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Turkey’s All-Powerful President Grabs for More
The elections in Turkey on June 24 will determine President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s future and his legacy. He is currently at the zenith of his power and is looking to add even more. But he remains desperately afraid of losing it all.
Photo: Laurent van der Stockt, Getty Images
The president begins his day with prayer, usually between 5 and 6 a.m. depending on when the sun rises. Then he spends half an hour on the treadmill and lifts weights. He has a light breakfast since he suffers from diabetes and drinks tea from the Black Sea. He reads memos from his advisers and the newspapers, usually the Islamist ones along with Sabah, which is run by a relative. At 8 a.m. Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets his chief of staff and his spokesman to go through the agenda for the day. At 11 a.m. he makes his way to the presidential palace.
Erdogan lives with his wife in a villa on the grounds of the palace, which is located on a hill on the outskirts of Ankara. He had the palace built in 2014 and it’s a fortress that encompasses several buildings with a total of 1,000 rooms, a bunker and a clinic. Visitors are collected by car and brought by tunnel to the respective wing. The building is symbolic of the reign of this president: terrifying, powerful, isolated, controlled.
In February, Erdogan turned 64. He still wears the same moustache he did as a younger man, but his cheeks have sunken and his brow is marked by wrinkles. In 2011, he had, it is said, a benign tumor removed from his large intestine. And he still sticks to an extremely tough schedule. Every day, he meets with cabinet ministers, legislators and mayors and controls every action taken by his government, no matter how insignificant. He always carries a notebook with him in which he is constantly jotting things down. He seldom returns home before midnight, and he expects the same of his employees.
He has governed Turkey for 15 years, first as prime minister and then as president – longer than any previous Turkish politician. And now, on June 24, the country will go to the polls for parliamentary elections. The presidential election is on the same day, and Erdogan hopes to be returned to office with more power than ever before. It would transform him into an autocrat, any semblance of separation of powers would be essentially passé. Turkey would become synonymous with Erdogan.
But who, really, is this man, whose destiny is so closely entwined with that of his country? He is a person about whom we feel we know a lot, yet so little is actually known about him. How does he rule? Who does he trust? How does he behave among his closest confidantes?
Over the past several months, DER SPIEGEL has spoken with more than two dozen of those closest to the president, including advisers, government officials, party members and ministers. Most insisted that they not be named: They are eager to talk about Erdogan, but they are also worried about angering him.
Nervous and Wary
Combined with internal government documents which DER SPIEGEL has seen, these interviews have made it possible to paint a profile of the Turkish president: Someone at the height of his power who is nevertheless obsessed with the idea of losing it. A man who feels misunderstood and essentially only trusts his family, a state of affairs that has led to tumult within the government. He has become a patriarch surrounded by silence. Nobody laughs in his presence. Ministers lower their voices when speaking with him, their faces becoming solemn, almost stiff. They look towards the ground, nervous and wary.
“He has become a patriarch surrounded by silence. Nobody laughs in his presence. Ministers lower their voices when speaking with him, their faces becoming solemn, almost stiff.”
Erdogan, they say, is quick to lose his temper. His fits of rage – slapping an employee or throwing his iPad at them – are legendary. Sometimes, he uses these outbreaks deliberately. At the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago, he was part of a podium discussion together with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. He became visibly agitated, calling Peres a child killer, arguing with the moderator and ultimately storming off the stage. His advisers were embarrassed by the performance, but Erdogan’s supporters celebrated him when he returned to Istanbul.
Despite having been in power for 15 years, he is still able to present himself as a man of the people. He is a populist, able to captivate people and appeal to the masses. When he speaks on the campaign trail, such as at a recent, early-June appearance in the Black Sea city of Zonguldak, supporters are brought in from across the country to see him. An anthem, written especially for him, blares from speakers and the streets are lined with his portrait. Prior to delivering his speeches, says a former speechwriter, he has a memo compiled including facts and figures so he knows everything important about the town where he is speaking. And his audience is left to wonder: How can he possibly know all of that?
