Debates between candidates.. I have some experiences from the past…

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2020 is the election year in the USA. Candidates for nomination of the two parties (Republicans and Democrats) have already launched their campaigns. Number of the candidates will eventually be reduced to one in the both sides, and the American people will enjoy the opportunity -even more than once- to judge the two rival candidates by watching their televised debates which take under strict rules.

In the past, the US Information Agency (USIS) would gather Turkish journalists in Ankara and Istanbul, and provide them with the opportunity to watch the final debate between two American candidates on screen. Today, we have the privilege of watching it at home.

Battle of words between candidates or party leaders on screen have spread to other parts of the world in the course of time.

Here is an example from our country that my peers would remember easily: In 1983, in the new political period that started off when the generals of the military coup allowed civil political life, Turgut Özal, the leader of Motherland Party, and Necdet Calp, the leader of the Populist Party had engaged in a fierce debate on the state television around privatization of the Bosphorus Bridge. While the former insisted “I will sell it, you will see!”, his rival challenged him, “I won’t let you do that!”, and the pro-privatization one (Özal) had come out as the winner from that debate. 

Similar battles of words have continued in subsequent elections, too…

Candidates and journalists

When we are heading to the day of the re-run of the mayoral election in Istanbul and there are only two weeks left, the possibility of watching a debate between the two main rivals has just arisen. Candidates from AK Party avoid to appear in such debates with their rivals as required by a decision of their party. If everything goes according to plan this principle will be deviated from first time for the election in Istanbul (I have some doubts about its occurrence though).

To me, the conviction suggesting that political debates on screen have a strong impact on election results is merely a myth: I recall a lot of cases which illustrated that the audience did not get impacted even by humiliating defeat of their favorite candidate. It is different for the swing voter, though. If such a voter intends to vote for a certain candidate, and if that candidate appears to be successful on screen against his or her rival, this often causes this voter to clarify his or her mind, and make a clear decision. 

No doubt, crucial mistakes or election blunders occasionally lead to catastrophic effects. For instance, in the USA, Gerald Ford seemed to be ignorant about Eastern Europe when some foreign policy issues were being debated; the Senior Bush’s checking the watch too often, or deep sighs of Al Gore had upset the audience.

As a matter of fact, for politicians there is nothing to be too scared or nervous about such debates.

Who should be worried are those journalists who appear before candidates -I know this from my first-hand experience as I had participated in such debates between candidates on TV as a questioning journalist in the past…

Debates between presidential candidates in the USA are organized, not by television channels, but an independent institution, and the participating journalists are chosen by this institution. The chosen ones are often senior and well-known journalists of the country.

During the last US presidential election, the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had been aired by NBC, and the program had been moderated by Matt Lauer from the channel. After the debate, rather than these two politicians, the moderator himself was discussed and severely criticized.

Some critics came up with a series of suggestions, arguing that who should be invited for such debates, not television journalists, but political commentators from printed media, and even a few names from think-thanks for asking questions concerning foreign policy issues.

What poses a challenge for participating journalists in these debates is different expectations among the audience. While some viewers expect harsh and challenging questions to be directed at candidates, some others don’t have the heart to see their favorite candidate suffer because of hard questions.

Those moderators who act biased in such a debate need to be ready for fierce criticisms in public sphere.

I have doubts, because…

On which television channel will Ekrem İmamoğlu (the opposition’s candidate -TN), and Binali Yıldırım appear? Who will moderate the debate? Which journalists will be invited to rise questions to the candidates?

Since we have read in media that the parties “have reached an agreement“, these two rival politicians must know the answers of these questions.

Good, the both parties have announced they have reached an agreement about the organization of the program, all seems ready, and time is running out for the election day anyway. However, I still have some doubts whether the debate will take place.

What makes me doubtful is essentially the today’s media order in our country. There is a huge gap between the two candidates in terms of media support each enjoys. İmamoğlu experiences great difficulty to find channels to share his messages with the public, and tries to fill the gap by paid advertising. His rival, Binali Yıldırım on the other hand, enjoys such a coverage in media that cameras of almost all channels run behind him wherever he goes.

Would Binali Yıldırım be willing to give up this privilege?

I am more than ready to congratulate him enthusiastically if he does this and participates in a debate with his rival on television.

It is widely known that candidate of the opposition is in a more advantageous position compared to ruling party’s candidate in these debates in the USA. The debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a good example for this.

It is quite some time since I decided to keep myself away from news on televisions, discussion programs in particular. However, I am impatient indeed to settle before the TV-set eagerly in order to watch the debate between İmamoğlu and Yıldırım as a voter living in Istanbul.

Nobody could afford to miss such a debate…

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[Translated by Bernar Kutluğ from the the article appeared in this site’s Turkish section on June 8, 2019]

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