Western Media’s Shifting Narratives of Erdogan

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan

Over 20 years of Erdogan’s rule, the western media narrative has shifted from calling him a ‘reformer’ to labelling him a ‘dictator.’ Now, with the Turkish president’s unexpected electoral comeback, western media’s tone has softened yet again.

“Erdogan’s removal would doubtless be greeted with the sound of champagne corks popping all the way from Berlin to Washington.” –Middle East Eye

“As the polarizing Erdogan has grown increasingly authoritarian, Kilicdaroglu has built a reputation as a bridge builder and vows to restore democracy.” – Associated Press

“However, after 10 years of growing authoritarian rule, the appetite for change is strong.” – The Guardian

“Experts say Sunday’s election will determine whether Turkiye can return to democratic rule or will continue its path toward an autocracy.” – NPR

“The stakes could hardly be higher, first and foremost for Turks themselves, who might justifiably worry that authoritarianism would yield to dictatorship if Mr. Erdogan won another term.” – Washington Post

After the first round of Turkiye’s closely-scrutinized 14 May elections, western discourse has suddenly undergone a noticeable shift. Prior to the presidential elections, many western media outlets had been harshly critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, characterizing him as a dictator responsible for the erosion of democracy in his country.

Conversely, they collectively portrayed his main presidential candidate challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu as a leader who would restore democracy in Turkiye. But that situation shifted after the initial round of voting was inconclusive, with no clear winner obtaining the 50+ percent vote threshold.

The genesis of western media’s interest in Erdogan

Western media’s engagement with Erdogan began in 2003 when he first assumed the role of Turkiye’s prime minister. Initially, the foreign press was cautious in its approach to Erdogan, as the rise of an “Islamist leader” in modern Turkiye was an entirely unprecedented development; rather, they viewed it as an “experiment” to observe.

But, in parallel to the evolving view of their respective governments, western media support for Erdogan began to grow in the years that followed, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was often hailed as the “model Muslim-democratic party.”

Former US President George W. Bush’s praise of Erdogan in 2004 further encouraged western media to rally behind the Turkish leader. At the time, Bush referred to Turkiye as a “model” for Islamic governance and urged other Muslim nations to follow its example.

The western ideal of an Islamic state is ultimately measured by its adherence to the western rules-based order, and so Erdogan was fondly described as “a deeply religious man with a talent for the rough and tumble of democratic politics.” A pious reformer, so to speak, who aimed to modernize Turkiye and foster closer integration with the western world.

Shifting perceptions

The west’s narrative of Erdogan began to shift around 2009, following his withdrawal from the Davos conference over a confrontation with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. During the verbal to-and-fro, Erdogan lashed out at Peres, saying: “You kill people, I remember the children who died on beaches.”

Initially, western media responded to Erdogan’s actions at Davos with cautious criticism, as they believed it could potentially damage NATO-member Turkiye’s international reputation. But negative media focus on Erdogan intensified after Turkiye dispatched a humanitarian flotilla to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2010. The Turkish flotilla – whose objective was to break the blockade on Gaza – consisted of ships carrying around 750 human rights and political activists, as well as international media representatives, relief materials, and humanitarian aid.

Israeli naval commandos subsequently raided the flotilla’s ships, resulting in fatalities and injuries. It was at this point that the western press began to highlight a raft of concerns about Erdogan, promoting a growing sense of anguish over his behaviors.

Stepping up the media offensive

The adoption of the west’s sharp, offensive rhetoric toward Erdogan – from the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring until the May 2023 elections – can be attributed to three main events.

The first was Turkiye’s response to the Arab Spring in early 2011. Ankara began to make decisions that were perceived to counter western geopolitical interests. For example, despite the Turkish-western scheme to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkiye clashed with US-backed Kurdish forces and supported a number of jihadist opposition groups aligned with Ankara’s territorial ambitions in northern Syria.

Further straining relations with the west was Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and his strong opposition to the 2013 coup that ousted former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and installed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his stead.

Following the Arab Spring, the western media intensified its criticism of Erdogan, with claims that he was losing control over Turkiye and that AKP rule would soon come to an end. Corruption issues related to Erdogan began to proliferate in the media, while continuing to begrudgingly acknowledge his popularity at home. The media’s attack on Erdogan escalated after the 2013 protests in Turkiye, leading to calls for reassessing Washington’s relationship with Ankara.

The second motivation for the western media’s offensive rhetoric was the 2017 Turkish referendum, which shifted the country’s governance from a parliamentary to presidential system. Erdogan’s success in consolidating power eliminated any remaining barriers between him and the western media. The referendum took place shortly after a failed, allegedly US-backed coup attempt, after which Erdogan marginalized those who were viewed as disloyal to him, solidifying his control over the state.

During this period, Erdogan’s increased control and Turkiye’s growing independence and assertiveness did not sit well with western interests. His “maverick” decisions to purchase Russian S-400 missiles, sign a maritime border agreement with Libya despite strong Greek and Egyptian objections, consolidate relations with Iran, and defy western sanctions on Russia further strained the relationship.

Thus, 2017 marked a significant shift in western media’s perception of Erdogan’s Turkiye from a “model” Muslim-majority country to “a dictatorship masquerading as a NATO democracy.”

The third motivation was the 2023 presidential election in Turkiye. With Erdogan’s indisputable control over the state, the only possibility for change was through the ballot box. The western media saw this election as an opportunity to support a president who would be more compliant in serving their respective countries’ interests.

As a powerful tool for shaping public opinion, western media intensified its pre-election campaign against Erdogan, in which he was frequently characterized as serving the interests of Russia. Foreign media outlets did not simply criticize Erdogan; they actively supported his rivals in an attempt to influence Turkish voters. Turkiye, according to western commentators, stood at a crossroads between a return to democracy or further repression under Erdogan’s rule.

Western discourse after the elections

After the first round of voting, however, there was a notable shift in western media discourse, which began to report unfolding events without offering strong opinions. Surprisingly, some media outlets even began to defend Erdogan, with articles suggesting that he should no longer be labeled a dictator since he had clearly overcome an outright defeat in democratic elections.

This narrative backtracking was interesting in and of itself. The west and its media clearly had high expectations of Erdogan’s defeat in the first round of the presidential elections. Most opinion polls had favored Erdogan’s loss. Some Turkish observers suggest that Erdogan deliberately allowed these polls to favor his opponents, with even some pro-Erdogan think tanks predicting an opposition victory. This strategy may have been intended to boost the opposition’s confidence and motivate Erdogan’s supporters to actively participate, as Erdogan faced a real threat of losing.

Re-engaging with Erdogan

Erdogan’s success in securing a parliamentary majority and potentially win the presidential election seemed to silence his western critics. Instead of headlines attacking Erdogan, articles began to emerge on how the west should learn to live with him.

The change in the western media’s tone has materialized even prior to the second round of elections (slated for 28 May), which suggest a softening of criticism to mitigate the impact on candidates who have a good chance of winning in Sunday’s elections.

By observing this change in western discourse – which invariably reflects the tactics and positions of Atlanticist authorities – it can be argued that the collective west now expects Erdogan to remain in power. By toning down the attacks, western governments have retreated to post-election realism, signaling their intention to engage with another Erdogan-led government – despite his focus on maintaining balanced relations with both Atlanticists and Eurasianists.

The outcome of Turkiye’s 14 May elections represented a significant shift in the tone of western media coverage, which has now transitioned to one of appeasement and a cautious wait-and-see approach until the second round of the Turkish presidential elections this weekend.

Interestingly, the opposition, which was until a few weeks ago seen as crucial for “upholding democracy” in Turkiye, is now noticeably absent from foreign media discourse. The politician who was branded a “dictator” on 13 May was suddenly, just two days later, no longer characterized that way. The western media establishment, it appears, takes direct cues from their western capitals.