Erdoğan: Faith and Fury

Inside the world of Turkey’s hardline president and his final grab for power. A report in collaboration with Der Spiegel

By Zeynep Şentek, Craig Shaw
16 June 2018

The President of the Republic of Turkey begins his day with a prayer. Usually, this is between five and six o'clock in the morning, depending on when the sun rises. He walks on a treadmill for half an hour, lifting weights at the same time.

He gets dressed.

Being a simple Turk, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan likes to wear coarse plaid suits. Recently he adds a waistcoat. He has a breakfast that is light because he suffers from diabetes. He reads memos sent by his advisers, followed by the morning newspapers. He prefers the papers which provide favourable coverage, like Sabah, which is owned by his friends.

At 8 o'clock, he receives his office manager and spokesman and they review the agenda for the day. He makes his way from his private villa to the palace at around 11 o'clock.

Erdoğan turned 64 in February. Despite having surgery to remove a tumour from his colon in 2011, his routine remains strenuous. Throughout his day, he receives visitors of all kinds: ministers, deputies, mayors, diplomats. Erdoğan controls every minutiae of government. Everywhere he goes, he carries a notebook, in which he scribbles constantly. He will not go home until midnight and expects his staff to stay in the office for at least as long. He rarely takes more than a day's vacation.

Government officials portray Erdoğan as a stern patriarch. His outbursts of anger, often accompanied by him throwing his iPad at one of his staff, are legendary. Grown men lower their voices in his presence. Their faces become solemn, almost stiff. They look down, obedient, nervous, mindful.

One European ambassador, a former diplomat in Turkey, describes the president’s personality as unpredictable.

“Erdoğan is often a very charming man,” the ambassador says. "He convinces you with his politeness and soft approach. He generates a positive feeling. Then later he inexplicably destroys any goodwill he built with his 'mad' moments, just irrational behaviour and accusations."

In his youth, Erdoğan played semi-professional football for local Istanbul municipality club, IETT Spor. To this day, he likes to surround himself with sports personalities. He brought a wrestler and a basketball player onto his advisory staff. Until two years ago, he regularly played basketball with his bodyguards and personnel.

Erdoğan does not read books, but he watches TV excessively. Running in his office and inside his modified Mercedes S600 is A-Haber (A-News), a channel known for conspiracy theories and attacks on Erdoğan’s critics. Since Erdoğan only speaks Turkish, there is no foreign media on any of the TVs. His Press and Information Office, however, translates the major stories for him, especially if he is mentioned. The president is obsessive about what the west thinks and says about him.

He is passionate about history, especially the Ottoman Empire. If he can help it, he never misses an episode of TV series ‘Payitaht: Abdülhamid,’ a sprawling 54-episode saga depicting the life of Sultan Abdülhamid II. Erdoğan admires Abdülhamid II, the last head of the Ottoman Empire to hold any real power, and a ruler known as the "bloody sultan" for his harsh leadership style.

For Erdoğan, the founding of the republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 was a historic mistake. He would like Turkey to return to the times of Abdulhamid II, when the Ottoman Empire extended from the Middle East to the Balkans.

Outwardly Erdoğan appears as a strongman, a leader of the people. But those who have known him for a long time describe him as a complainer who slavishly aligns his policies with surveys and polls. These days the data his pollsters bring him are increasingly worrying to him.

In April, Erdoğan unilaterally called for national elections to take place on 24 June, 18 months earlier than planned. It was to be a predestined vote that would see him installed as the first executive president of Turkey.

His lead in the polls since the announcement has been shrinking, however. His government faces a currency crisis to which Erdoğan has no solution and the opposition seems determined to seize their last chance to halt his pursuit of total power.

The palace is now in an apocalyptic mood, say insiders. While nobody in Erdoğan's inner circle dares to talk openly to the president about the potential for defeat, some staff are preparing exit strategies. A high-ranking government politician confesses that he fears for his future if Erdoğan loses, but hopes his wife and children will get out of the country.

Erdoğan has turned Turkey into an autocracy since coming to power in 2003 under the banner of his Justice and Development Party, known as AKP. He has bent the judiciary to his will, decimated the military and declared war on the press.

Last spring, citizens narrowly voted in favour of the introduction of a presidential system, amid allegations of government electoral trickery. It granted near total and unchecked power to the head of state. Now Turkey faces a turning point: Should Erdoğan win the election on 24 June, which is likely, his autocracy will be cemented for years. If he loses, Turkey faces months of unpredictability. Nobody knows if Erdoğan would even accept defeat and the peaceful transfer of power.