As a young man, Erdogan played semi-professional football for a club in Istanbul and he still likes to surround himself with footballers. Players like the German national team members Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan, with whom he was photographed back in May, an event that caused significant hand-wringing back in Germany. His circle of advisers also includes a wrestler and a basketball player. Until around two years ago, he would regularly play basketball with his bodyguards and staff on the grounds of the palace. There’s also a video of him playing football with other prominent people. It shows the opposing players reverently moving to the side when the president had the ball.
Erdogan doesn’t read books, but he does watch a huge amount of TV. The channel A Haber, known for its conspiracy theories, is constantly on in his office and limo. He uses the internet rarely and considers social media to be “poison” – something that hasn’t stopped him from deploying a troll army to torment his critics. Since he doesn’t speak any foreign languages, his press office translates the foreign news for him. Erdogan wants to know exactly what is being said and thought about him around the world.
Like so many leaders, he is a big fan of history, particularly that of the Ottoman Empire. He admires the “bloody sultan” Abdülhamid II, and never misses an episode of the popular Turkish TV show that depicts his life. He has even visited the set.
For Erdogan, the establishment of the republic by Mustafa Kemal in 1923 was an historic mistake. He’d prefer to emulate the period of Abdülhamid II, an era when the empire stretched from the Middle East to the Balkans. But his efforts at expansion have failed: His attempt to overthrow Syrian leader Bashar Assad has not borne fruit and Turkey has alienated countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt rather than solidifying closer relations.
“To the outside world, he wants to look like a strongman, a brash loud-mouth who prefers conflict to conciliation. But those who have known him for a long time say he’s actually indecisive, basing his policies almost exclusively on public opinion polls.”
Erdogan’s demeanor is marked by similar contradictions. To the outside world, he wants to look like a strongman, a brash loud-mouth who prefers conflict to conciliation. But those who have known him for a long time say he’s actually indecisive, basing his policies almost exclusively on public opinion polls. He has surveys conducted almost weekly to work out what Turks think about various issues, from economic policy and the military deployment in Syria to the popularity of individual politicians.
The survey results that he is receiving these days are likely to be causing him no small degree of consternation.
In April, Erdogan brought forward the elections by almost a year and a half, convinced that victory was guaranteed. But his lead in the polls has since shrunk and some opinion polls make it look as though he may not receive an absolute majority in the first round of voting. Should that happen, a run-off election would be held two weeks later. But even then, the unthinkable has become thinkable: that he might actually lose.
Government politicians describe the elections as the “endgame.” If Erdogan wins, then his autocratic rule will be cemented for years. If he loses, then Turkey could be facing an uncertain period of weeks if not months. No one knows if Erdogan would accept defeat and allow for a peaceful transfer of power. Were he to lose, it seems likely that he would be prosecuted and imprisoned. In other words, it’s all or nothing for the president on June 24.
Why His Son-in-Law Is So Powerful
Erdogan grew up in Istanbul. He has never felt comfortable in Ankara, the city of government officials and the army and he still spends weekends at his home in Istanbul with his family. His wife Emine is always by his side; she has no career of her own and rarely speaks in public.
Erdogan wants to stay in power for at least another five years, until the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2023, if not longer. Nevertheless, no other issue preoccupies him as much as his legacy. Confidantes say that his preference would be for one of his four children to follow him as president.
But his eldest son Burak withdrew from public life 20 years ago after he was involved in a fatal car crash. Bilal, the younger son, has disqualified himself through a series of embarrassing appearances and Erdogan doesn’t trust him to pursue a career in politics. His two daughters, Sümeyye and Esra, are more likely to be eligible for office. Indeed, Sümeyye has often accompanied her father and was said to have exerted a moderating influence during the Gezi protests of 2013. Still, it remains unthinkable to have a woman as head of the Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan is a strict head of family, sometimes yelling at his son Bilal on the phone. Nevertheless, there has never been any public conflict between him and his children. Esra dedicated her Ph.D. in sociology at Berkeley, California, to her father “my all-time hero … who taught me to take pride in who I am.” He is, she wrote: “A true visionary, a beautiful, humble soul.”
