Turkey’s Election and Its Malcontents

The media need to rethink their coverage of the country’s politics

Turkey’s Election and Its Malcontents
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony in Kayseri, Turkey, in 2022. (Photo by Sercan Kucuksahin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Spotlight” is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday and Wednesday. Sign up here.

On the morning of May 15, political and social media commentators as well as journalists were coming to terms with the results of the Turkish presidential elections.

As has often been the case in the last few votes in Turkey, many who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had convinced themselves that this time, surely, he would be ousted from the country’s leadership after two decades at the helm. They had reason to be optimistic: The opposition, secular and nationalist, was unified and disciplined. Economic mismanagement is so rife that inflation hit a 24-year high in November at a whopping 85.5%, and the lira has fallen from 4.7 to one US dollar at the same time five years ago to 19.8 today, largely due to top-down economic policies that can be described, if one is to be generous, as being hocus pocus. The successive earthquakes that devastated the country earlier this year and the government’s incompetent response remain a searing pain point. 

Erdogan’s opponents also capitalized more effectively on anti-refugee sentiment that blames Syrians and migrants for the economic woes created by the nation’s leadership, repeatedly promising to send millions of them home if they come to power.

Yet Erdogan led the first round of the presidential election with 49.5% of the vote over his opponent, the leader of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the unified opposition’s candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who came in second with 44.9%. Having barely failed to clear the 50% threshold required to win outright, Erdogan will face Kilicdaroglu in a May 28 runoff.

As this latest hangover was materializing, Erdogan’s spokesman and special adviser Ibrahim Kalin tweeted a taunt aimed at the European newspapers that covered the election and expressed outright their hopes for Erdogan’s defeat. He posted a collage of their front pages, including a Stern magazine cover calling Erdogan “The Arsonist,” one from the Economist with voting stickers saying “Erdogan Must Go” and “Save Democracy,” another from l’Express expressing fears that his continued presence on the world stage posed risks in the Middle East and on the refugee issue, one calling him the “other Putin” and a Der Spiegel cover implying that he was no longer invincible.

Kalin tweeted the collage with the message, “Bye bye.” He had claimed victory over journalism itself. Well, he technically claimed victory over the editorial boards of newspapers and magazines who in their zeal and self-aggrandizement undermine the work of their diligent reporters by equating their virtue-signaling and taking sides in foreign elections with their reporters’ work on the ground.

But it’s all the same to those who distrust journalism.

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear first: Erdogan winning is bad for democracy. The Turkish leader spearheaded a broad campaign of oppression that has neutered civil society and the media over the past decade, firing or throwing in prison activists, bureaucrats, opponents and critics. He has imprisoned and put on trial numerous journalists on terrorism charges that are as tenuous as his grasp of macroeconomics. He has shut down media outlets that reported on corruption and abuses or replaced their boards with lackeys using spurious legal proceedings by a pliant judiciary that would make Benjamin Netanyahu jealous.

Nor is he particularly principled, much as is the case for any leader and political operative who has survived at the helm for so long, despite pretensions to the contrary. The supposed impartial legal proceedings into the murder of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were swiftly shut down after Erdogan’s come-to-Muhammad (bin Salman) moment last year when he visited Riyadh, a trip during which prior claims that the Saudi crown prince had played a role in the plot are unlikely to have resurfaced and after which he secured deals and investments from the Gulf. He has done little to curb anti-refugee sentiment in the past few years, and life has in fact become progressively harder for Syrians, because being pro-refugee was too politically costly. He has sent back hundreds of thousands of Syrians to parts of northern Syria that his military conquered from the Kurds. And he has used refugees as a plaything to bully the European Union into giving him money, an exercise in cynicism that has had the dual purpose of exposing the fact that the continent’s stance on human rights and freedom can really be summarized with the phrase “it depends,” effectively exposing as vacuous any future principled critique of his policies.

The opposition, many of whom are actual victims of Erdogan’s regime and its excesses, have successfully tapped into the line of public argument that appeals so much to Western progressives and polemicists who are unflinching in their support for anyone who claims the mantle of freedom in faraway countries — a laudable position that would nevertheless benefit from some knowledge of the local particularities of the country in question. They are defenders of democracy and freedom.

Of course, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and some ends are worth the means. This is a calculation you can make as an editorial writer perhaps in Washington, D.C., London, Paris or Berlin, and it is understandable. But you might perhaps be called on to justify why you even feel the need to back one side in a Turkish election when the leader of the opposition, in an attempt to court the hardline nationalist 5% of voters who in the first round backed a populist (read: racist) third-party candidate, kicks off his renewed campaign by declaring that he would rid the country of an apparent 10 million refugees, 6 million of whom do not exist.

