That is the narrative of a new movie to be screened in
cinemas across Turkey this week about the life and times of
Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has dominated the nation's politics
in the 21st century.
Speaking to journalists, actor Reha Beyoglu dismissed
suggestions the release of "The Chief" was timed to help the
president win an April referendum that could grant him sweeping
new powers. The film's premiere, he said, had marked Erdogan's
"Probably this big responsibility will be with me for the rest
of my life," Beyoglu later told Reuters. He plays the adult
Erdogan up to the time when he is imprisoned over allegations of
Islamist activity, before rising to the highest office in the
"Watching the screen are people who love him fanatically and I
am one of those people."
Erdogan's critics, however, see a burgeoning cult of personality
amid the mass arrests and dismissals, from judiciary and police
to academia and media, that have followed a failed July coup.
The reforms being weighed in the referendum, if accepted, will
transform Turkey's political landscape, enabling the president
to appoint ministers and top state officials and dissolve
parliament, declare emergency rule and issue decrees.
Backers say they are essential in a country shaken also by
Islamic State and Kurdish militant attacks.
Opposition parties argue the changes would remove checks to the
already extensive influence Erdogan wields after some 15 years
in power by dint of his unrivalled popularity as a leader.
"The fate of a nation cannot be entrusted to one person," says
long-time opposition leader Deniz Baykal, who served in some of
the fragile and fractious coalitions Erdogan cites in arguing
for a strong presidential system.
Erdogan portrays himself as champion of conservative, pious
Turks long downtrodden by a secular elite now driven into
disarray; and so he is celebrated by thousands who pack his
Political commentator Mustafa Akyol sees an ironic parallel
between Erdogan, who is restoring Islam to public life, and
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who created a secular Turkish state from
the ashes of the theocratic Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.
"Now, a century later, Turkey has another cult of personality in
the making, at the hands of the very people who for decades
ridiculed the cult of Ataturk," Akyol wrote in a column for the
Al-Monitor news website.
ERDOGAN HERO EXECUTED
"The Chief" was made by a little known company called Kafkasor
Film Akademisi. It was not clear how much it cost to make,
though some media reports put the figure at $8 million, or how
it was funded. The filmmakers could not be reached for comment
ahead of the release.
The movie portrays Erdogan as astute from a young age, observing
the brutalities of 1960s Turkey. It opens in a tea house when
the radio announces the execution of Prime Minister Adnan
Menderes after a 1960 military coup.
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Erdogan often cites Menderes as his inspiration; and could arguably
have shared his fate that July night when rogue officers
commandeered tanks and planes in a bid to topple him during the
failed coup which killed almost 250 people.
Under a subsequent state of emergency, about 40,000 people have been
jailed pending trial and 100,000 public sector workers suspected of
links to the coup plotters suspended or dismissed.
The film, which had its premiere on Sunday - Erdogan's birthday -
and is being screened in cinemas across the country from March 3,
depicts an 11-year-old Erdogan seeking to prove himself to his
father and help those in his community in Istanbul's Kasimpasa
A soccer fanatic, he delights his friends by scoring a goal with a
spectacular overhead kick, he hands over money given to him to buy a
bicycle to a poor friend.
COST OF FAILURE
In adult years, he is repeatedly threatened by officials and in
1999, four years before he came to power, jailed for reciting a
religiously themed poem in a speech.
"A person dies once. If we are going to die, let's die like men,"
Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, declares at one point in the film -
a line he has repeatedly used in speeches, and which drew loud
applause during the premiere.
Beyond the theater, the Apr. 16 referendum is one Erdogan can ill
afford to lose. He has staked his reputation on the project for many
years and a "No" would amount to possibly the biggest rebuff of an
otherwise stellar political career.
Erdogan remains by far the most popular politician in Turkey, facing
a lackluster opposition; and yet, doubts linger.
Some even among supporters of the AK Party he co-founded in 2001
might baulk at ceding him such powers. Others still, while trusting
him, might be wary of whomever inherits the power when he one day
leaves the stage.
What he would do if defeated is hard to predict, but the character
portrayed in "The Chief" seems hardly likely to meekly resign
himself to the political restraints at which he chafes. Such an
outcome might only generate renewed political division.
Actor Beyoglu does not recognize the divisive force many secularists
or liberals see in Erdogan; only a unifying figure not just for
Turkey but for the Islamic world as a whole.
"Our president is like the piece which holds Muslim prayer beads
together," he said at the film's premiere, using an image Erdogan
himself evoked after the failed coup.
"If it breaks off, the beads will scatter."
(Editing by Ralph Boulton and Pravin Char)
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