“Erdogan’s fixation on his family has led to the rapid rise of a man who was previously a political outsider: Berat Albayrak.”
Erdogan’s fixation on his family has led to the rapid rise of a man who was previously a political outsider: Berat Albayrak, Esra’s husband. The families have been close for years, with Erdogan and Albayrak’s father Sadik having their roots in the Islamist Milli Görüs movement. Esra got to know Berat at Berkley in 2003. In an email that was later hacked and put online, she wrote Berat that her father had agreed to their meeting: “It is quite an interesting process, particularly interesting that we are taking such an initiative when we are so far away from our elders.”
‘A Burden for the Party’
Albayrak worked for Calik Holding, a Turkish textile, energy and construction company, in New York. In 2007, at the age of just 29, he became CEO. A year later, Calik bought the daily paper Sabah. From then on, Albayrak had political power to go with his economic strength. In 2015, Erdogan named him energy minister and today, his brother Serhat runs Calik Media. Erdogan and the Albayrak brothers now dominate the country. The president’s staff refers to them as the “triumvirate.”
Erdogan seeks his son-in-law’s advice on almost every important decision. He has placed him at the top of the electoral list for the Istanbul 1 voting district for the June 24 elections. And Albayrak makes sure that party members and ministers are aware of his particularly close relationship with the president. Unlike other officials, he travels together with Erdogan in the presidential limo. At cabinet meetings, he lays a hand on the president’s shoulder and chats about his wife and children.
Albayrak acts as if he were president himself, complains one government official, who is – like so many others – critical of the son-in-law’s influence. He issues instructions to his cabinet colleagues, tells them how they should run their ministries and even who they should hire.
After the election, Erdogan wants to continue transforming Turkey into a family business, laying the groundwork for a political dynasty. He has placed relatives in important party jobs and Albayrak is considered to be a candidate for vice president, which would give him even more influence.
“He’s a burden for the party,” one government politician said.
Why the Party No Longer Has a Voice
Politics has always been a fight for Erdogan. The son of a strictly religious Black Sea sailor, he first crushed the secular elite. He then he turned his sights on the community of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, who had made Erdogan’s ascendency to power possible in the first place. The power struggle between Erdogan and Gülen reached its climax in the attempted coup of July 15, 2016, which the government continues to blame on Gülen and his followers.
On the night of the coup, Erdogan was on holiday with his family on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and apparently only just managed to escape an assassination attempt. In a FaceTime interview on CNN Türk, he called on his supporters to resist: “Go out onto the streets and squares and give them your answer.”
Today, it remains unclear who exactly was behind the attempted coup. Erdogan, after all, has never truly tried to investigate. Instead, he has used the coup attempt as a pretext to go after Gülen supporters and anyone else who opposes his rule: opposition politicians, human rights activists, Kurds and journalists. Moderates within the presidential palace have consistently tried to rein in Erdogan, arguing that the mass arrests would damage the government’s credibility. But the president has refused to listen, convinced as he is that he will lose power if he gives even an inch to the opposition.
“With every crisis – the Gezi protests, the attempted coup – he has become more authoritarian.”
Early in his political career, Erdogan presented himself as a reformer. He sought to improve relations with the Kurds, he negotiated with the EU about possible membership and he modernized the country. But with every crisis – the Gezi protests, the attempted coup – he has become more authoritarian. He is now only interested in appealing to his Sunni nationalist core constituency, one former minister complains. “Erdogan wants 51 percent, he doesn’t care about anything else.”
There’s a siege mentality at the presidential palace. Erdogan was always distrustful of external forces, but since the attempted coup he has become paranoid, those close to him say. He sees enemies and conspirators everywhere. His staff use encryption apps on their smartphones and the president himself rarely communicates by phone at all out of fear that Gülen supporters could somehow be listening in. He has his meals tested for poison.
At a recent reception, he called on village leaders to keep a close eye on who spends time in their communities: “In the name of our martyrs, we will break the arms and legs of those who want to damage our flag,” he said.
