[This is a shorter version of the article published on 28 August 2016. TMS.]
Taksim Square was pleasantly lit; neither too bright, nor really dark. It was the last week of May, more than a month and half before the failed coup attempt of 15-16 July 2016. The Istanbul evening was cool with gentle breeze.
People were lounging about in small knots, mostly distributed by age. Many of them were munching on roasted chestnuts or corn-on-the-cob. The man with the big thermos was selling Turkish tea in plastic cups
A noisy group of some twenty teenagers arrived. One of them tentatively shouted a slogan against Erdogan. He repeated, and repeated again. Presently, all of them started chanting slogans against Erdogan.
In less than a minute, the other teenagers scattered in Taksim Square began grouping and started counter-slogans in favour of Erdogan. The two groups were facing each other, their voices rising with each slogan – one for Erdogan, the other against him. The tempo seemed to be moving fast toward a fisticuff situation.
Everyone else in the square continued with whatever they were doing. The lone policeman remained inside his cruiser. I was the only one alarmed.
Perhaps it was just a way to exercise their lungs, perhaps something else. Whatever, they soon burst into laughing and hugged each other. The roasted chestnut vendors did a brisk business.
Some of them settled on a stone slab where I was sitting.
“What was it all about,” I asked them after introducing myself.
The girl in white trousers and reddish jacket, who could speak good English, laughed.
“This is us. You may not understand,” she said.
“I can try.”
“Look, most of us, I mean teenagers, have seen only Erdogan as our leader. He has shaped Turkey as it is today, and in a way, he has shaped us.”
“He turned around the economy, he made Lira a strong currency, he checked corruption, and he gave us a new sense of self-respect.”
“We love Erdogan and we are grateful for everything he has done for us, for all of us have benefited directly from his leadership. We can disagree with some of his policies and sometimes we disagree quite vocally, even violently. But, our difference is with some of what he is doing, not with the whole of Erdogan.”
The boy in black-striped shirt waved the passing tea seller and bought everyone steaming Turkish tea. It was refreshing.
“She is right,” he said. “Erdogan has given us many things, self-respect above all.”
“Why self-respect above all?” I asked.
“Simple. Self respect needs solid ground, justification. We are an economic powerhouse, we are a regional power, and we are participating in world events more than ever before, all because of Erdogan.”
* * *
The banker was lean and muscular, in his late twenties. We were sitting in a roadside café in Gaziantep. He proudly explained the various loan packages his bank was offering to individual entrepreneurs.
The conversation inevitably turned to Erdogan.
“Do you think Erdogan is scooping all the powers into his own hands, kinda transforming himself into a Soltan?”
Perhaps this was not the right question – at least it was not rightly phrased.
The banker was clearly angry. His eyes narrowed and voice rose. “None of your business,” he said.
He calmed down fast.
“Please don’t judge with inadequate knowledge,” he said.
“Erdogan is definitely accumulating powers but it is not for himself. He is immensely popular and he can get his voice heard even if he will not have any office. He is redefining the system to ensure efficiency and stability. And, he is plugging the holes to prevent any military intervention in the civilian government. He is mindful of the fact that the future leaders may not enjoy the same level of popularity but would need the same extent of authority to function proficiently.”
We had finished the cheese dessert and the banker left for a meeting.
* * *
Zeki is well-read, well-educated and well-traveled. His designer jewelry business keeps him on the go.
We were taking lunch in an upscale restaurant in Ankara.
Nearly the entire conversation was about Erdogan. Here is what Zeki had to say:
Erdogan is not just a man; he is a phenomenon.
After Ataturk, he is the best thing that happened to Turkey. His policies have lately irked some segments of the population but you must understand that he is the president of Turkey, and Turkey is not just Ankara and Istanbul. He is moving ahead in resonance with the aspirations of the majority and that is what democracy is all about.
He is someone everyone can relate to. He sold lemonade and buns on the streets of Istanbul. He played professional football there and he rose to be the mayor of that megapolis. That is where he proved that he can deliver, that is where he proved that he can create tremendous momentum for fundamental change.
His core team has differences of approach with him for now but all of them are looking in the same direction. All of them were there at the wedding of his daughter [which took place in May 2016]. Their differences have not caused rift among them. Their friendship goes back thirty years, in some cases more.
You will see. If the time comes – and I hope it doesn’t – even those who oppose him bitterly will come to the streets in his support. /// nCa, 4 June 2023