BACKGROUND: What is now Erdoğan’s new presidential palace has been mired in controversy from its inception. Ever since the time of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the fierce secularist who founded the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 and served as its first president, the presidential palace had been situated on a hill amid landscaped gardens in the Ankara neighborhood of Çankaya. Under Abdullah Gül, who served as president from August 2007 to August 2014, the complex was extensively restored and updated. During his over 11 years as prime minister, Erdoğan was confined to the considerably more cramped prime ministry, which was located on the side of a road in the downtown Ankara neighborhood of Kızılay.
In recent years, as he has both grown in self-confidence and pursued an increasingly explicit Islamist agenda, Erdoğan has made no secret of his desire to distance his regime – which he now habitually refers to as the “New Turkey” – from Atatürk’s legacy. In 2012, a contract was signed for the construction of a grandiose new Prime Ministry complex with nearly 1,000 rooms and covering over 50 acres. The site chosen was Atatürk’s former country estate, a forested area known as the Atatürk Forestry Farm (AOÇ) just outside Ankara – thus enabling Erdoğan to literally stamp his mark on the arch secularist’s much-loved private retreat where he had spent his declining years.
The AOÇ was a Grade 1 protected environmental area, meaning that all construction on it was banned. However, the Forestry Ministry downgraded the site to a Grade 3 area, making it eligible for development. Construction began in early 2012. The change in the site’s designation was overturned by the Ankara 11th Administrative Court, meaning that any building was illegal. But work on the site continued regardless. The Ankara 5th Administrative Court then issued an explicit order to halt all building activity. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government appealed both decisions and continued building, claiming that it was under no obligation to stop until the appeal courts had issued a final verdict. On March 5, 2014, Erdoğan publicly dismissed calls for the construction of the new complex to be halted. “If they are strong enough, let them come and tear it down,” he said. “We are not doing anything illegal.”
The appeals processes are still continuing. On August 10, Erdoğan was elected president. On September 2, Erdoğan announced that he would use the new complex as his presidential palace and that the existing presidential palace in Çankaya would be allocated to the use of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, his successor as prime minister.
On November 4, Finance Minister Şimşek told the Parliamentary Planning and Budget Committee that the new presidential palace would eventually cost Turkish tax payers a total of $615 million. He said that $432 million had already been spent out of the prime ministry’s budget on the construction of the palace and that the prime ministry would pay another $135 million for the palace out of its 2015 budget. Şimşek added that the Prime Ministry would also pay the $185 million cost of a specially modified Airbus A330-200 for Erdoğan to use as his presidential plane.
On October 12, the AKP announced that the 2015 budgetary allocation for the presidency would be increased by 97 per cent compared with 2014. This compares with an average rise of 5.5 per cent for other government institutions, which is consistent with a forecast 5.5 per cent increase in tax revenue. In 2015, even though it will still have to pay for the presidential palace, the total budgetary allocation for the prime ministry will be reduced by 0.5 per cent.
On November 4, Fahri Kasırga, the undersecretary to the presidency, announced that $135 million from the presidency’s budgetary allocation for 2015 would be spent on renovating two Ottoman mansions in Istanbul – one on either side of the Bosphorus -- and on the upgrading of the president’s guesthouse in the Mediterranean resort of Marmaris, all for Erdoğan’s use.
IMPLICATIONS: Such ostentatious – and implicitly self-aggrandizing – largesse comes at a time when Erdoğan’s appears increasingly absorbed by his own self-image. For example, regardless of whether or not the court verdicts about the AOÇ were justified, once the decisions had been made any construction on the site was illegal under Turkish law. Building could only recommence if the court of appeal reversed the verdicts of the lower courts. This has not happened. However, there is also little doubt that Erdoğan sincerely believes the construction of his new palace is legal – simply because he believes that twelve years of successive election victories gives him a popular mandate to do as he pleases, including constructing a presidential palace that he regards as reflecting Turkey’s rise to greatness under his leadership.
Similarly, Erdoğan now argues that, as the first president to be elected by popular vote (prior to constitutional changes in October 2007, the president was chosen by parliament), he has the right to shape government policy. This is not true. Even if the method used to choose the president has changed, under the Turkish constitution the respective powers of parliament and the presidency are the same as they were under Erdoğan’s predecessors. Nevertheless, since August 2014, Erdoğan has ensured that he now effectively serves as both president and prime minister, reducing Davutoğlu to a mere implementer of his wishes.