Who is this man who has bound his own fate so closely with his country’s? How does he exercise his rule? Der Spiegel, with the help of The Black Sea, talked to more than two dozen confidants of the president in recent months: advisors, government officials, party colleagues, diplomats, ministers, and delved into the world of Erdoğan’s politics. Most of them insisted their names not be mentioned. They are afraid that Erdoğan might take revenge, as he is known to do.

Their reports, along with internal documents, paint a picture of a Turkish president we did not yet know: An Erdoğan at the zenith of his power, but obsessed with losing it. Feeling misunderstood, he trusts only his family, which has led to disquiet within the government. Erdoğan now reckons with his own survival, and faces an uncertain future in the event of a defeat.

For him, 24 June is more than an election.

The Erdogan family when so and so

Erdoğan greets crowd from the balcony of AKP headquarters in Ankara. Erdoğan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak (left), daughter Esra Albayrak (2nd left), wife Emine Erdoğan (3rd left), son Bilal Erdoğan (3rd right), daughter Sümeyye Erdoğan (2nd right) (Photo copyright: Mahmut Serdar Alakus/Anadolu Agency via Guliver)

The Family: Son-in-Law Tipped for Power

President Erdoğan lives together with his wife Emine in a villa on the Ak Saray (White Palace) grounds in Ankara. His parents are from Rize, a Black Sea coastal town famous for its tea. Erdoğan grew up mostly in Istanbul. He was never at ease in Ankara, the centre of politics and the military. To this day, he spends his weekends at his Istanbul estate.

Erdoğan wants to rule for at least another five years, until 2023, the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. There is no sign he’d step aside after this, but the milestone is important. Nothing else drives him so much as his legacy.

Those familiar with these matters say that Erdoğan would have liked one of his four children to follow him as president. But there is no longer an obvious candidate. Ahmet Burak, the eldest son, has withdrawn from public life over apparent mental health issues believed to stem from hitting and killing a woman with his car, and then fleeing the scene, in Istanbul in 1998.

Erdoğan does not trust his younger son Necmettin Bilal, known to be none too bright, with political power. The two daughters, Sümeyye and Esra, are smarter than the boys and more likely to be eligible for office.

It seemed for a time that Erdoğan was grooming the younger daughter Sümeyye. She accompanied her father to meetings, and is said to have exercised a moderating influence on him during the 2013 Gezi protests in Istanbul.

While Turkey had a female prime minister in the 1990s, the possibility of their father’s Islamic-conservative AKP backing a woman remains slim. Sümeyye, since marrying and giving birth to her first child, has largely disappeared from view.

Erdoğan never seemed to embrace Esra as a successor. He has, though, put his efforts into helping one young man climb the Turkish political ladder: Berat Albayrak, Esra’s husband.

The Albayrak and Erdoğan families have been friends for decades. Esra and Berat courted in 2003 during her studies in Berkeley, California. The relationship began with an email. She writes to him saying that her father had given permission for them to meet: "This is really an interesting process, especially interesting, that we take such an initiative when we are far away from our elders.”

Berat Albayrak was at the time working for Çalık Holding, a huge Turkish textile, energy and construction firm, in New York, where he studied for an MBA. In 2007, at just 29 years old, he became its CEO. A year later, he pushed through Çalık’s media company purchase of the daily newspaper ‘Sabah’ and the TV station ‘A Haber’ and put his brother, Serhat, in charge.

The media were later sold to another company run by friends of Erdoğan, before Albayrak resigned from Çalık to become an MP for AKP.

Berat rose rapidly in Turkish politics.

Erdoğan appointed him Minister of Energy in 2015 and he quickly embraced AKP’s political cronyism. He pushed through parliament a tax bill secretly drafted by his Çalık colleagues that would allow the company to repatriate, almost tax-free, hundreds of millions it earned from its offshore business.

Since Albayrak’s cabinet appointment, Erdoğan and the Albayrak brothers have been ruling the country together. The president's staff speak of a ‘triumvirate’. Erdoğan now includes his son-in-law in almost every major decision and brings him to meet foreign leaders and politicians.

