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As Erdogan makes presidential bid, Turkish media airs 'Truman Show'

Alexander Christie-MillerThe Christian Science Monitor

With presidential elections looming this Sunday, Turkey's television broadcasters seem to be running their own "Truman Show" starring outgoing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Having reached his term limit, Mr. Erdogan is now seeking the presidency – currently a ceremonial position, but one he hopes to endow with a plethora of new powers. The overwhelming frontrunner has been broadcast scoring goals in an exhibition soccer match and "reviving" an unwell supporter with the touch of his hand during a rally in Istanbul last weekend.

The coverage has dwarfed that of his two rivals.

His critics see the blanket broadcasting as a symptom of a dangerous concentration of power in his hands, which they fear will only increase if he becomes Turkey's first directly elected president in polls on Aug. 10. 

“It’s something we’ve seen before, but the level it’s reached in this campaign is unprecedented and unabashed,” says Cengiz Candar, writer and columnist for the daily Hurriyet newspaper. “Whenever he goes anywhere, all the news channels televise it.”

Unequal time

According to Turkey’s top broadcasting watchdog, the Radio and Television Supreme Council, in the opening days of campaigning between June 29 and July 10, Erdogan received 559 minutes of coverage on the main state-run news channel. His two opponents garnered only 155 minutes of airtime between them.

A recent study by The Wall Street Journal’s Turkish service discovered that public owned TRT, funded by tax payers, surpassed even the private news channels owned by Erdogan's allies in coverage of the prime minister. The journal found coverage of the prime minister to be disproportionately high.

“The media situation shows that in the 12 years he’s been in power, a growing hegemony has built up, and Erdogan is at the center of it,” says Ozlem Gurses, a spokeswoman for Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the main opposition challenger for the presidency.

Memorable moments have included a televised soccer match in which the 60-year-old prime minister – who played for just 15 minutes – slotted three goals past the keeper.

Erdogan’s team wore orange jerseys – the color of his ruling Justice and Development Party – and the strongman premier smiled bashfully as the jubilant crowd cheered his hat trick.

The keeper, who plays in Turkey’s top league, appeared to allow two of the goals to roll past him, but the third was an artful lob by the prime minister, harking back to his days as a semi-professional soccer player.

Meanwhile, at a rally in Istanbul on Sunday, he was filmed reaching down from the stage to hold the hand of a woman who fainted and was being carried away by paramedics. After being carried to the stage, the headscarved woman reached up to clasp hands with the prime minister, before screaming praise at him. Some pro-government media reported that he "revived the fainting woman with his touch."

Lavish attention

While the media has lavished attention on Erdogan, his opponents sometimes seem to be performing in a televised version of  "Where's Waldo?"

When Selahattin Demirtas, candidate for the Kurdish-rooted People’s Democratic Party, complained of TRT’s bias, its chief responded with a threat. “We will cut broadcasts if these heavy accusations continue to be expressed in live coverage,” Ibrahim Sahin, the head of TRT, told reporters last week. Devlet Bahceli, head of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, was cut off mid-speech when he complained of broadcasting bias.

Mr. Demirtas responded live on TRT itself, sarcastically praising the channel for showing him “the most spectacular example of justice and kindness” by allowing him to appear.

The controversy illustrates what Erdogan’s opponents see as his steady consolidation of control over media and state bodies. One of his former press spokesmen has been the head of the state news agency, which now reports with a nakedly pro-government spin, since 2011.

Its articles often reflect the more controversial theories emanating out of Ankara. A recent article's headline stated, “Israel is committing genocide in Gaza” and another speculated that the West was backing Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist militant group.

In April, two British editors hired by the agency quit, complaining in an article for Vice that they had been forced to work as Erdogan’s "spin doctors."

The government also appears to have manipulated the sale of media groups to ensure they fall into pliable hands. Last year Digiturk, the country’s main private cable TV provider, was taken over by the state due to its owner’s debts.

Likely winner

Current opinion polls give Erdogan more than 50 percent of the vote, suggesting he is likely to win the contest outright on Aug. 10, bypassing the need for a runoff.

While he has insisted in recent days that he will not overstep the limits of the currently ceremonial office, his opponents fear he will run the country much as has in the past, with a loyal placeholder prime minister. He has also made clear that he wishes to reform the post, granting it US-style executive power.

But Ceren Kenar, a columnist for the pro-government Turkiye Daily, believes the lack of formal powers Erdogan will have as president could ultimately undermine his grip. Previous Turkish prime ministers Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal were both weakened after making a similar transition, she notes. 

Erdogan's efforts to empower the office through constitutional changes may be blocked by the requirement of a two-thirds vote.

Since his own party does not have the required number of deputies he would need support, most likely from the block of pro-Kurdish parliamentarians, possibly as part of a deal in an ongoing peace process to end a 30-year insurgency by the Kurdish separatist PKK. However, such a deal is far from guaranteed.

“We know Erdogan will win the presidency, but we don’t know if he will succeed in pushing through a presidential system,” she told the Monitor. “Turkish politics is full of surprises.”