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As it happened: the Ekrem İmamoğlu vs Binali Yıldırım TV debate

How Turkey’s first major political TV debate in 16 years unfolded

On Sunday 16 June 2019, precisely a week before voters in Istanbul went back to the polls to elect their mayor, Turkey held its first major televised debate between senior political leaders in over 16 years. The governing AK Party’s Binali Yıldırım faced the CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu in a debate moderated by Fox TV newsreader İsmail Küçükkaya.

JamesInTurkey.com commentated on the debate as it was broadcast on Twitter; the full content of those tweets can also be read here.


9.15pm — And we’re off with the first TV debate between two major Turkish political candidates in 17 years – Ekrem İmamoğlu and Binali Yıldırım, candidates for Mayor of Istanbul, are speaking now. ImageImageImage

9.20pm — “Why are we, the people of İstanbul, having to vote again?” is the first question posed to the two candidates. Binali Yıldırım says votes were stolen from him. Ekrem İmamoğlu has brought out the props to argue his case. ImageImage

9.30pm — It is a huge lie, Binali Yıldırım says, to suggest the CHP did not object to a recount after March 31, when the initial vote was held. İmamoğlu has more props to rebut him. Not entirely how effective it is to turn up with slides. ImageImage

9.32pm — “We’re fighting for the democratic process,” İmamoğlu says. “We’re standing up for the votes for all 16 million in Istanbul.”

9.35pm — “Why should AK Party voters, or those who chose not to vote on March 31, vote for you next Sunday,” the moderator asks. Mr İmamoğlu speaks about what he considers the injustice of that night: the Anadolu Agency stopped reporting results because they did not benefit them, he says.

9.39pm — “We used the rights available to us,” Yıldırım responds. This was not an honest election, he says. “How would I know why the Anadolu Agency cut off its results feed? I am not responsible for it.” Image

9.43pm — Snap analysis: Binali Yıldırım is predictably awkward in the way he conducts himself. Ekrem İmamoğlu is relying heavily on colourful props that aren’t immediately meaningful. The first segment about what precisely happened during the first election was twitchy and terse.

9.45pm — Binali Yıldırım has props too! He’s talking about how much more tap water successive AK Party administrations have brought to Istanbul. Image

9.48pm — Ekrem İmamoğlu is not dropping Binali Yıldırım’s claim that the CHP lied. He says it is against his family values to descend to his level.

9.53pm — The candidates are now questioning each other.

In response to an İmamoğlu question to him, Yıldırım accepts it is “not a normal thing” that the Anadolu Agency stopped reporting results on the night of the March 31, but maintains his line that it is not his responsibility. Image


9.55pm — İmamoğlu also asks Yıldırım about the victory posters that appeared overnight in Istanbul.

Yıldırım says these are natural: his party won a significant victory across the country that night and that similar posters appeared everywhere.


9.58pm — It’s Yıldırım’s turn to question İmamoğlu now: why, after you became mayor, did you order the duplication of the Istanbul Municipality database?

He says it is wrong to attach nefarious purposes to this — it was his right as mayor to do it, the data was stored onsite at all times


10.01pm — And after a tetchy dispute about the right to reply to counter-accusations, we’re at the half way point and İsmail Küçükkaya calls a 10-minute ad break. Image

10.04pm — As the screenshots suggest, I’m watching on Fox: the adverts include a Father’s Day message from Binali Yıldırım, a nice Samsung washing machine, a young couple alarmed by real estate options, and ice cream.

I know which one I prefer. ImageImageImageImage


10.04pm — İmamoğlu doesn’t appear to have bought air time on Fox – but he did on the state-run news channel TRT Haber, apparently. Image

10.07pm — And there’s the İmamoğlu ad on Fox: a young boy with an iPhone connected to a loudspeaker, cycling around the town blaring his slogan. ImageImage

10.08pm — So, how did it go? Despite the moderator’s efforts to move things along, the grievance of March 31 weighed heavy on both sides. İmamoğlu maintained there was an injustice; Yıldırım insisted it was his right to pursue his legal entitlement to an election re-run.

10.10pm — Yıldırım smiled more, İmamoğlu was more earnest. Yıldırım interrupted his opponent more, İmamoğlu was forceful but courteous. Things got tetchy towards the end about a right to reply but, to İsmail Küçükkaya’s credit, he has enforced to the three-minute speaking rule well.

10.11pm — An interesting point about the ads: most viewers will have left their seats during the ad breaks to grab a fresh cup of tea

10.14pm — And we’re back. “Will Binali Yıldırım accept the result of this re-run election” is the first question.

