upcoming presidential election – just two weeks away – has been
on my mind (and everybody’s mind here) for quite some time. How
could it not be? It’s only the most important election this country
has faced in a long time, and its results could have far-reaching
consequences. Not only for Turkey, but for the region, and beyond.
Plus, my wife and I just bought a new apartment. We’re invested here now, for better or worse. Why shouldn’t we care what happens?
And finally, we’ve got what every important election needs: a diverse cast of strong, colorful personalities: We’ve got the Sultan, the Gariban, or Wretch, the Good Lady, the Prisoner and the Elephant in the Corner. Not a bad field, considering Turkey is a country with a population less than a third of the United States.
The Sultan and the City
We begin our story near the iskele in Üsküdar, my neighborhood on the city’s Asian side. It’s a conservative neighborhood, with many mosques and women covered in headscarves. These are the people who have supported Turkey’s ruling party, which we’ll get to in a moment. These days the neighborhood looks like a festival. Banners from all the various political parties wave like proud flags, most of them bearing the Turkish red and white. Booths have been set up along the busy intersections, registering passing Istanbullus on their way to and from work. Static-filled voices crackle and echo deafeningly from loudspeakers in vans cruising the neighborhoods, touting the party messages.
Arriving at our new apartment up the hill, I find my in-laws resting on the sofa. They’ve been helping us move into the new flat. Now they are watching the news, which report the daily rallies. Every evening these voices fill our small apartment, and no doubt many others, to the point where even I, with my bad Turkish, can recognize who’s speaking just by the sound of their voice. Still, it does feel necessary, like a national dialogue in every living room. At least it’s not a monologue, right? That would be worrying.
Of course, we’re all familiar with the stern, patronly voice of Tayyip. That would be Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the man who has led Turkey for the past 15 years, and who hopes to keep on leading it for a long time. Make no mistake: Much of this election is about Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
After all, it was Erdoğan who pressed for this election, which was supposed to be held next year, but he and his majority party managed to get it bumped up. Why? The nation is at a crisis point, he says. Decisive leadership is needed.
He’s right about that. Inflation has jumped by 12 percent in recent months. The Turkish lira has dropped to record lows against the dollar, and is one of the world’s worst performing currencies. Creditors have dropped the country’s rating to near junk-bond status.
Which sets up, as you can probably guess, arguably the biggest issue in the upcoming election: the economy, stupid.
That would be an astute guess, and it is correct – in a sense. Just ask this Istanbullu. You walk into a supermarket nowadays for a simple bottle of ayran, a staple of every Turkish dinner table, and the price has doubled. Bread, cheese, milk – the things that even the most apolitical person cares about — have all gone up as well. At the same time, you can’t help but notice the number of “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs in many neighborhoods. Empty cafes and restaurants, or worse, familiar places closed, boarded up. The likely culprit: ever-rising rent prices and utilities, combined with the fact that people are staying home more, spending less.
On a broader scale, the lira’s drop has hit the business and construction sectors, which have long depended on loans. Paying back these loans, combined with interest rates, is much harder when your currency is in the toilet. Meanwhile, foreign investment has slowed down considerably, mostly because of security. Turkey has been under a state of emergency for almost two years now, ever since the failed military coup attempt in the summer of 2016. I should note that more than 200 people were killed during the failed coup attempt. Many thousands more – ranging from the military, to police, to the courts, academia, çivil service, have been imprisoned or sacked because of suspected ties to the coup attempt. Journalists have been jailed too, but that’s nothing new, as Turkey consistently ranks among the worst in world press freedom rankings.
Then there is the ever-present spectre of terror attacks, including one at Ataturk International Airport a couple years ago that resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 people.
Critics of Erdoğan argue that it is he himself who has become the problem. They fear he has Sultan-like aspirations, cracking down on all dissent, and creating a divisive, fearful climate. Who would want to come to Turkey, or invest in Turkey, given the state of emergency, political instability, economic woes, the twin shadows of war and terror?
In fact, these critics argue these early elections are a sign of worry, even desperation. That Erdoğan wants to consolidate his power while there’s still time, out of fear of losing his grip on the country he has single-handedly ruled for so long.