Albayrak ensures party friends and ministers know of his closeness to the president. When traveling, he rides in the armoured limo with Erdoğan. At cabinet meetings, he lays his hand demonstratively on his father-in-law's shoulder, chatting audibly about his wife and children. Albayrak sometimes appears as if he himself is the president: criticising other politicians, giving instructions to cabinet colleagues, and lecturing them on how to run their Ministries and whom they should hire and fire.


Erdoğan and son-in-law Berat Albayrak (left), who “ensures party friends and ministers know of his closeness to the president”, with Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu (right) (Photo copyright by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency via Guliver)

The Party: Fighting for Leader’s Goodwill

Every Tuesday morning Erdoğan speaks to the AKP parliamentary group. The event is more like a football game than a gathering of old politicians: deputies unroll banners and chant battle songs. These days the AKP ranks are thinner; Erdoğan trimmed the party for obedience. Anyone who dares to speak against him or develop his own profile is punished.

AKP politicians tell with a mixture of reverence and horror how Erdoğan dismantled his former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Erdoğan had installed Davutoğlu against his party’s will after taking up the presidential office in 2014. Within two years, however, Erdoğan was annoyed at his once ally. Davutoğlu had flown too high, and taken too much credit and accolades for negotiating a refugee deal with the EU. It was an unforgivable sin.

In May 2016, a blog posted the so-called ‘Pelican Brief’, which denounced Davutoğlu as a ‘traitor’. The prime minister, along with the Europeans, it said, had conspired against Erdoğan. Internal documents and statements of insiders suggest that Albayrak was behind the campaign.

One week after the release of the ‘Pelican Brief’, Erdoğan replaced Davutoğlu with Binali Yıldırım, a long-time confidante and Turkey’s current PM, where he will stay for at least for one more week until this position will be abolished.

Yıldırım, unlike his predecessor, has no ambitions to be the centre of attention. He takes the public insults of the president stoically. "Binali does not even notice when he is humiliated by Erdoğan," says a minister.

Under Yıldırım’s tenure, power shifted from the prime ministry to the presidential palace, Erdoğan’s long-time project. Erdoğan openly conducts government business from the palace with his relatives and a circle of 25 so-called ‘chief consultants’, selected by hand, which form a kind of shadow cabinet.

From the outside, the Turkish government appears as a monolith. Behind the scenes consultants, ministers, and delegates fight for the president's attention and goodwill. Two factions are now locked in a power struggle: on one side are the agitators centred around Berat Albayrak; on the other, the more diplomatic and moderate forces, like AKP spokesman İbrahim Kalın and vice premier, Mehmet Şimşek.

Erdoğan is predisposed to go on the attack, rather than employ diplomacy. Albayrak encourages his father-in-law on his implacable course against opponents at home and abroad. He also initiated the investigation into German-Turkish journalist, Deniz Yücel, allege Turkish officials familiar with the case.

Albayrak, they add, is emboldened by his sincere conviction that the EU thinks of Erdoğan as the safer choice for Turkey than the alternatives.

The president’s son-in-law wants Europe’s leaders to treat Turkey as it does Egypt: a country they can do business with, while not meddling too much in its internal affairs. His entourage mock politicians like Şimşek as "foreigners" or “suck-ups” for supporting dialogue with the EU.

Under Erdoğan, a cult of strength has been established in the palace: all means to achieve success are permitted. In April, the daily Cumhuriyet reported that Albayrak had tapped the phones of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, an important intra-party competitor. In response, Soylu allegedly created a dossier of compromising material on Albayrak, say insiders.


"[Prime Minister] Binali Yıldırım does not even notice when he is humiliated by Erdoğan," says a minister. (Photo copyright by Ali Balikci/Anadolu Agency via Guliver)

Control: “Centred on Core Vote of Sunni Nationalists”

For Erdoğan, politics has always been a battle. As the son of a strict, religious sailor from Anatolia, he grew up as a Sunni Muslim with a strong weariness of Turkey’s secular elite, the so-called ‘Kemalists’.

An ally in his fight against the Turkish establishment was Fethullah Gülen, leader of a global Islamic sect, who is self-exiled in the US. Gülen helped Erdoğan solidify power though attacks on the military and sham trials. The pair turned against each other and their war culminated in the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, for which the government blames the preacher.

Erdoğan took the coup as an opportunity not only to arrest thousands of alleged Gülen supporters, but also to act against anyone who opposes his authority: opposition politicians, human rights activists, Kurds, journalists, academics, NGOs.

