How the Turks are locked in a bad romance

Failing political regimes are like marriages on the rocks – when it gets too dreary, they remember the past or promise the moon in some unspecified future date. But take away the AKP’s tales of glory and people face a sober autumn with COVID-19 and forex spinning out of control.

Worn-out political regimes often use the same tactics as marriages on the rocks. As present life gets dreary, couples turn to the good old days (“Remember our first holiday?” “Recall when we danced to our song?”) or their hopes and promises of a bright future (“We’ll never have to worry about money again once this new business takes off”). The once-loving couple tells each other, first hopefully, then desperately, that they will make their marriage blissful again; the memories of the past and hopes for a great future will keep the wolf from the door or outweigh present poverty, discord or even violence.

Politicians unable to cope with the current crises, which are often of their own making, do more or less the same: some surprise resource is (re)discovered that would open a new page for the country in some unspecified date, some imagery or a catchy rhyme is revived to recall the glories of “this great nation” some 949 years ago, the political leader - older, balder, worn-out but still determined to be the ultimate patriarch – poses in glorious settings reminiscent of great conquerors.

I would bow to the experience of marriage counsellors and political historians, but I have yet to see those tactics succeed – either in marriage or governance – in the long run.

So President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s anti-climax of good news last week – the (re)discovery of a rich gas bed in the Black Sea – has done little to lift up the national morale that was dampened by the fact that both COVID-19 and the dollar are spiraling out of control. The government cronies and AKtrolls have been bombarding us with praise for the government and shouting abuse at the so-called “traitors” who were not “happy enough” with the great discovery. However, it is unlikely that most people who are not die-hard Erdoğan fans could bank on the bliss of some natural gas bed that would make some impact on the economy some years from now when there are immediate electricity/gas/water/food bills to pay.

The government’s efforts of epic story-telling does not quite do the trick anymore, either. Hagia Sophia has been turned into a mosque and the first Muslim worship in nearly nine decades was held on July 24, the anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty. It was a great moment for conservatives - though it is unfathomable how Ali Erbas, the vocal boss of Diyanet, Turkey’s religious authority, was ever allowed to steal Erdoğan’s thunder with his own sword show. Then came the conversion of the stunning Chora Museum into a mosque. The small Byzantine church, known for its mosaics that tell the story of the Virgin Mary, is a lesser-known gem and while its change of status may bring a moment of satisfaction to some conservative groups, what is its real impact? How do these moves sit with Mehmet Nuri Ersoy’s ambitious 2023 Tourism Strategy who explained in a high-profile press conference in Dolmabahçe Palace that he would like to boost faith tourism and increase the number of UNESCO heritage sites in Turkey?

Oh and there is is the annual celebration of the Turks’ entry into Anatolia. A four-minute video tha was prepared by Turkey’s Information Directorate to celebrate the 949th anniversary of 1071 battle of Manzikert  sparked the trending topic #KızılElma (Red Apple – not a reference to New York but to the pan-Turkic myth of a united homeland and universal sovereignty) on twitter. Shared by Turkey’s information czar Fahrettin Altun on August 24, the clip boasts of the heroism of Turkish soldiers over centuries, the perfect domes of mosques and Turkish rulers throughout history marching to conquests. Predictably, you see Erdoğan inspecting a battalion toward the end of the clip, as well as Turkey’s present-day army effortlessly using state-of-art military technology in various hotspots of the world.

Meanwhile, back at home the reality that confronts the Turks is a grim one. For the lucky few who come back from holidays to the city, this September will be no ordinary return. It will mean the end of the little breathing space and the – possibly misadvised - drop of guard against the COVID-19 in open air. Worse, it would be stepping into a new crisis with regards to the pandemic, with an ever-increasing number of people – including the famous and the powerful – who have tested positive, with distancing measures being revived, with children facing incertitude in schooling and members of the health profession in despair and burnt out.

In Izmir, where I live, the number of daily cases has reached more than 400, at April levels when most of the people were in voluntary confinement. 65 + can no longer attend large gatherings, such as funerals and weddings and the couples eager to tie the knot are asked to do it within one to two and a half hours – a far cry from the night-long big fat Turkish weddings. The tourism sector’s dreams of having a late-season bonanza with German and Russian tourists have quickly faded. 

The critics of the government’s lack of transparency in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the small number of independent commentators or medical associations, would have been justified in launching a chorus of “I told you so.” But being right is small consolation in the face of the fall.

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals