With the end of Ramadan, and the bayram holidays, the city in recent days has been a ghost town. Most people were away on the Turkish Riviera.
On the news websites, you saw traffic jams on the country’s highways, people trading the crowds of Istanbul for the crowds of Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye. Now, the holiday season is nearing its end, and it’s time to get back to business. And there is a lot of urgent business heading into the fall.
Indeed, Turkey these days is a trapped oasis in a region of escalating violence. There is the Ukraine crisis to the north, the ongoing civil war in Syria to the south, and freshly arriving refugees who are fleeing the ISIL in Iraq. And, of course, there is the situation in Gaza.
A trapped oasis. That’s not a bad metaphor, I suppose. And the effects are real: There are already half a million Syrian refugees here, not a few of them living in my own neighborhood of Kadikoy. Now, more are crossing into Turkey from Iraq, as I said.
Turks, meanwhile, are heading to the polls tomorrow to elect a president. By all accounts, the election is a foregone conclusion. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK Party has ruled the country for the past decade, is expected to win easily. What is significant about the election is that Erdogan has expressed interest in expanding the role of the presidency, to create a model similar to the U.S. president.
Under Turkey’s parliamentary system, it is the prime minister who runs the government on a day-to-day basis; the president’s role is largely symbolic. Erdogan would like to change that.
Whether he succeeds or not in this endeavor, Erdogan will still remain a powerful figure – the most influential – in Turkey. In this part of the world, where Putin’s Russia looms just over the Black Sea, strongmen seem to be the fashion these days. Erdogan is a strongman, influential not only in Turkey but around the region. In the past, he has given speeches to respectful, even adoring crowds from North Africa to Tehran.
Within Turkey, his party has managed time and again to withstand powerful anti-government protests, as well as allegations of corruption. He has stymied and limited the powers of the Turkish military, which for many decades stood as the self-appointed guardians of the secular state. He has tried to restructure the courts and even the country’s constitution, and he has dismissed a steady stream of criticism from the press that he has dictatorial designs.
Time and again, Erdogan has shown that he is a highly skilled, seasoned politician who, although notoriously thin-skinned towards criticism, is adept at deflecting that criticism, and outmaneuvering and marginalizing his opponents. He has shown the ability to make crises seemingly disappear, or else collapse of their own weight. He has that patience, almost a smug patience, one has when one knows where the chips will fall.
So today’s election in Turkey lacks suspense. It’s Erdogan’s presidency, or so it seems. The more interesting question is what kind of president he will be. Will he, as it has been suggested, remodel the presidency, expand its powers? And if so, what effect will a strong Erdogan presidency have on the volatile climate that surrounds this troubled oasis.
James Tressler was a political reporter for The Times-Standard. His books, including “Lost Coast D.A.” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1,” are available at Lulu.com. He lives in Istanbul.