect politicians to deliver on their promises – or even to make them. 

Turkey’s lack of political liyakat (competence) and the eradication of public accountability are perhaps the biggest shifts in the country’s political landscape since the AKP came to power. Voters have grown accustomed to Turkish politicians avoiding public scrutiny or engaging with the opposition. Today in Turkey, politics are a black box.

Unfortunately, what that has produced is a monolithic narrative empowering a single opinion at the expense of many voices. Erdogan’s position on public debates is a key cause of this trend.

As candidates get ready to do battle in next year’s general election, voters will need to cast their ballots based on what is said in public, but even more important, on what isn’t.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.