You can’t always believe your own hype. That’s the cautionary tale of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, who watched his ambitions to remake Turkish politics into a presidential system, and leave him solely in charge, be dashed at the polls earlier this week.
As Turkey’s political parties now dither over a coalition government and the pro-Erdoğan press calls for another bout of elections, the country is also reflecting on the extraordinary trajectory of opinion on its embattled president, from EU-minded moderniser to the image of a strongman touched by a spot of Ottomania.
Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to single-party rule in 2002 after a decade of ill-matched coalitions, military interventions and economic blight. Not only did the AKP catch the winds of change for the economy but the party’s Islamist-lite values also chimed with a growing sector of industrialists in Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.
This “New Turkey”, so the rhetoric went, required a costume change. A revival of Ottoman culture, including a proposal to teach Arabic-alphabet Turkish in schools, coincided with a domestic boom, a bevy of mega-projects and renewed outreach to the former colonies of the empire. Turkey could once again throw its weight around in the Middle East and no longer have to remain aloof while bigger problems were being dealt with back home.
But then came the theatrics. This year Erdoğan met Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, accompanied by guards in Ottoman armour (imagine David Cameron meeting, say, Jamaica’s Portia Simpson-Miller while flanked by a platoon of red coats). In 2014, a new presidential palace was unveiled in Ankara with a tally of rooms that surpassed a thousand. Erdoğan’s recent bid for greater presidential power was regarded by many across the political spectrum as a step too far on the road to becoming sultan.
Erdoğan’s troubles, observers note, began with the notion that his will was synonymous with the will of the country. And that hasn’t been reserved to clashing with the liberal, secular-minded youth over Gezi Park. Those same lower-income voters who Erdoğan courted with “democratic conservatism” have eyed projects like the mega-palace with wariness, especially as Turkey’s economic slowdown bites.
So as the country cautiously considers a return to coalition rule, there’s a palpable sense of relief that a tense period of big politics – and bigger politicians – might be coming to an end. What else this change of tact will unearth, however, remains to be seen.
Just a few days before Turkey went to the polls, photographs of Erdoğan’s son Bilal practicing archery in Ottoman finery were printed in the local press. Was this all just harmless high jinks in big hats or a little too close to the princely bone? Such theatre, for many voters it would seem, had gone on for too long.
Christopher Lord is Monocle's Istanbul bureau chief.