We haven’t had a direct reply to that one yet, but Yıldırım has said for the first time in this debate that FETÖ was behind what he considers the theft of votes. Image


10.18pm — We will absolutely accept the result, he says, but adds he reserves the right to object within the rules.
İmamoğlu rebuts that they too reserve the right, but for sensible reasons.

On Yıldırım’s claim of FETÖ links, İmamoğlu says “I have no understanding of such matters”. Image


10.20pm — İsmail Küçükkaya’s format is to ask Candidate 1 a question and pose the same question to Candidate 2. He then poses a fresh Q to Candidate 2 and repeats it to Candidate 1. It’s an effective mechanism for moving the subject on, but it does make it difficult for second rebuttals.

10.24pm — Interesting. Just as I tweet that, Küçükkaya changes tack by asking Yıldırım a different question than İmamoğlu: “Were you surprised at losing on March 31?”

“There were no winners and losers on March 31,” Yıldırım replies. “There would be no repeat if there were.”


10.28pm — Now it’s Ekrem İmamoğlu’s turn to smile – as Binali Yıldırım accuses his rival of lying to the people of Istanbul about a recent incident involving the governor of Black Sea town and the VIP entrance of a regional airport. Image

10.30pm — We’re engaging in a spot of navel-gazing here: the moderator is now rebutting claims that he provided the questions for this very debate to the candidates in advance.

Such a process story will not convince voters to switch sides. Image


10.33pm — By my count, Binali Yıldırım has accused Ekrem İmamoğlu of lying – using that very word – on three separate occasions in this debate.

Ekrem İmamoğlu has not done it once.


10.42pm — “I have no remote connection with FETÖ,” Ekrem İmamoğlu says in response to a direct question from the moderator. Asked about how to combat Fethullah Gülen’s network, he says the council that should be building student housing and schooling, Image

10.44pm — “How do you intend to clean FETÖ out, with detergent?” Binali Yıldırım asks in an attempt at a joke. His point falls somewhat flat because he cannot remember the name of the institution in İmamoğlu’s area that he claims was FETÖ-linked. Image

10.46pm — It is only now, 1.5 hours into this debate, that we begin discussing the candidates’ pledges. The moderator opens on the economy – what will the candidates do to combat unemployment?

10.48pm — Yıldırım goes first and, I hate to be unkind, but it’s just dull: he’s reeling off employment numbers and dollar figures about projects in various Istanbul suburbs that will improve the lot of workers in Istanbul. Hard to relate to. Image

10.53pm — This might be the screenshot of the night – Binali Yıldırım’s face when Ekrem İmamoğlu says he didn’t pledge to “clean out FETÖ from institutions”. He says his promise was to “work with clean institutions”. Image

10.56pm — The candidates share a joke about allotted time before the jailed former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş comes up.

We will end partisanship, İmamoğlu says in a bid to pitch himself as the unity candidate. I represent all the people in Istanbul, I don’t discriminate on heritage. Image


11.00pm — It’s time for Binali Yıldırım to answer the same: “why should a candidate of Kurdish origin vote for you?”

He replies: “We don’t discriminate on heritage. If my opponent is claiming I do, he should look at my work (as an MP) in İzmir.” He reels off a list of transport projects. Image


11.03pm — A shrewd question from the moderator: “Will you declare you assets, and those of your family, if you become mayor?”

Binali Yıldırım says he does this every year to the relevant government authorities. “There is no custom of doing so but I have no problem doing publicly.” Image


11.05pm — “I happily accept the idea of declaring my assets publicly,” Ekrem İmamoğlu says, “and it should of course include family members.” Image

11.07pm — The issue of Syrian refugees was not handled well in Turkey, İmamoğlu says. Turkey was abandoned by other countries when the Syrian crisis broke out, but now 4% of Istanbul’s population is made up of refugees, he says, holding up a new card. Image

11.10pm — “The people of Istanbul, and people from all over Turkey who live in Istanbul, believe their way of living is being stolen from them. We need to address this,” Ekrem İmamoğlu adds.

11.13pm — “My opponent spoke a lot but didn’t say what he’d do about Syrian refugees. I’ll say what I’ll do,” Binali Yıldırım says, before detailing the AK Party’s nationwide policy on refugees. Any Syrians who commit wrongdoing in the city will be deported, he adds. Image

11.18pm — There are more women students in university than men, Binali Yıldırım says in what appears to be a defence of his party’s record. He has a card detailing a mayoral policy to help housewives leave the house but, well, he’s not very good at showing it to the camera. Image

11.20pm — “You’ve been in government for 16 years. It’s your record,” the CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu tells Binali Yıldırım, the governing AK Party’s candidate, on women’s rights.

İmamoğlu says he will build 150 nurseries to help housewives leave the home. Image


11.23pm — We veer back briefly to Fethullah Gülen – the moderator asks Binali Yıldırım if he’s ever met Gülen himself, or ever stayed in one of his student houses.

“No.” Image


11.24pm — A minor revolt as the moderator reveals he’s reached his penultimate question. We haven’t discussed issues like transport, or car parking yet, Binali Yıldırım objects.

He’s assured he will have more time to talk about those.


11.26pm — A fresh İmamoğlu prop – this time, he’s talking about his plans to introduce 30 million square metres of green space around the city. Image

11.29pm — Yıldırım has his own pledge – and this time he’s holding the card up properly. 37.2 million squares of green space, he pledges. Image

11.32pm — My god, this is a slog, and the format is being decided on the fly. We’re set for 10 minutes of adverts followed by “maybe 15, maybe 20 minutes more of debate, depending on what the candidates think.”

Turkey does live TV debates differently.


11.36pm — Yep👇
Image

11.44pm — We’re back underway with three final rounds of questions, beginning with children and young people.

Ekrem İmamoğlu says young people will receive a 40% travel discount. Students already benefit from this. Student accommodation, language learning schools are among his pledges.


11.47pm — İmamoğlu was also asked about disabled residents and lists ideas for care facilities.

Binali Yıldırım says young people are his kanka (“buddies”). His headline pledge promises 10GB of free internet and shows an rather unnecessary card telling us what you can do with that data. Image


11.48pm — Yıldırım’s ideas include free access to museums and other public facilities.

He says he cannot offer scholarships because councils were banned from doing so, accusing the CHP of seeking the court action that led to that decision.


11.49pm — We’re finally onto transport, the biggest subject for any megacity. Istanbul is no exception.

11.52pm — A former transport minister, Binali Yıldırım is in his element, reeling off a list of achievements.
We will knock half an hour off commuting time with our rail and bus projects, he says.
The director produces a new camera angle so we can actually see his cards. Image

11.55pm — Binali Yıldırım keeps muttering as Ekrem İmamoğlu speaks, and İmamoğlu counts the seconds he’s lost out loud: “12 seconds, 13 seconds”

“Take a few more from me, make it 15” Yıldırım says. They both laugh. Image


11.57pm — On transport, İmamoğlu says he thanks Yıldırım’s party for their work so far but says it’s not enough. He’s got too many cards that he wants to show at once: metro, buses, ferries. Image

00.01am — We’re now on the closing remarks.

Ekrem İmamoğlu begins on a unity message – “We all need to work together” – but it’s becoming a bit untidy and anarchic because the moderator is trying to bring in the candidates’ families into the studio at the same time. Image


00.04am — Now it’s Binali Yıldırım’s turn. “I have served my country for 16 years. This city made me who I am. I want to serve it again.”

He’s reeling off a list of projects fairly fluidly, unencumbered by the loud family photograph planning that went on during İmamoğlu’s pitch.


00.06am — “How was my moderation?” İsmail Küçükkaya asks.

“I saw nothing wrong,” Binali Yıldırım says. “It was as good as it could be.”

“Thank you,” Ekrem İmamoğlu adds with a grin. Image


00.10am — And the debate is over after nearly 3 hours.

Turkey is unaccustomed to live TV debates and İsmail Küçükkaya did well in the circumstances: he ensured candidates kept to allotted time and largely prevented personal attacks – although Yıldırım did get a few jibes in at İmamoğlu. Image


00.16am — Was there a victor? As expected, İmamoğlu was by far the better performer — tempered, polite, self-assured — while Yıldırım’s awkwardness shone through, but there was no “home run” akin to a US presidential debate. That said, Yıldırım’s closing remarks were far more fluid.

00.19am — But the fundamental question is whether any voter will be convinced to switch sides next Sunday. İmamoğlu’s calm demeanour felt like a deliberate pitch to conservative-minded viewers. Unlike Yıldırım, he didn’t once call his opponent a liar.

00.23am — It’s hard to see how Yıldırım’s debate appearance will have convinced anyone who didn’t already vote for him on March 31 to switch sides.

It was good for Turkish democracy that he did the debate, but I can’t see it helping his candidacy.

On that note, that’s me out. Good night!