And the winner of Turkey’s upcoming election is...

And the winner of Turkey’s upcoming election is...

Coalition talks have just begun in Turkey, but many observers are already predicting that an early election will be held, regardless of whether or not a coalition government can be formed.

And the top party in the next election is already clear, as there has been little change in the key factors since the June 7 parliamentary election.

One of the most vital factors is the state of media freedom, and in this regard almost nothing has changed.

The election of board members for Turkey’s television watchdog, RTÜK, was held on July 14. It indicated that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domination will continue - despite the fact that it has lost its parliamentary majority. 

As the AKP’s seats decreased from five to four, the majority of RTÜK members now belong to opposition parties in the nine-strong body. However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) has made it clear that it will position itself against the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), even if this benefits the AKP, as happened during the recent election of the Parliament Speaker.  

Conversely, AKP deputies supported the MHP’s candidate for RTÜK, helping him to clinch his place on the board. As a result, the AKP will have four seats at RTÜK, the CHP and the MHP will have two seats each, and the HDP will have one seat. This means that the AKP may continue to enjoy its numerical superiority at RTÜK.

This is crucial, because television plays a key social role in Turkey and RTÜK has broad authority. It is able to issue hefty fines to broadcasters and halt certain programs, for reasons including violations of election bans.

Politics on television

IPSOS research revealed last year that 84 percent of Turks watch TV every day, while only 18 percent read a newspaper. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), 81 percent of Turkish families gather together for their evening meal every day, and television is their top entertainment and socialization platform.

These numbers explain why television remains the most popular medium for political ads. Ahead of the recent general election, the AKP aired a total of 34,288 ads, followed by the CHP’s 14,815, the MHP’s 4,002, and the HDP’s 882, according to research conducted by the Nielsen company and quoted by MediaCat magazine. 

The same research shows that it works. When Turkish viewers were asked which TV advertisement campaigns they could remember, the AKP’s slogan “They Talk, We Do,” emerged as the overall runner-up answer with 8.6 percent, while the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) was third with 6.6 percent. Both came after the commercial advertising slogan of a popular beverage firm that topped the ranking. 

Here is a side note from the Ipsos Ad Watch poll conducted in May 2015: Some 41.2 percent of Turkish viewers said they had seen the AKP’s TV campaign, while 40.5 percent of those people liked it. The CHP’s TV campaign, titled “We Applaud,” was seen by more people, precisely 54.5 percent of respondents; however, only 3.5 percent of these said they liked it.

Along with these paid ads, political parties featured on TV news - again, quite disproportionately - during the most recent campaign season. When combined, the AKP and its leader Ahmet Davutoğlu appeared in 55,728 news pieces, for 5,254 minutes per viewer. The CHP and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu trailed far behind, with 23,542 pieces for only 2,073 minutes per viewer. 

Interestingly, and possibly thanks to its co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş’s personal rise to fame, the HDP managed to beat the MHP on the number of TV news items it featured in, albeit not in terms of air time. The MHP and its leader were subject to 14,671 pieces for 1,194 minutes, while the HDP and its co-chairs were on air in 17,217 pieces for 1,150 minutes, Nielsen’s research states.

The Erdoğan effect

In this regard too, the AKP enjoyed an unfair advantage. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is supposed to remain neutral according to the constitution, called for people to vote for the AKP, albeit without explicitly mentioning the party’s name. Overall, Erdoğan appeared in 27,882 TV news pieces from April 1 to June 6, the same research notes.

In the election, the AKP ended up receiving 40.6 percent of votes, while the CHP received 25.1 percent, the MHP got 16.4 percent and the HDP got 12.9 percent. However, in terms of TV broadcast items the AKP received 50.1 percent of air time, the CHP received 21.1 percent, the HDP surprisingly received 15.4 percent, and the MHP was well behind at 13.1 percent.

Moreover, Erdoğan’s added weight even more dramatically swung the balance in favor of the AKP. When news items about him are also put into the equation, the AKP’s proportional representation on TV jumps above 60 percent, with the CHP diving to 16.9 percent, the HDP to 12.3 percent, and the MHP to 10.5 percent.

An Interpress research paper on the same dates reveals a similar picture for print media. The AKP and Davutoğlu were the subject of 194,904 newspaper articles, while the CHP and Kılıçdaroğlu were the subject of 128,458 articles. The MHP and Bahçeli were the subject of 76,512 articles, compared to 57,022 pieces about the HDP and Demirtaş.

As the International Press Institute (IPI) observed in its special report on Turkey earlier this year, the AKP’s domination of the local media is not a natural result of its popularity. The AKP has built a propaganda machine over the course of its decade in power by issuing huge tax fines against critical media, calling for boycotts, imposing advertisement embargoes, seizing outlets and transferring their ownership to party supporters, imposing publication bans, blocking websites, intimidating journalists and having them fired, imprisoned or fined.

“Nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate,” said a lead character of The Newsroom, an American TV show. 

In Turkey, it will still be difficult to inform the electorate objectively - at least in the short term - as the AKP's media hegemony is set to continue even after it “lost” an election for the first time.