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Erdogan: The Personality behind a Democratic Dictator

Some of the worst violence in Turkey’s failed coup against President Erdogan came around his presidential palace. That location is the natural focus of a coup, but what is very unnatural is the sheer scale of the recently finished Palace in Ankara.

Erdogan’s seat of government is not a modest town house like 10 Downing St. Even the French President’s Elysée and Barack Obama’s White House are housed and officered in modest surroundings by comparison. Thirty times the size of the White House, all seats of government of Turkey’s NATO allies could be contained inside its vast marble halls and endless corridors.

Being born into a poor but pious family from Turkey’s remote north-east in 1954 who had moved to one of Istanbul’s sprawling poor neighbourhoods, Recep Tayip Erdogan’s rise to the top ought to be a classic heart-warming log cabin to White House story. But his taste in mega-architecture reflects a personality that has more in common with the most grandiose of Ottoman Sultans or more recent tyrants.

The high-handed way in which Erdogan overrode normal environmental rules and budgetary procedures to push through his gigantic living memorial is typical of his style and why his critics call him an elected dictator.

It is Erdogan’s combination of genuine popularity with authoritarian disdain for dissent that marks him out from the dictators with whom he is compared. Another orphan-grandchild of the Ottoman Empire, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu is often seen as the unconscious role model for Erdogan. Ceausescu obliterated much of old Bucharest to build his Palace of the People before his fall in 1989. That vast building is seen a model for Erdogan’s palace in its mixture of ill-conceived styles and mega-scale. Both men were born into poverty and rose to the top and then plonked their monuments down on their people.

Romanians joked about the corruption in the Ceausescu family who lived at the expense of the people saying they had achieved Communism but only in one family. Turks have been known to note ruefully that Erdogan’s relatives have done well out of an ostensibly good Muslim government which has given them Islam in one family. But there the comparison with the Communist dictator fades.

When Ceausescu faced a crisis in 1989 it was because the people backed the army in toppling him. Yesterday thousands of Turks rushed into the streets to back Erdogan against the military mutiny. Corruption allegations even with evidence have bounced off him. Pictures of the bank-teller’s cash-counting machine found in his son’s home along with shoe-boxes of dollars and euros in 2014 ought to have shattered the President’s Teflon image but didn’t. It was the investigators who got it in the neck. Populist, Erdogan may be, but such popularity is a political asset of phenomenal effect. However, the combination of an apparently miraculous rise from the bottom of society to the top of politics with a credulous majority share of population who mix Muslim piety with political naivety is a dangerous brew.

Self-made as Erdogan is, his rise did not take place in a vacuum. Decades of state-promoted secularism in largely Muslim Turkey had begun to erode before he entered politics. In fact, it was the emergence of organisations like Fethulah Gülen’s Hizmet or “Service” movement thirty years ago which paved the way for self-consciously Muslim politicians to gain a popular base in Turkey. Although in 1996-97, Turkey briefly had an Islamic prime minister, Erbakan, whose Welfare Party backed Erdogan for his first big political role as mayor of Istanbul, the Army intervened behind the scenes to force Erbakan to resign and Erdogan was banned from politics for 5 years for reciting a poem comparing minarets to bayonets of an Islamic Turkey.

Although Gülen went into self-imposed exile in America shortly after this so-called “post-modern” coup, his movement continued to expand in Turkey and its members were key players in the promotion of Erdogan’s newly-founded Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a Western-style centre-right party on the German or Dutch Christian Democrat model.

Critics of Erdogan used to say he was a product of Gülen’s movement and that without the Pennsylvania-based preacher’s network of influence Erdogan would never have risen to the top. Well that maybe, but Erdogan has long since detached himself from Gülen and has been gobbling up his erstwhile patron’s network for years. It has turned out that the sorcerer’s apprentice has much more appeal on the streets than the reclusive cleric.

Erdogan’s hypnotic appeal to so many Turkish recalls the most sinister of precedents.

People may say that no Communist ever got elected but Hitler came to power democratically. That’s true but Hitler never risked letting Germans vote him out of office. Since 2002 Erdogan has trounced his rivals in election after election.