Ironically, Erdoğan’s already excessive self-belief has continued to grow despite a hardening of attitudes against him both domestically and – ultimately perhaps more critically – internationally. The turning point was Erdoğan’s reaction to the Gezi Park Protests that swept Turkey in summer 2013. His decision to try to suppress the Gezi Park Protests by brute force dealt a fatal blow not only to his already deteriorating reputation in the West but also to his standing in the Middle East. Domestically, Erdoğan maintained that the protests were proof not of the failure of his policies but of their imminent success, repeatedly claiming that the protests were instigated by the West in an attempt to prevent Turkey’s inexorable rise to greatness under his leadership. In a country perpetually seething with conspiracy theories, Erdoğan’s claims found fertile ground amongst his supporters – albeit at the cost of severe damage to Turkey’s social fabric by effectively portraying the AKP’s critics as traitors. But it soon became clear that Erdoğan was not simply peddling popular prejudices for political gain. He believed his own rhetoric.
Through 2014, Erdoğan suffered an almost unbroken succession of policy setbacks while winning first the local elections in March 2014 and then the presidential election in August 2014. This discrepancy can probably be partly explained by the AKP’s continuing control over the flow of information to the electorate – mostly through pressure on journalists to self-censor rather than direct censorship by the government itself – and an ineffectual political opposition, that has consistently failed to mount credible challenge to the AKP at the ballot box.
However, in addition to overseeing a period of sustained economic growth, one of the main reasons for Erdoğan’s electoral success is that he made many Turks feel good about themselves and, amongst AKP supporters at least, brought a measure of stability to a nation whose collective psyche previously seemed to consist of inferiority and superiority complexes perpetually leapfrogging each other. But, even while his international reputation was relatively positive, Erdoğan had arguably made Turkey more visible than influential on the global stage. Nor does he appear to have understood that the rhetoric with which he regaled his domestic audiences about establishing Turkey as the dominant power in the Middle East alienated the people of the region, few of whom have any desire to submit to any neo-Ottoman hegemony. When combined with a series of individual policy errors, this overweening attitude has meant that Turkey is now more politically isolated in the Middle East than at any time in the country’s recent history.
Yet, rather than acknowledging his mistakes, Erdoğan has blamed Western conspiracies. On October 13, he described how new ‘Lawrences of Arabia’ were conniving to thwart Turkey from resuming its leadership of the Middle East.
In recent months, Erdoğan has taken to attributing every setback to a foreign conspiracy, whether Turkey’s failure to secure a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council on October 16, or the growing expressions of concern by international rating agencies about the state of the Turkish economy. He has adopted a similar approach to any criticism in the international media, particularly in the West. On November 2, Erdoğan declared: “There is a psychological war against Turkey in the Western media based on complete lies. Turkey is not a country that will bow either to domestic treason networks or to perception operations abroad.”
As with Erdoğan’s claims of a Western conspiracy behind the Gezi Park Protests, such statements have now become too frequent, too vehement and too frequently privately repeated by AKP officials to leave any doubt that Erdoğan genuinely believes them.
CONCLUSIONS: More disturbing than the extravagance of spending $935 million on presidential residences and a new presidential plane in a country where a large proportion of the population still have only limited access to basic services has been Erdoğan’s inability to realize the impact on how he is perceived either domestically or internationally. Both matter.
Erdoğan is not only the most successful but also the most hated politician of his generation and that hatred is already raising tensions and opening dangerous fissures in Turkish society. Whatever Erdoğan may think, Turkey cannot flourish in isolation. It needs a good international reputation both politically and economically. The international investors who bankrolled the boom of the AKP’s early years are rarely troubled by a government’s democratic credentials. But they do care about political stability. And Turkey needs a continued inflow of foreign capital to prevent its already slowing pace of economic growth from coming to a complete standstill.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the combination of Erdoğan’s monopoly of political power and the growing gap between reality and his perception of the world raises serious questions about his ability to manage a crisis. No observer of Turkish politics can doubt that serious social, political and economic challenges are coming. Unless Erdoğan is able to respond to them as they are – rather than as he believes them to be – the consequences could be severe.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Istanbul.
(Image Attribution: Ex13, via Wikimedia Commons and CC 4.0)