‘No Turkey Without Erdogan’
Erdogan no longer appoints advisers based on ability, and even their political views are of secondary importance. The only thing necessary is unconditional loyalty. The result is a president surrounded by people who assure him every day that he was chosen by god to rule Turkey. The elections in June are intended to send a message to his critics at home and abroad, says one government politician: “There’s no Turkey without Erdogan.”
“Erdogan no longer appoints advisers based on ability, and even their political views are of secondary importance. The only thing necessary is unconditional loyalty.”
Erdogan has also recast the AKP in his own image. His weekly appearances in parliament are like a football match: the legislators roll out banners and chant battle songs. Anyone who tries to contradict Erdogan or raise their own profile is punished.
AKP politicians recall with a mix of awe and horror how Erdogan destroyed the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. In 2014, after Erdogan moved from the prime minister’s office to become president, he installed Davutoglu as prime minister against the will of the party. Two years later, though, after Davutoglu’s public profile got a boost from negotiating the refugee deal with the Europeans, he became a nuisance to the president.
In May 2016, the “Pelican Dossier” appeared online, in which Davutoglu was denounced as a “traitor.” The prime minister, it claimed, had conspired with the Europeans against Erdogan. “In the chess game that the global powers are playing with our country, he (Davutoglu) has accepted the role of the pawn dressed up as a queen,” the text stated. Internal documents and statements indicate that Berat Albayrak, the president’s son-in-law, was behind the campaign. Shortly after the appearance of the Pelican Dossier, Erdogan replaced Davutoglu with his long-time confidante Binali Yildirim.
Unlike his predecessor, Yildirim shows no signs of seeking the limelight. He stoically accepts the president’s reprimands and insults. “Binali doesn’t even notice when he is being humiliated by Erdogan,” one AKP politician said.
Under Yildirim, the power of the prime minister has migrated completely to the presidential palace. Beyond his family, Erdogan trusts a group of 25 “chief advisers,” which he has handpicked and who form a kind of shadow cabinet.
The result is that the Turkish government appears as a monolith from the outside, but behind the scenes, ministers, advisers and parliamentarians are all bitterly jockeying for the president’s attention and favor. And he enjoys playing them off against each other. Two factions are embraced in a power struggle: the agitators around Albayrak on one side and the moderate forces such as spokesman Ibrahim Kalin or Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek on the other.
Erdogan has always tended to attack adversaries rather than try to bring them into the fold. He is contemptuous of compromise, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Albayrak encourages this stance. He is also said to have been the one behind the prosecution of German journalist Deniz Yücel, according to a Turkish official familiar with the case.
Albayrak is convinced that if the EU is confronted with the choice between Erdogan and instability, it will opt for Erdogan. He wants the Europeans to treat Turkey the way they treat Egypt, a country that one can do business with, while keeping out of its internal affairs. His people deride politicians such as Simsek who seek dialogue with the EU as “Westerners.”
Under Erdogan, a cult of strength has been established in the palace. In April the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet reported that Albayrak had ordered the tapping of the phone of the interior minister, an important rival in the party. The minister, meanwhile, insiders say, has compiled a dossier with compromising material about Albayrak.
Why the Lira Is Collapsing and Erdogan Is So Rich
In the 1990s, critics gave Erdogan the nickname “10 Percent Tayyip” because as mayor of Istanbul, he was said to keep a 10 percent cut of all business deals. His daughter’s studies in the United States were paid for by a businessman and between 2008 and 2017 the Erdogan clan is said to have earned 20 million euros in an offshore deal, according to internal documents.
Erdogan, who worked his way up from a childhood in Istanbul’s port district to the head of the Turkish state, is convinced that he has earned his wealth. A former minister said that the president considered Turkey to be his property: “He believes he can take everything.”
“He believes he can take everything.”
For long these stories of corruption had little resonance in Turkey, since there was enough wealth to go around. But the Erdogan system now appears to be reaching its limits.
The president likes to brag to friends that he has modernized the economy. And early in his tenure, GDP growth in Turkey hit 10 percent annually. Furthermore, between 2002 and 2016, foreign investors plowed over $180 billion into the Turkish economy. More recently, however, the growth rate has slowed, investors have left the country, companies have filed for bankruptcy – and now, the currency is collapsing.
At the end of May, Prime Minister Yildirim and his deputy Simsek, held a crisis meeting in Ankara, searching for a way to halt the lira’s decline. They agreed that only an increase in the key interest rate could stabilize the currency, a measure that Erdogan had consistently rejected. Yildirim managed to have a private talk with the president and persuade him to give up his resistance to the interest rate hike, but the move ultimately came too late and the lira only recovered slightly.
The lira’s weakness can’t exclusively be blamed on Erdogan, but he certainly shares most of the responsibility.
Investors are no longer prepared to accept the president’s erratic style of rule, his repression of critics, the cronyism, the curbing of the central bank. They have lost faith in Turkey. “It’s like an avalanche that can’t be stopped,” one Turkish politician, who specializes in economic policy, said.
This is the real reason for the early elections, one insider said. The president wants to be sure he is re-elected before a recession takes hold. The previous government was voted out of office as a result of the economic crisis in 2001. Inside the presidential palace, there is growing concern that history could be repeating itself.
Why Some Erdogan Confidantes Are Planning Their Escapes
Erdogan has taken far-reaching precautions to make sure he wins on June 24: He has formed an alliance with the ultranationalist MHP party; he has extended for the seventh time the state of emergency that was declared after the attempted coup, which makes it harder for his opponents to campaign; and he has placed more pressure on the media. Since the sale of the H ürriyet newspaper to an Erdogan loyalist, the press is almost completely controlled by the government and the opposition parties have been hushed.
Nevertheless, the election result is not the foregone conclusion that Erdogan had expected in April. After 15 years in power, the president seems tired. And there’s little of the euphoria that used to be seen at his rallies. One AKP politician says that the party lacks an issue to mobilize the masses. In the referendum on presidential powers last year, the attacks on Germany gained him four or five percentage points. “But we can’t repeat this strategy.” The damage to the economy would be too great, he said.
At the same time, the opposition is coming together: The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the new nationalist IYI party and the Islamist splinter party Saadet have forged an alliance. Only the pro-Kurdish HDP is going it alone, with a lead candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who is still in jail.
There appear to be two possible outcomes for the election, and either would have dramatic consequences.
The first possible outcome is that Erdogan wins. Then he will complete the transformation of Turkey from a democracy to a one-man state. Erdogan would be both head of state and government, he could decide on the majority of constitutional judges and hire and fire any ministers he liked. Civil society, which despite all the repression has mounted fierce opposition, would be completely demoralized. His opponents would probably withdraw into private life or emigrate.
Some in Europe seem to think that once he won, Erdogan would relax and try to make peace with his opponents. But Erdogan advisers dampen such hopes. “If Erdogan wins on June 24,” they predict, “then he will really reign supreme.”
“If Erdogan wins on June 24, then he will really reign supreme.”
In foreign policy, Erdogan will remain a difficult, unreliable partner. A victory could lead to even more self-confidence – and more unilateral action in Syria and Iraq. And advisers indicate that the government may also try to renegotiate the refugee deal with the EU.
The second possible outcome is that Erdogan loses. That would be a triumph for Turkish democracy but could push the country into chaos. Erdogan has told confidantes that he fears being hanged by the military, like former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, once he is no longer in office.
In the palace, there’s already a sense of end times. Of course no one in his immediate circle dares to even discuss a possible defeat. But some members of his staff have begun preparing for flight. He has little hope for himself, one high-ranking government politician said, but he’d at least like to make sure his wife and children could escape abroad.
It can therefore be expected that even if he were to lose, Erdogan would do everything possible to cling to power.
Opposition politicians are preparing themselves for a number of different scenarios: He might manipulate the election result; he could force new elections; he could ignore the result and continue to rule using the state of emergency laws. That would inevitably lead to mass protests and clashes between the president’s supporters and opponents.
“No one knows what exactly is going to happen on June 24,” one opposition politician said. “Only one thing is certain. After this election, Turkey will be a different country.”
With additional reporting by Eren Caylan