By Daren Butler
He is a boy growing up on the tough streets of Istanbul, serious and polite, selling sunflower seeds, helping the poor; known already to friends as “The Chief”. Next he is a grown man battling dark forces to forge a mighty and just Turkey.
That is the narrative of a new movie 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 63rd birthday.
“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 land.
“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 rallies.
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.
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.
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 last 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 district.
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.
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 theatre, the April 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 lacklustre 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 recognise 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.”