Yesterday, President Erdogan repeatedly emphasised that he had been elected by the majority of ordinary Turks. It is his trump card. Liberals and secular Turks might scorn his self-made man’s mega-ego and vulgar buildings, but these criticisms wash over 50% of Turks. Erdogan’s bullhorn voice and harsh rhetoric are seen by many of them as the ordinary guy shutting up the posh Western-educated elites who sneer at a president who can’t speak English.

Rather as the 48% of Remainers here were baffled and outraged by northerners and Brummies voting Leave, in Turkey the big liberal minority is very snobbish towards the bigger provincial majority who back Erdogan.

Growing up with the ambition to be a soccer professional rather than a Harvard PhD, Erdogan’s outlook on life chimes with the mentality of Turkey’s chavs. His strong religious views are as much a rejection of the secular elite which had run Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 as piety.

Erdogan came to fame when he won the mayoralty of Istanbul twenty years ago – and then lost it for reciting an Islamic poem saying the city’s minarets would be bayonets of the Turkey which he envisaged. Then the secularists were strong enough to slap him down. But not for long.

Mixing appeals to the Muslim majority to use their votes with sensible economic policies, Erdogan reinvented himself as a kind of Turkish Muslim version of German-style Christian Democracy. But his critics always liked to cite his comment to Jordan’s King Abdullah that he viewed democracy like a bus ride – you get off at your destination and don’t stay on board to go round again.

So long as the economy grew so did Erdogan’s popular appeal. He could trim back the influence of the military and bump up the Islamic aspects of society. The fact that he was elected to the Turkish Parliament for a Kurdish-dominated district in 2003 when his suspension from politics for making illicit Islamist statements in still secular Turkey came to an end, was taken as a sign that he could represent the alienated minority in the south-east. The West saw him as a model for Arab states undergoing revolution in 2011. He could offer Arabs an example of how religious politicians could integrate people into a modern economically-prosperous democracy which respected minorities after decades of military dictatorship.

But it is precisely Erdogan’s response to the Arab Spring which brought out his capricious attitude to friends and partners. Hardly had he accepted Colonel Gadaffi’s Prize for Human Rights in 2010 than he sent aid to the rebels against the Libyan dictator. Bashar al-Assad and family were holiday companions. Then in 2011 Erdogan denounced his Syrian neighbour as a blood-soaked tyrant and let jihadis flood across the border along with Saudi-supplied weapons and cash.

If Erdogan had been a model of respect for minorities and dissenters at home than at least his domestic agenda would have had plus points even as the economy soured after 2010 and more and more Islamic-inspired regulations were decreed for Turkish society. But his switch from dialogue to all-out war against the Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey was another tragic symptom of his most worrying personality traits: caprice ad cynicism. Sending in the Army and Air force to crush the Kurds in the Assad-way was a way of keeping Turkey’s nationalists in uniform on side. If Turkey’s generals have been traditionally secular and suspicious of an Islamic politician they are much more ferociously nationalistic and hostile to Turkey’s minorities. By blaming the new conflict on the Kurds Erdogan rallied voters and steel helmets to his side.

A similar dirty game has gone on with his switch from backing the jihadi rebels against Assad to his new backing of the US-led war on IS. Having let Islamist jihadi radicals pour across the border with Syria as if it was a sieve, Erdogan suddenly declared himself the defender of moderate Islam against extremist terrorists. They have hit back inside Turkey, so now the country needs a strong man to defend it.

Like many authoritarians, Erdogan is man of violent mood-swings. His affection can sour overnight and just as quickly he can warm to someone he bad-mouthed yesterday. For instance, in the run up to the coup he was courting Israel’s Netanyahu whom he denounced as a child-killer during the Gaza war in 2010. Vladimir Putin was as suddenly back in favour as Russia had been Enemy No1 in 2015. The day before the coup, even Syria’s Assad was referred to in emollient terms by Erdogan’s prime minister.

Mercurial in politics and ruthless in personality, the extraordinary rise of Turkey’s genuinely popular authoritarian president is a fascinating story but also an unsettling one. Democracy is supposed to produce bland but reliable leaders. They accept their own people’s will and act as trustworthy partners with allies. Erdogan’s changeability at home and abroad as well as his imperious personality make me doubt that when his winning streak falters he will stand in front of his palace happily telling the media that he looks forward to spending more time with his family. After all his family and friends are beneficiaries of his political clout. If and when Erdogan falls, they will be the fall-guys for his regime’s many faults.

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