ANKARA, Turkey — On the western fringe of Ankara, gouged into some 50ha of forest bequeathed to the Turkish republic by the nation’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an extravagant presidential compound rises up.
It’s all Seljuk architecture, crystal chandeliers, botanical gardens, nuclear attack-proof underground bunkers, marble floors and even a towering 4000-capacity Ottoman-themed mosque, built in defiance of numerous court orders and inaugurated last year.
Yet the man who occupies it, and whose grandiose ambition of a “New Turkey” the compound purports to exemplify, this week had not been heard from in days.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered an astonishing defeat during parliamentary elections at the weekend. The Islamist, centre-right party he founded and led for 13 years, Justice and Development (AKP), failed to secure a parliamentary majority. The result has scuttled Erdogan’s aspirations of emerging as a global Muslim leader, let alone his chances of vesting executive powers in the presidency.
It is the Tall Man – as Erdogan’s party faithful refer to the pugnacious president – from Kasimpasa’s most significant defeat in a political career spanning decades.
And the wall of silence surrounding his Ankara compound is nothing short of remarkable, given Erdogan’s propensity to bridle and boom, haranguing his opponents as “traitors”, “losers” and “gays”.
The English language Hurriyet Daily News has been tracking Erdogan’s silence, real time, in an article titled, Unusual: Erdogan “off air” for Longer than 48 Hours.
By last night (NZT), Erdogan had issued little more than a squeak – a press release – and had not delivered a public speech for two days, 21 hours and 46 minutes, according to Hurriyet’s online counter.
And on the streets of Ankara, the feeling is that people have room to breathe, absent Erdogan’s overpowering presence and moralising exhortations which extend into the very core of their personal lives: how many children a woman should have, what kind of bread a Turk should eat, how people should dress, what kind of Turkish they should speak.
“We used to have to try to avoid seeing him on television,” said a university student sitting at a bar enjoying a beer with her boyfriend in Ankara’s Kizilay district. “He was everywhere.”
Reports indicate that Erdogan will meet with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Tuesday to discuss the way forward for a party that appears to have fallen to the trappings of power and become lost in a maze of its own hubris.
However, Erdogan is not one to take defeat lightly. This is the man who stared down Turkey’s once-omnipotent secular-military establishment and sent its top brass to prison. In a few short years Erdogan himself went from a prison cell to the prime ministry.
When snubbed by his one-time buddy Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he resorted to primal force to achieve his goals, wildly escalating the Syrian insurgency and accelerating that country’s descent into unplumbed chaos.
His loyalists in media circles continue a vitriolic yellow journalism campaign, claiming that the election results prove that an executive presidency is necessary, likely indicating Erdogan’s stance, despite the resounding rejection of these plans by the electorate.
Meantime, Erdogan exerts enormous influence on the National Intelligence Organisation – whose remit he expanded to include domestic affairs last year – the bureaucracy, the private sector and, of course the street.
Few can predict what Erdogan is likely to do. And so, all eyes and ears are fixed firmly on the unusually mute Ankara palace, where, somewhere in its labyrinthine hallways, a temporarily cowed Erdogan calculates his political future.