Erdoğan’s anger versus Kılıçdaroğlu’s tolerance
“Did you watch the show last night,” asked Musa, the owner of the small grocery on the corner of our street when I was picking up my Sunday newspapers and fresh bread for breakfast.
“Which show?” I replied with another question, knowing that most of the time he is more interested in the football pundits’ live shows on TV, which I’m not a fan of.
“The one on CNNTürk with Kılıçdaroğlu and students,” he answered.
That show, I had seen. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had joined a live show presented by one of station’s prominent journalists, Şirin Payzın, in order to answer the questions of five university students. Each of the four students were members of the four parties with a group in the Parliament, including Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Parti (AK Parti). The other student represented the Gezi Park protesters of June 2013.
“Why do you ask?” I was trying to make Musa talk, which was actually what he was looking for.
“Abi,” he started, meaning “big brother” but also a sign of friendship. “He had the guts to expose himself to five or six university students, all from different parties, and answered all of their questions patiently, one by one.”
So? Musa continued: “The other night Erdoğan was on 24TV with a journalist [Mustafa Karaalioğlu]. The journalist attempted to ask a question about the Cemaat and got terribly dressed down. Erdoğan told him not to be afraid and to call them an ‘illegal organization.’”
The “Cemaat” he was talking about is the Turkish shortcut for the group of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar with a global network of sympathizers, who was once Erdoğan’s closest ally but is now his arch-enemy.
“How did you find Kılıçdaroğlu’s answers?” I attempted to dig some more. “That is not so important,” Musa replied. “I agreed with some of them, I wasn’t convinced by others. But I liked that he was tolerant to all criticism, did not get angry, and answered all of the questions. We haven’t seen such a thing before.”
Well, Musa either has a bad memory or he was not watching political shows in his younger years. Because up until Erdoğan’s era, which started in 2002, it was a common practice for Turkish TV stations to host all party leaders for debates and to take them live, one by one, to answer journalists questions. Erdoğan himself joined such a show with his rival Deniz Baykal, then chairman of the CHP, in the 2002 election campaign.
Then, under successive AK Parti governments, he first started to appear only on TV shows if he alone was invited. After a few years, Erdoğan began to ask AK Parti deputies to turn down TV show invitations unless they were the sole guest, not with the spokespeople of other parties. Nowadays he determines when and which TV station he will appear on and which journalists are allowed to ask him questions.
Erdoğan’s live interview with Karaalioğlu was broadcast the day after the funeral of Berkin Elvan, the 15-year old boy who died after nine months in coma because of a tear gas wound in his head sustained during the Gezi Park protests. A question about that was a must as far as journalism is concerned. But Erdoğan’s interviewer put it in a form that made him subject to much criticism later. He asked how the loss would affect the Turkish Lira versus foreign currencies and the economic effects. He got a dressing down once again, without even getting a proper answer.
So what Kılıçdaroğlu is doing is not extraordinary. On the contrary, it is a very ordinary standard in Western-style democracies. But it amazes ordinary people in Turkey nowadays, who have unfortunately gotten used to Erdoğan’s method of media relations: Free to talk only if it doesn’t annoy him.