ISTANBUL - With less than a month before the Turkish people go to the polls to elect a president for the first time in their history, a dispute has broken out on the disproportionate amount of media coverage Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been receiving on public television as opposed to the other two candidates.
Turkey’s first popular presidential election is mired in controversy over its fairness. Both of the rivals of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the August presidential election are crying foul. Selahattin Demirtas, candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, is accusing Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT of blatant bias favoring Prime Minister Erdogan.
Demirtas said that in a period of a few days Erdogan received 305 minutes of coverage on one TRT channel, while the other candidates received no coverage. Adding on another TRT channel, it gave the prime minister 204 minutes and three minutes to other candidates. Demirtas said the the prime minister should fire the general director of TRT out of shame.
The figures given by Demirtas have been confirmed by the RTUK, the state broadcasting regulator.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the joint candidate of the Nationalist Action Party and Republican People’s Party, also has strongly criticized the state broadcaster’s coverage.
But Huseyin Celik, the spokesman for the ruling AK Party, has strongly defended the broadcaster. He said that as as prime minister, Erdogan deserves this coverage because he meets with ambassadors and caries out important work. He added that if the media thinks something to be worthy of the news, it will cover that.
Hasan Tahsin Fendoglu, the deputy head of the state regulator on broadcasting, which is controlled by the ruling AK Party, echoed the government’s statements, saying Erdogan is a prime minister along with being a presidential candidate.
Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels said the controversy, however, casts a shadow over the fairness of the August election.
"It's certainly very clear, there is no level playing field and it is actually heavily skewed in favor of Prime Minister Erdogan," he said. "Now the state-owned media television TRT is under the legal obligation to be neutral and to give equal exposure time to the candidates. They have not done so."
Candidate Demirtas filed a court case this week against TRT for its coverage, but observers say it is unlikely it will be heard before the election on August 10. The controversy is raising wider questions about the election.
The prime minister’s campaign is already characterized by lavish rallies across the country, while the two other candidates claim they have few funds for such events. There are restrictions on donations, but analyst Ulgen said that just like in media coverage, questions over enforcement remain, indicating fundamental problems for the election.
"In many ways there are elements to think that there are certain dimensions of this race that are unfair and that is related to all the gaps, in the framework, both legal framework but also the enforcement of that legal framework for Turkey’s first popularly held presidential election," he said.
Opinion polls indicate Erdogan is well ahead of his rivals, but will struggle to win the required 50 percent plus one vote to secure a first round win, which is his stated goal. A second and final round of voting would be held on August 24. Observers warn that with the country remaining divided over Erdogan, the controversy over media coverage likely will only add to that divide.