Mr. Erdoğan is, of course, referring to the strong support which the Doğan-owned newspaper group lent Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu. The CHP’s natural press allies flocking to support the new man would have certainly dissuaded the party’s old leader from believing he could stage a comeback. Does this mean, as Mr. Erdoğan suggests, that Kılıçdaroğlu is a one-day wonder, a creation of the media who has Humpty Dumpty’s chance of survival should the fickle press barons decide to give him a shove?
That Mr. Erdoğan’s jibe was itself the subject of banner headlines in those newspapers on which he and his own Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rely complicates the issue more than a little bit. We are staring into an infinity mirror created by a highly partisan Turkish press. It is fair enough that television and newspapers view the world through a particular optic, but the question is whether they hold those opinions out of conviction or because they are engaged in a battle for power and influence. Goodness knows I have criticized the Doğan Group in this column often enough, but goodness knows as well they are not the only ones whose credibility is often on the line. The AK Party has made great efforts to create a loyalist press, to the extent of getting state banks to finance the purchase of media enterprises for corporations on whom they can rely.
Not that long ago I cornered Cem Duna, who had a brief career as controller general of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) when Turgut Özal was prime minister. He entered the job on the understanding that he would create a truly non-partisan organization and was forced out because he succeeded beyond the government’s wildest dreams. When the party took stock of the reasons why they did poorly in the 1989 nationwide local elections, the two most commonly cited reasons were the image of the prime minister’s wife and the rogue independence of TRT. Mr. Duna was obliged to step down. He is also a former ambassador and perhaps too diplomatic to comment in detail on the work of his successors, but he was clearly skeptical that state-run television in Turkey was capable of producing an independent and critical voice.
So while it may be true that Kılıçdaroğlu has ridden a wave of popularity in part generated by the opposition media, many of those expressing outrage over this phenomenon enjoy the moral authority of pots calling kettles black. The government is itself very controlling over large swathes of Turkey’s Fourth Estate.
Let’s take a step back. The CHP under its new leader has a choice. It can either continue the old policy of defining a well-entrenched position on the Turkish political spectrum which will guarantee a rump in Parliament but never win it enough votes to have a chance of forming a government. Or it can make an attempt to recapture the same political middle ground that brought it to power decades ago. Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s donning of a cloth cap, the trademark of Bülent Ecevit, who brought his party to government in the 1970s, might seem a trifle kitsch. However, it does signal which option he intends. It is not an easy task. He needs to win new supporters without alienating a faithful core. However, it is not impossible, as Mr. Erdoğan himself demonstrated when he turned the AK Party into an electable party.
It may be the business of the government-leaning press to tie the shoelaces of the new CHP leader together before he gets off the starting block. However, it might be in the interests of the country if the media would at the very least allow Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu to reach his stride. Yes, he should be criticized if he fails to set out a new vision for Turkey. He does not deserve a free ride. At the same time, an increasingly divided and partisan media operates against the best interests of the public it is meant to serve.