The moderates in government have urged him to limit the purges. The mass arrests, they argue, damage the credibility of the process. The president will not hear this argument.

Erdoğan, says a former minister, had tried at the beginning of his term to establish a consensus between different political camps. Now, he thinks only of his core constituency of Sunni nationalists. "Erdoğan wants 51 percent [of the vote],” one former official said. “He does not care about anything else."

There is a siege mentality in the palace. Erdoğan has always been suspicious of external forces, but the coup attempt made him more paranoid, confidants say. The president sees enemies and conspirators everywhere. He no longer chooses counselors for competence. An understanding of world matters is only a minor requisite. As long as employees are unconditionally loyal, Erdoğan will protect them.

Government members use the encryption app ‘Signal’ on their cell phones. Erdoğan hardly communicates over the phone anymore for fear of being heard by Gülenists. He checks his food for toxins.

The Money: Family Wealth Acquired in Secret

At the end of May, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Vice Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek met for an emergency meeting. They were looking to stop the decline of the Turkish lira, which had reached dramatic proportions and threatened the AKP’s popularity in the upcoming elections. The two agreed that only raising key interest rates would stabilise the currency. They puzzled over how to convince the president of this fact.

Erdoğan has for years aggressively railed against what he calls the “interest rate lobby”, a so-called cartel of conspirators he claims undermine Turkey’s economy. Even with a weak lira and record devaluation, Erdoğan had banned the Central Bank from intervening. Instead, he wanted to continue boasting of high growth figures.

Yıldırım met directly with Erdoğan and managed to persuade him to relax his opposition to the interest rate rise. But the intervention came too late and the lira recovered only slightly.

Turkey’s current economic crisis is a big blow to the president. Erdoğan was once the darling of the global financial markets. He rehabilitated the banks, lowered unemployment and opened Turkey for business. In the first few years of his tenure, Turkey's gross domestic product grew by up to 10 per cent a year. Foreign investors fed more than 200 billion Euro into the Turkish economy between 2002 and 2012.

The president used his position to become rich.

As early as the 1990s, critics nicknamed him “10 per cent Tayyip" because of his alleged habit when mayor of Istanbul of demanding a one-tenth kickback on public contracts. The education of his daughters at prestigious U.S. universities was bankrolled by a wealthy Turkish entrepreneur and close friend. His luxury mansion on the shores of Urla, a coastal village in the western province of Izmir, was built for him by yet another friend.

When he became prime minister in 2003, he was loath to give up his shares in companies. Public outcry forced him to offload the assets in 2005. A year later, his eldest son, Ahmet Burak, and other family members, his brother and brother in law, entered the shipping business. Their source of cash, loans and business partnerships are obscured. There have been snippets of information.

Between 2008 and 2015, the Erdoğan family earned 30 million Euro on a single offshore deal, based on internal documents of a Maltese law firm involved in the trade, first revealed by The Black Sea and Der Spiegel.

Tapped telephone conversations between Erdoğan and his children, leaked in late 2013, suggest this deal is a tiny slice of the family’s assets, acquired largely in secret and with the help of prominent businessmen. Over the years, the family has sporadically popped up in other ventures, gas deals and construction companies, only to disappear again.

Erdoğan worked his way from a rough Istanbul neighbourhood to become master of the Turkish state. He is convinced he deserves his wealth. A former minister says Erdoğan sees Turkey as his property: "He believes he can take everything."

For a long time, hardly anyone in Turkey interfered with the allegations of corruption because there was enough money to be distributed. But now it seems Erdoğan goes further than anyone before him.

One new worry is his announcement to grant himself control of the Central Bank after the election. Investors have fled at this prospect, exacerbating the lira’s downfall. Turkish companies have now accumulated 200 billion Euro of debt, a quarter of the GDP. Every fourth Turk between the ages of 16 and 25 is unemployed.

For Erdoğan, this free-fall just before the election in June is a disaster. Many millions of Turks supported his party not because of a nationalist agenda or religious rhetoric, but because of the promise of prosperity. Under Erdoğan, a tentative middle class has emerged, and they now fear for their standard of living. In a January poll, a third of Turks said terrorism was the biggest problem the country faced. This has since fallen to 18 per cent. Today, half of citizens consider the economy the most important political issue.

The shift is not insignificant. The previous government collapsed due to a financial crisis in 2001. In the palace, there is growing concern that history could repeat itself at the voting booth next week.


