Erdogan's Endgame 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.
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.
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?
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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.
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, 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.
- Part 1: Turkey's All-Powerful President Grabs for More
- Part 2: The Search for Unconditional Loyalty