In contrast, supporters fire back that if anyone can bring Turkey back, it is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After all, they say, look at Istanbul’s skyline. Look at that magnificent third Bosphorus bridge! Look at the ever-more sophisticated metro system, which has connected the vast city in ways it never was before. Look at the Marmary, the world’s deepest underground railway, and a transcontinental railway at that! Look at the construction of the third international airport.
“Erdoğan is building bridges, metros and highways!” one supporter, a construction worker, told a visiting foreign journalist. “What are the others doing? They are only complaining!”
Indeed, even Erdoğan’s critics grudgingly acknowledge that infrastructure, particularly in the megacity of Istanbul (which at some 20 million, in and around the city, comprises almost a third of the nation’s population), has vastly improved over the past decade or so. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering that at one time Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul. He knows this city, has family here. Also, he originally comes from the Black Sea region, which is known for its builders, many of whom, such as Trabzon-born construction magnet Ali Ağaoğlu (known here by some as the “Turkish Trump”) have made fortunes in construction.
Erdoğan himself argues that with so many critical issues facing Turkey, clear, decisive leadership – his leadership – is what the country needs to get back on track. Critics say that Erdoğan already has too much power. He has managed, they say, to put all of his enemies, real and imagined and potential, in prison, or else left the country. And that he and his ruling AKP are trying to impose their conservative Islamic agenda down the country’s traditionally secular throats.
Just as an example, the government has announced plans to break up Istanbul University, giving some of its buildings to a new proposed university. News reports have indicated one of the reasons for this proposal is that Istanbul University’s curriculum is “against Turkishness,” which many here detect as a desire by the current administration to promote universities that advance more “Turkish” (Nationalist? Islamic? Pro-AKP? Good question) agendas. (Disclosure: Take that with a grain of salt, reader. I have read a few news reports, and I also have some colleagues working at Istanbul University, but they seem at this point in time in the dark, confused, as to where this proposed break-up is heading, or why it is being proposed.)
Economic fears notwithstanding, this election really appears to be all about the Man himself, the architect of today’s Turkey. The election will not only decide if Turks want him to stay, and to have greater power, or if they have lost faith and want to forge a new path. I say greater power because, whoever becomes president will for the first time exercise new executive powers, over many areas, including the military and the courts, granted by voters in a constitutional referendum last year. Before that, the president was largely a figurehead, with the majority of real power residing with the prime minister, a position formerly held by Erdoğan himself. Now, the new Turkish chief executive will be much more like the U.S model, something that Erdoğan himself convinced voters to approve last year.
All that said, there are others hoping to wrestle the presidency, the country, and its future, away from the formidable Tayyip (as he is often referred to by locals).
The first of these, Murharrem Ince, is a bit of a surprise. If he isn’t the clear front-runner, then he certainly is the loudest candidate in the field.
Ince, a 54-year-old physics teacher, was chosen to lead the People’s Republican Party (CHP, actually a more left-leaning party, despite the name), has emerged as a surprise in this year’s election. The balding, bombastic, perpetually hoarse-voiced Ince certainly doesn’t seem to be intimidated by the shadow of Erdoğan. In fact, his daily speeches in front of flag-waving enthusiasts have become diatribes.
Erdoğan and his advisors must, on some level, be consternated by the emergence of this upstart. For in some ways, he is their creation. Some time ago, İnce was dismissed by AK Party leaders as a mere “gariban,” which in Turkish means a “wretch.” I guess teachers the world round have it the same, since we have never been known for the size of our wallets.
Ince, however, immediately embraced this moniker.
“Yes, Mr. Erdoğan, I am a ‘gariban,’” he announced, on national television. “But may I ask, how can you live the way you do on your salary?”
Ince was referring to the recently completed presidential palace in Ankara, a nearly $600 million Kremlin-like structure boasting a reported 1,150 rooms, crystal chandliers and carpets that cost thousands of dollars apiece. Critics blasted the construction of this collussus, seeing it as yet another example of Erdoğan’s vaulting ambitions.
As you might expect, Ince has not minced words on this issue, constantly going on about the many splendors of the palace, and the “Sultan” who lives in it, while he, the Gariban, and the nation’s many other poor, are consigned to poverty – an ever-more expensive at that. On TV, he derisively refers to Turkey’s leader as “Sayın Erdoğan,” (Mister Erdoğan) and “Sultan Erdoğan.”
In fact, those are the two key words that you hear over and over, as you listen to the fiery opposition leader’s speeches: Sultan and Gariban.