Promising to turn the 600 million-dollar Presidential Palace into a centre for science if he wins: opposition candidate for President Muharrem Ince (Photo copyright Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg via Guliver)

The Vote: No Dead-certain Victory for President

Turkey faces the upcoming elections with tension and fatigue. The vote takes place a year and a half earlier than planned. Erdoğan claims that a fifth ballot in just four years is necessary to give him the power to reform Turkey. His confidants confess that the boss first and foremost wanted to forestall an economic crisis.

The premature vote, says one minister, is also designed to send a message to critics at home and abroad: "There is no Turkey without Erdoğan."

The president has made far-reaching arrangements to improve his chances of emerging from the election as the winner. He formed an alliance with the ultra-right nationalist MHP, known for their hatred of Kurds. He has extended the state of emergency, in force since the coup attempt in 2016, making it harder for his opponents to campaign. The media, now almost completely under the government's control, are declaring the race is over.

But the election is more open than Erdoğan expected. The president is exhausted after 15 years in power. The spectators at his rallies, once huge energising events, now show little euphoria.

An AKP politician confesses that the party lacks an issue to mobilise the masses like before. In the referendum last year, Erdoğan’s attacks on Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries brought him at least four percentage points. But now the Turkish economy is suffering. "We can not repeat this strategy again," the politician says.

The opposition has rallied ahead of the election. Muharrem Ince, the candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP), the second largest in parliament, has enjoyed some success. Educated, good-humoured and unapologetic, Ince has visited Selahattin Demirtaş, the pro-Kurdish HDP candidate, in prison, and promised to turn the huge 600 million-dollar presidential palace into a science centre in the event of a victory.

The popularity of the new nationalist İYİ (Good) Party means Erdoğan faces for the first time some serious competition from the right. CHP, İYİ and the Islamist splinter party Saadet surprised all with their alliance.

Should Erdoğan win presidential and parliamentary elections, which is still likely, Turkey would finally transform into a one-man state. His victory would see him become head of both the state and the government. He will appoint the majority of constitutional judges and hire and fire ministers at will. Civil society, which showed some resistance despite heavy repressions, would be demoralised.

Erdoğan wants to rebuild Turkey as a family business. He has put twelve relatives on the candidate list for the upcoming parliamentary elections. His son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, already showing signs of authoritarianism, is expected to continue gaining influence as a potential vice-president in the new government.

Some in Europe believe an electoral victory might relax Erdoğan. Past lessons show this is unlikely. Nevertheless, his people put this hope into perspective: "If Erdoğan triumphs on June 24," a staffer prophesied, "he will rule first."

The president expects to enforce a "new social contract," report colleagues. One where his opponents - the secularists, the youth in the cities, the Kurds – can live as they please, drinking alcohol, opening businesses, travelling abroad, so long as they do not interfere in politics.

In foreign policy, Erdoğan would remain a difficult, unpredictable partner. The confidence boost from victory would allow him to pursue his aggressive war in Syria and Iraq. Counselors suggest that the government will seek to renegotiate the refugee deal with the EU, an agreement he has complained about.

Latest polling suggests that Erdoğan might win the presidential election, but see his party lose its parliamentary majority. If so, Turkey would find itself blocked once again. The presidential system needs a clear majority in both votes, and failure to collect all of the power would make governance more complicated than before. Erdoğan needs parliament for his legislative projects. An opposition bloc holding a majority could refuse to approve his budgets. Within the AKP, few believe that Erdoğan would be willing to accept such an outcome. It is conceivable that he would either force Turks to vote yet again or ignore the law.

An Erdoğan defeat is no longer impossible. Erdoğan's success is based on the aura of invincibility. Should the opposition force Erdoğan into a run-off election on 8 July, the president's confidants fear that momentum might shift, as it did during the anti-government, Gezi Park protests in 2013. What begins in Istanbul or Ankara might spread across the country.

"We need a decision in the first round," says an AKP politician.

Opponents doubt that Erdoğan would accept a change of government. They are ready for several crisis scenarios: Erdoğan could manipulate the election, he could force a new vote or ignore the result and rule by decree, which could lead to to mass protests and clashes.

Erdoğan may lose the election on 24 June. It is not yet certain if he would lose power.

Opening image: Erdoğan and son-in-law Berat Albayrak (left), with Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu (right) (Credit: Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency via Guliver)

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