FT: What Erdogan’s family drama says about his and Turkey’s future

When Berat Albayrak was asked earlier this year about his relationship with his father-in-law, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the young finance minister was gushing. Their bond was not about politics, he told the state broadcaster TRT, adding: “The relationship is about an ideal, about soul.”

Six months later, after his shock resignation on November 8, that relationship — and Albayrak’s political career — appears to have gone up in flames. Like his friend Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and senior adviser of Donald Trump, who will soon be forced to leave the White House, the 42-year-old now finds himself out of a job.

The abrupt departure of the second most powerful man in the Turkish government has triggered a shake-up in the country’s economic management after months of mounting alarm about a plunge in the lira and plummeting foreign currency reserves. It has also stunned Turkey’s political elite, many of whom believed that Erdogan was grooming his influential and widely resented son-in-law as his political heir in the Justice and Development Party (AKP). “If you were a [ruling party] member of parliament, Berat represented the ultimate power. He was alpha and omega,” says a former AKP MP. “Now he doesn’t exist . . . It’s over.”

Albayrak’s stratospheric rise — and dramatic fall — is as much a story about how Turkey has changed under Erdogan’s watch as it is about the man himself. “It’s very emblematic of an authoritarian country,” says Daron Acemoglu, a Turkish-born professor at MIT and co-author of Why Nations Fail. “Because of his father-in-law’s position, he was able to be very influential and build a team around him that acted autonomously and very destructively. Those are things that you shouldn’t have in functioning democracies.”

The fact that the country is reeling from a government bust-up that was also a family drama is a source of anger and shame for some who once worked alongside Erdogan — and a sign, they say, of how the country has changed during his time at its helm. “In normal democracies, everybody talks about cabinet quarrels, political struggles, party struggles,” says a former government official. “But what is happening here is that we are discussing family matters. What kind of a country are we?”

Erdogan is a populist firebrand who has ruled over the country of 83 million people for almost 20 years while taking it down an evermore authoritarian path. The ascent of his son-in-law took place in parallel with the steady consolidation of power by the Turkish leader. In the early years, the AKP, which Erdogan co-founded in 2001, represented broad views. Though the former mayor of Istanbul’s roots were in Islamist politics, he sought to present his party as pluralistic, pro-European and business-friendly by drawing party officials and members of parliament from across Turkish society.

The AKP, which swept away the old order when it won an outright majority in elections in 2002, was never trusted by some of Turkey’s secularists and leftists. But it won support from the country’s poor, conservative underclasses, in part by lifting a ban on wearing the headscarf that had deterred observant young Muslim women from attending university. It gained plaudits from Kurdish voters by easing curbs on the use of the Kurdish language and, later, launching talks to end a decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants. The economy boomed, and the AKP invested in infrastructure and overhauled the country’s healthcare system. Foreign direct investment reached a peak of $19bn in 2007.

Erdogan’s family members were visible at this time, occasionally accompanying the then prime minister on trips or appearing at public events. But they were not seen as a vital part of government decision making. Suat Kiniklioglu, a former ruling party MP, remembers that Erdogan balked at media speculation 10 years ago that his youngest daughter, Sumeyye, could become a paid adviser. “He didn’t like those false reports,” he says. “At the time, he seemed reluctant to appoint family members to such positions.”

Former senior officials from the AKP complain that, as Erdogan racked up a series of electoral triumphs and faced an array of threats to his hold on power, his style of leadership changed. He grew bolder, more domineering and less willing to hold internal debates. Over time, those traits became interlaced with paranoia and fear. “There was a slow evolution of both the party and of Erdogan,” says one person who has known him for decades.

In 2013, the country was rocked by the huge Gezi Park protests, when millions took to the streets across Turkey shouting “Tayyip, resign!” Months later, Erdogan’s inner circle was targeted by a corruption probe spearheaded by former allies who had turned against him. The prime minister, who had long feared the Turkish military and the country’s notorious “deep state”, called it a “coup attempt” and grew convinced that he was under siege from a murky alliance of domestic and international foes. “I think that, finally, he thought there was no one to trust except his family,” adds the longtime friend.

In the years that followed, many of the old allies who had held top government positions were either sidelined or quit. Abdullah Gul, a co-founder of the AKP who served as president until 2014, retreated after Erdogan took the job. Ali Babacan, who ran the economy during its heyday in the 2000s and led Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU, left the cabinet in 2015. Ahmet Davutoglu, who served two years as prime minister, quit in 2016 after clashing with the president. Mehmet Simsek, a respected former Merrill Lynch banker who struggled against Erdogan’s wishes as deputy prime minister, left politics two years later.

Many of these figures were known for speaking their mind to Erdogan and acted as a counterweight within the AKP. Without them, the president himself became more and more central to the party and the state. This intensified after the defining moment of his leadership — a violent July 2016 attempted coup where tanks mowed down civilians and fighter jets dropped bombs near the presidential palace as a rogue faction within the military sought to topple him by force.

This failed putsch set in motion a chain of events that allowed the Turkish leader to create a new presidential system of governance, granting him unprecedented powers. It accelerated a hollowing-out and politicisation of national institutions, thanks in part to a vast purge that has led to 95,000 people being jailed and at least 130,000 sacked or suspended. Hundreds of journalists and human-rights campaigners were also arrested. So were two co-leaders of the country’s main Kurdish opposition party as Erdogan teamed up with the rightwing Nationalist Movement party, which supports the death penalty and is hawkish on the Kurdish issue.

Today, the upper echelons of the Turkish state are stuffed with loyalists, many with close personal connections to the AKP. Internal critics have largely vanished, leaving the president surrounded by yes-men and oddballs. One of the president’s economic advisers, Yigit Bulut, is famed for saying that he believed unnamed enemies were seeking to kill the president using telekinesis. Another, Cemil Ertem, vowed in 2018 to do the “exact opposite” of advice from the IMF. “His advisers are idiots,” laments a government official. “We need Erdogan . . . But he should leave some of the technical decisions to people who know what they’re doing.”

The president himself is notorious for believing, contrary to mainstream economic thinking, that high interest rates cause inflation rather than acting as a brake on it, referring to them as “the mother and father of all evil”. He has long railed against what he calls the “interest-rate lobby”, a shadowy group of speculators that he believes are seeking to stifle Turkey’s growth prospects for their own financial gain.

It was against that backdrop that Albayrak, who married Erdogan’s daughter Esra in 2004, was placed in charge of the world’s 19th largest economy in 2018. He was then just 40. Turkish opposition parties mockingly referred to the president’s protégé as the damat — meaning son-in-law or bridegroom — and held him up as the ultimate example of AKP nepotism. Foreign investors complained that he was out of his depth. The wider public never warmed to him. Even within the ruling party, many bristled at the power and prominence that this man with family ties to the centre of Turkish politics had achieved.

Yet his father-in-law seemed to hold him in the greatest esteem. Erdogan liked that he was fluent in English and had earned an MBA from New York’s Pace University. Most importantly, he was a family member he could trust. The decision to grant such prominence to his son-in-law appears to have been at least partly driven by the question of his own future and legacy. The 66-year-old leader still has millions of admirers, who revere his tough-guy demeanour and his efforts to assert Turkey’s role on the world stage. In theory, he could serve as president until 2033 if he keeps finding a way to win elections. But support for his party has been gradually eroding since its electoral zenith in 2011.

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