Observers say that while it’s hardly original, it’s certainly an effective approach: The rich versus the poor, the haves versus the have-nots. Some would say rising inflation rates, coupled with the currency woes, have given Ince’s approach a growing amount of traction. I can personally attest, just from watching the news, that money, or worries about money, really is on people’s minds. Those who say man does not live on bread alone haven’t checked the price of bread lately. Those who mention cake should move to France.
While much of Ince’s campaign seems focused on blasting the ruling party and its “Sultan,” he has brought forth at least one idea that seems in line both with his self-styled Gariban image and his educational background. He has promised that if elected, he will convert the monumental Presidential Palace into a university, presumably a state university. Interesting, but it would be nice for this writer if he promised to raise teachers’ salaries, too.
The ‘Good’ Lady
So where does that leave the lady of the group, Meral Akşener?
Oh, you needn’t worry about her being squeezed out. The 61-year-old nationalist is a veteran in Turkish politics, serving as prime minister back in the 1980s. She cuts a polished, elegant figure, with her short, almost bobbed hair, neat red jackets and pant suits, almost a Turkish Hillary. No, a Turkish Thatcher, I suspect would be more apropos. I know, why do we always focus more on a woman’s appearance and not the men’s? Fair enough. Let us just say she brings a welcome contrast to the men. She speaks in a measured, almost patrician tone, as opposed to the stern, ubiquitous Erdoğan or the hoarse, fiery Ince.
Akşener was chosen to lead the İyi Party (Good Party), a coalition of nationalists, liberal conservatives, and secularists. The İyi Party is a new party, formed late last year. You could say it is as much a product of the times as the Gariban upstart Ince.
Inevitably, the dominance of the AK Party, of Erdoğan, over the past decade, coupled with growing concerns about Turkey’s political and economic future, have fostered strange bedfellows. So it is perhaps desperation that has forced groups like the nationalists, who some say want to return Turkey to its proud Ottoman imperial past, to join forces with secularists and liberal conservatives. Their presumed shared objective being the toppling of Erdoğan and ending his party’s dominance over the country’s political landscape.
Just how Akşener fits into this curious coalition is a reasonable question. My guess is that her experience provides a certain voter base, and her disarming outward presence provides the glue that holds the coalition together.
And what’s up with that name, the “Good Party?” Why are they “Good?” Well, my instincts as a political reporter are telling me that it’s merely a way of framing the election, in this case, what’s “good” for the nation versus what’s “bad.” Nice and clear-cut. Ah, here in Turkey as much as elsewhere, “nice and clear cut” only works during elections.
Then we have the Prisoner, Selahattin Demirtaş. He’s the leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), known as the “Kurdish Obama” by admirers, He and other Kurdish leaders were arrested in late 2016 and imprisoned over alleged links to “terrorist propoganda.” Well, Demirtaş in recent weeks received approval to run for president on the HDP ticket from jail. If he wins, which I very much doubt, I guess they would start calling him the “Kurdish Mandela.”
Certainly, Demirtaş will pick up votes, especially in the East, where many Kurds live. But as far as winning the presidency, he’s a long shot, as you might expect. But at least he’s in the race.
While the election ultimately is about Erdoğan, we have neglected as always to mention the large Elephant in the corner. The Elephant’s name is Fethullah Gulen, the powerful religious cleric accused by many, including Erdoğan, of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt. Gulen, a former Erdoğan ally, has established so-called “Gulen charter schools” all over the world, including a number of them in the U.S. He has lived in a secluded compound in eastern Pennsylvannia’s Pocono Mountains since 1999.
Since the failed coup attempt, Gulen has become a real thorn in the side of U.S.-Turkey relations. He is Erdoğan’s sworn enemy, indeed, the Enemy of the People would not be too strong a phrase.
The Turkish government has pressured both the Obama and Trump administrations to extradite Gulen so that he can be tried in Turkey, presumably for treason, or conspiring to overthrow the government. The U.S. administrations have repeatedly claimed that Turkey has not provided sufficient evidence, a claim the Turkish government strongly refutes, insisting they have provided mountains of evidence.
At any rate, do not underestimate the Gulen factor, particularly among conservatives, and the many, especially those in rural, central and eastern parts of the country, who remain loyal to Erdoğan. That’s something I learned covering politics in Eureka, California. Eureka is not the only place in Humboldt County. A political reporter who focuses only on Eureka is missing a big chunk of the overall picture.
Here in the Near East, Erdoğan remains a formidable, even revered figure, not just in Turkey but throughout the region and beyond. While he often proves intractable, stubborn and willful to the West, here he is seen, from North Africa to the Balkans, from the Middle East to the Caucausus, as a strong Muslim leader, a sly, charismatic, determined man who is not afraid to stand up to the Big Powers. Often accused of duplicity by the West, of “playing both sides,” most notably in an ongoing dispute over the purchase of either F-35s or Russian fighters, Erdoğan has shown he is astute in realizing the importance of Turkey in the long-term stability and growth of this region.
He has time and again showed toughness, resiliency and resolve. In particular, this reporter was impressed how Erdoğan, after barely surviving a sure assassination plot the night of the failed coup in July 2016, quickly and steered his shaken nation back from the brink of disaster.
Over the years I have lived in Istanbul and observed its strange and arresting (pun intended) politics, I have learned one thing, and that is: never underestimate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The man is a survivor. I mean, this was a man who was jailed in the late 1990s, and his party banned. He went on to become arguably the single most dominant force the country has seen since Ataturk. This election is critical, no doubt, for him. The future could hold great things for him, and his county – at least according to Erdoğan and his many followers.
But his critics, also many, say an Erdoğan victory would doom the country, that it could possibly mark the end of secularism, signal approval for an increasingly Islamic agenda. Quite possibly, if the war in Syria and other conflicts continue along the same path, it could mean an eventual break from NATO, a realignment of power-relationships in the region. But some would say that such a change could also ocur under the other leaders as well. Ince, for example, has publicly stated that he would order the US Incırlik base closed if the US fails to hand over Gulen. And let us not forget that Akşener, her sophisticated appearance notwithstanding, is a nationalist at heart. Who knows? We’ve seen Brexit, we’ve seen Trump, so why not a “Meral” (Generally people here refer to her by her first name)?
There is a saying here that all Turks have two throats, in reference to the Bosphorus. The Turkish word, “Bogaz” means “throat.” Why do Turks have two throats, you ask? Well, the expression signifies the closeness that Turks have, emotionally, psychologically, historically, to that strip of salt water that divides two continents.
As a sort of adopted Turk (enişte), I guess you could say I also now have two throats. The more I think about this election, and the strange air that surrounds the politics of this marvelous, troubled country, the more I think it is because we need to have two throats. Otherwise, how could we possibly breathe?
Watching, listening, wading my way through all of these candidates, issues and discussions these past few weeks, one thing has occurred to me. It is a kind of reassurring thought. All those different parties and candidates. Not just Ince and Akşener – there are also candidates from the nationalist party, the Saadet Party and others, too, I just focused here on the front-runners. That’s got to be some kind of positive sign. Hell, even a prisoner is running for president, so put that in your hookah and smoke it.
Finally, A Fable
Given Aesop’s ties to the region, and the Turks’ fondness for fables, I really tried to come up with a suitable one, even with a moral tagged on at the end:
The Sultan, The Wretch, and the Elephant
In Ottoman times a Sultan in disguise wandered into a street bazaar, and a wretch begged him up for a handout. The disguised Sultan berated the bazaar keepers for allowing such deadbeats to hassle customers. Glancing at the goods, he went on to complain about the prices and accused the bazaar keepers of cheating decent people. Suddenly an Elephant passed, and everyone turned in horror and amazement. By then, the Sultan was furious. He cried out: How in Allah’s name was such a creature wandering loose in Istanbul?
“My Dear Sir,” one of the keepers finally ventured to answer. “I am sorry we are too ignorant to answer your questions. We are poor and uneducated. You might ask the Sultan. He would know, for he is God’s Messenger, after all.”
Suddenly ashamed, the Sultan crept back to his Palace, and never ventured out again.
Moral of the Story: Don’t ask questions if you do not wish to hear the answers.
OK, what do you want? It was my first fable. So I’m no Aesop, nor am I a prognosticator. Maybe what this election needs is not a fable, or even a news report. It might just need a prayer. A prayer that, Inşallah, God Willing, whatever happens, life will go on. My wife and I sure hope so. We’d like to continue to call this beautiful, turbulent country home for a long, long time.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast reporter and resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.