Not one billboard was saved. Gigantic posters with “President Erdoğan is honoring our city” inscribed in bold letters decorated the entire city.
Was I in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad? Years ago at the height of the presidential elections – which were indeed just a joke as only Saddam was contesting – I was in that then-very beautiful city. It was the time of the Iran-Iraq war but the dictator was busy consolidating his power. Posters proclaiming, “Saddam, we are ready to die for you,” and his huge portraits were hanging from all tall buildings and bridges.
Turkey is, of course, not Iraq, and no Turkish leader can be a match for Saddam in any way. Though a peculiar democracy, there is some scent of democratic governance in this country. Can anyone make any claim or accuse the Turkish president of becoming Saddamish? No way, even if there might be such a case, no one can say it if he does not want to land himself in prison for some years. Yeah, after all, there are courts in this country and insulting or intending to insult the president is a crime. Besides, there are always people who are more royal than the royal himself. Some people might have undertaken that extravaganza to make the president happy so that he can make them happy…
Was Saddam not the Turkish leaders’ good pal during those years? Well, that’s another issue… In state-to-state affairs who is a foe and who is a friend depends on the conjecture. What was the name of that novel by George Orwell? “1984,” was it not? How many times has history been rewritten according to changing the international climate or the Realpolitik?
After all, it was not only Saddam that was obsessed with a desire to see his portraits all around. North Korea was no exception, nor were the statelets of the Middle East. Sometimes such portraits serve as dummies for the leader, remember the Saudi example. The new king did not want to stand for hours to receive condolences. As such, cardboard cutouts were erected. Some people were paid to stand behind the dummies, extend their right hand from a hole and shake the hands of the people expressing condolences. Whether it is a funny or functional solution depends from which perspective the issue is looked at.
Yet, it was awkward to see such an overexposure of posters of a political leader as if there is “single-man rule” in the country. It is difficult, of course, for the residents of Ankara or Istanbul to imagine what kind of torture smaller cities endure when the head of state or government “honors” them with their presence. Perhaps, such a feeling might be experienced in Istanbul or Ankara when a summit meeting participated by heads of state or the governments of scores of countries is held.
During the visit of the pope or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Ankara went through such a trauma. Boulevards were closed to traffic hours in advance for the security of the president. It was not only the hotel where he was to dine with some prominent businessmen, politicians and top civil servants of the city, but the entire neighborhood was cordoned off – paralyzing the city’s traffic – while security helicopters hovered all day over the city.
Journalists, like in any part of the country, were divided into pro-government and anti-government camps with some trying to remain above such obsessive oddities and relationships of allegiance that they considered definitely unethical. Besides the presidential visit to inaugurate a web of public investments and attend the Annual Convention of the Roma, there was also the elections for the chairmanship of the Bursa Association of Journalists. It was obvious that the incumbent would win overwhelmingly, thus the Olay Group – owned by former minister Cavit Çağlar – declared a boycott of the elections and ordered journalists working for the group’s media establishments not to attend at the risk of their jobs. It was democracy in action. The Olay Group dispatched cameramen to film who was attending the convention which, in the absence of the “opposition,” re-elected Mehmet Nuri Kalaylı unanimously.
This understanding of democracy of “looking after number one” is a fundamental illness paralyzing democratic governance in this country and elsewhere. How a man who served as a parliamentarian and a minister in charge of media affairs can now become so despotic toward journalists working at his establishments is difficult to understand.
The next day I was part of a group lecturing young journalists on a set of issues from media ethics to the freedom of media, social media, the legal challenges journalists face, time management and so on.
The city had been vacated by the president, the roads had all been opened and thousands of plainclothes and uniformed security people had disappeared, but his posters were still decorating the city. The city was recovering fast. It was obvious that Anatolian cities must have developed a quick recovery reflex to cope with the trauma of high level visits.
Yet, next time, I will make sure not to be in any Anatolian city visited by the president. I cannot afford that torture again.