Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing his imperial romp through the Turkish political landscape, but not without bumps along the way, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid
What a strange specimen of a political leader he is. He may have some precursors in distant despotic eras, but in the periods that followed the great Anatolian uprising of the 1920s that heralded a new and different epoch, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the only Turkish ruler who has exhibited such an unquenchable thirst for power and such a passionate zeal for control. Theoretically, when a person becomes president in Turkey, according to the constitution he should drop all political party affiliations. The Turkish president should be neutral, above partisan squabbles — a president for all his people.
But apparently the great Erdogan is a law unto himself. On Sunday, late in the evening, without notifying any official close to him, he reduced the number of personal guards so as to ensure a tighter cloak of secrecy and made his way to the headquarters of the Justice and Development Party (JDP). His purpose was to conduct an inspection tour, to ensure that the JDP ship was still tidy and operating smoothly. But the message was clear to all. Erdogan is still the head of the ruling party and the prime minister, even if those posts had officially fallen to another person. Not that he made it such a great secret that this was his plan all along. He continues to exercise all the powers he had before becoming president. After all, had he not said even during the campaigns that he would be not a protocol president but a president who sweats and runs?
True to this pledge, he took with him to the presidential palace all his aides from the cabinet, leaving behind a single trusted advisor who has the authority to attend all cabinet meetings and to relay to Erdogan the minutest of details. So say reports in the Turkish press and no denials have been forthcoming. In fact, some ministers close to Ahmet Davutoglu have begun to grumble about this peculiar arrangement and to advise him to do something about it. Otherwise, they say, this situation will prove the opposition correct in its claim that Davutoglu is effectively Erdogan’s employee or, as Republican People’s Party (RPP) leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu put it, that the post of prime minister is still vacant.
The president has disciples who never tire citing Erdogan maxims that prove how ascetic and disinterested in power he is. “The shroud has no pockets and the grave is barely three square metres large, so why cling to office?” he has said. But is this not precisely what he is doing?
At this point I am compelled to cast my mind back about 12 years to the first interview I had with Erdogan. It was at the moment of his resounding rise to the chairmanship of the party that he had cofounded. As I was led from one hall to the next in the JDP’s temporary headquarters, I could not help but remark on the attention to pomp and elegance. My impression was confirmed the moment I was ushered into his office. The room was vast. Every corner was decorated by carefully selected luxurious pieces of furniture. It was an opulent setting that also revealed a fondness — or, more accurately, a passion — for lighting, on the condition that the lights are trained on him. It was clear even then that Erdogan had to be alone on centre stage and that he was to proceed with his soliloquy without interruption or comment.
It therefore seemed perfectly consistent that he would resolutely strive to efface the images of the charismatic figures that preceded him, foremost among which, of course, is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The process was as stealthy as it was persistent. For example, on the pretext of the need to remind younger generations of prominent historical figures, images of these figures appeared on one side of newly minted currency, vying with the founder of the Turkish Republic on the other. It quickly became apparent that those figures had been deliberately chosen because they had opposed Ataturk’s modernist reforms.
Today, the Turkish people are watching as their president drives another stake into the heart of the Kemalist legacy. This stake takes the form of a huge cement and glass edifice that is to replace Çankaya Köşkü, the presidential palace that had long symbolised the secularist republic that brought a definitive end to the epoch of Ottoman theocracy. Some 3,500 trees were uprooted for this massive project, destroying a large chunk of one of the capital’s most verdant green lungs, Ataturk Forest Farm, marking another stab at the republic’s founder.
The new palace, which was originally constructed to serve as the office of the prime minister but was subsequently designated as the new presidential palace after Erdogan won the presidential elections, is called Aksaray — the White Palace — echoing, of course, the White House in Washington and the Champs Elysée in Paris. It is as though Erdogan’s plan to change the Turkish system of government from a parliamentary one to a presidential one can only be accomplished by his moving into the new palace. His scheme to transform the Turkish system of government, at least officially, may not go as smoothly as planned, but it looks like the new presidential palace is there to stay in spite of a court ruling in March ordering the suspension of construction because Ataturk Forest Farm is classified as a first degree protected site on which construction is not permitted. True to his well-known respect for the rule of law, Erdogan defied the court ruling, which had been supported by the Council of State, and ordered construction to continue.
Not surprisingly, many in Turkey are wondering what the great urgency was that would make a top official encumber a national budget already burdened by millions of dollars of debt with the costs for constructing an enormous edifice for which there was really no need. When pressed with such a question, JDP officials hasten to explain that its construction was essential as a means to manifest the “New Turkey” that would soon be celebrating its centennial in 2013. As for the old palace, it was explained that this would be turned over for the use of visiting kings and dignitaries. Perhaps because this sounded unrealistic or naïve, Erdogan was reported to have amended this explanation, saying that he would turn it into a museum.
Meanwhile, as the new palace complex is clearly much larger and more extensive than the needs of a honorary president, the wittier commentator could not help but ask Erdogan whether all the “ceremonial” duties he would be performing in his new palace would prevent him from dedicating a day to visits from the public, as is the custom of the White House in Washington.
As this palace amply testifies to Erdogan’s megalomania, his lust for rank and opulence, and his yearning to revive the ancient Ottoman imperial wealth and glory, with himself on the sultan’s throne, it comes as little surprise that the whole spectrum of the political opposition boycotted the inaugural ceremonies for his new $350 million seat of power. But other dark clouds were destined to cast a grim shadow over his celebrations. A few hours after the ceremony had begun, Turkish television broadcasted the news of yet another mining disaster when massive flooding caused a coal mine in southern Turkey to collapse, trapping 18 miners 450 metres below ground.
The incident, which immediately revived memories of the Soma mining tragedy earlier this year, forced Erdogan to cancel the ceremonies to which 2,500 ambassadors, businessmen, politicians and performers had been invited, although it has been said that a good number of those on the guest list had turned down the invitation. It is almost as though Erdogan’s Aksaray had an evil spell cast around it.