“Erdogan, you have deliberately allowed 10 million refugees to Turkey. You even put Turkish citizenship on sale to get imported votes,” Kilicdaroglu said at the CHP headquarters on May 18. “I am announcing here: I will send all refugees back home once I am elected as president, period.”

This latest presidential election is the sixth important vote in the past nine years, starting with  the presidential election in 2014 and followed by two parliamentary elections the following year (the second a snap election because Erdogan was unhappy with the results of the first), the 2017 constitutional referendum and the 2018 presidential and parliamentary election.

In most of them, the pattern has been rather similar. International media outlets that are opposed to Erdogan’s repeated power grabs express curiosity about his opponents, eventually convincing themselves in large part because of their language that they have a chance at finally ending the ailing president’s unbroken streak of victories (at least for him personally, though his party has underperformed in parliamentary and local mayoral elections and has been forced into a coalition). Editorials almost unanimously declare the urgent need for his defeat in the interests of the international democratic order. Everyone is amazed at the incredibly high voter turnout. Early election results come in with the opposition leading in key battlegrounds, but the euphoria dissipates as this lead narrows and then disappears with yet another Erdogan victory, first prompting allegations of fraud and then self-flagellation at the opposition’s repeated failure to unseat him. Most of this plays out on social media and in the tone of some of the coverage, where magazines and newspapers are surprised that the predictions of “observers” (read: plausible-seeming individuals on social media and think tanks) have not panned out.

This repeated misreading of these elections coupled with wishful thinking is symptomatic of two problems with foreign international coverage.

The first is mainstream media’s obsession with people who think like them — whether it is secularists in Turkey, the mainstream British establishment that opposed Brexit, democratic Syrian activists, anti-Trump agitators or Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi who confirmed their pre-existing biases about Iraq. I too was guilty of this often while reporting in the Middle East. It is not that the opinions espoused by those individuals or groups were invalid or wrong necessarily, but they are given greater weight and power incommensurate with their influence on the ground or their ability to deliver votes. This is because journalists, like normal people, gravitate toward like-minded individuals, and it requires a conscious effort to be skeptical, especially since skepticism can be accompanied with accusations that you are pro-Erdogan or anti-democracy. This bubble’s impenetrability expands with distance, which allows declarations from editorial boards halfway across the world to be so devoid of nuance.

The other problem has to do with the obsession with Erdogan himself. The Turkish president belongs to what I have started thinking of as a multi-tiered ranking of the world’s autocrats and totalitarian-curious leaders. The top tier is occupied by individuals who are genuine threats to democracy on a global scale, like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The bottom tier is occupied by autocrats of nations with no geopolitical relevance and therefore occupy only fleeting interest amid the rapid churn of important international stories. These are individuals like Kais Saied in Tunisia or Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar, whose continued tenures pose no real threat beyond their borders, at least to areas that the G-7 nations care about.

Erdogan belongs to the middle tier, alongside figures like Narendra Modi, Viktor Orban and  Jair Bolsonaro, who either are seen as particularly influential or virulent, or evoke a particular sense of discomfort because the West has to deal with them given their geopolitical importance or usefulness. Even within this tier Erdogan occupies a special place, as evidenced by the somewhat odd belief in media editorials and coverage that the Turkish elections matter to the world at large, rather than primarily to Turkish people and those who live there willingly and unwillingly. Adding to this overemphasis is the uniquely great extent to which media outlets act like they have a stake in the outcome. I think this is because European media in particular take it upon themselves to act as the superego to their governments’ craven ego when it comes to Turkey: Someone must hold Erdogan to account if our governments will not.

My suspicion is that the second reason has to do with a profound sense of disappointment and betrayal in the promise of what Erdogan and Turkey could have been. At the onset of the Arab Spring, both were hailed as examples to be emulated — a living demonstration that Islam and modernity can coexist within the context of a democracy and its institutions. This sense of betrayal and wasted potential exists in the Arab world too, where Erdogan went from being a champion to many disenfranchised — many of whom fondly remembered incidents like his outburst at Shimon Peres in Davos in 2009 — to spearheading a movement to theocratize the region.

But rather than campaign, media outlets should let their journalists write, uncovering the truth and bearing witness, letting the facts — like Turkey’s economic ruin, the dozens of journalists on trial, the country’s misadventures abroad, the hundreds of thousands of civil servants fired without cause and oppressed civil society — speak for themselves. The facts laid bare are also good for democracy.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy