Recep Tayip Erdogan’s Nice House and Bad Foreign Policy

In this past month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attracted the attention of headlines around the world. Not only did he make controversial remarks such as ‘women are not equal to men because it goes against the laws of nature’ at a conference on women and justice in Istanbul, followed by more ridiculous claims that Muslims ‘discovered’ the Americas 300 years before Christopher Columbus, he also officially opened a newly minted, $615 million dollar-estimated Presidential Palace in a ceremony on October 29th for the celebrations of Turkey’s Republic Day. Some might justify the questionable comments with the cliché slogan ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ although this rationale loses significant credibility as it simply denies the underlying problems behind Erdogan’s controversial nature. Instead, Erdogan justifies the Palace – his other two comments deserve no further mentioning here – as evidence of the birth of a ‘new Turkey.’[1] Yet within this 200,000 square meter construction, one is more likely to find empty rooms – thousands of them in fact, though Pope Francis visited last Friday—than the genesis of a nation reborn. Behind the façade of his ‘new Turkey’ rhetoric and symbolism, evidence of domestic polarization and unfulfilled targets of Turkish foreign policy is mounting.

Due to the size of the palace, Bloomberg News listed Erdogan as the newest member of the ‘Big Palace Club,’ a group of infamous political leaders that includes Nicolae Ceausescu, Louis XIV, the Sultan of Brunei, and Kim il Sung of North Korea, all who erected extravagant head-of-state palaces at an enormous cost.[2] Yet it’s true: many political leaders throughout history have built over-the-top residences, all of them symbols of their power. So beyond the usual controversy over size and scale, what is the big deal about this one?

Image courtesy of RealMes, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of RealMes, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The new Presidential Palace, also known as ‘Ak Saray,’ meaning ‘White Palace’ in Turkish – a name bearing close resemblance to AKP, the Turkish acronym of Erdogan’s political party– has been embroiled in controversy since its construction began outside the Turkish capital Ankara in 2011.[3] Built in an environmentally protected forest given to the Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the patriarch of Turkey’s secular democracy, its construction was declared illegal by several court orders earlier in the year. Undeterred, Erdogan challenged his opposition back in March to “tear it down if they [opposition parties] can. They ordered the suspension, yet they can’t stop this building. I’ll be opening it; I’ll be moving in and using it.”[4] Allegations of corruption surround the operations of the lead construction firm on the project, adding to the slew of corruption claims already aimed at Erdogan’s administration. Justifiably, the exorbitant cost of the palace has also come under considerable criticism, with staunch Erdogan-ally and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc saying, “If you think we should not have spent this amount then it’s something to be debated.”[5]

Amidst the controversy, the domestic response to the Palace is the most recent evidence of a growing divide simplistically broken down into anti-Erdogan and pro-Erdogan groups within the Turkish public. For the first several years of his rule, which spans across three terms as Prime Minister beginning in 2002 and one term as President that began in August 2014, Erdogan and the AKP remained largely popular after he stabilized Turkey following the turbulent 1990’s and oversaw extensive economic growth. Yet his overarching bastions of support began to erode as the opposition grew in reaction to the AKP’s centralization of power and numerous corruption scandals. This divergence in public opinion featured prominently in the media throughout 2013, when popular protests were held in Istanbul against the alleged authoritarian policies of the AKP. Much like the construction of the Presidential Palace, however, Erdogan seemingly weathered serious controversy and ultimately triumphed in the presidential election this past August. Nevertheless, the enormous scale of the palace has again revealed the polarization between Turkish voters; critics of Erdogan center their complaints on the aforementioned controversial aspects of the Palace, along with more general accusations of anti-democratic rule and the introduction of Islamic policies that override the secular foundations of the Turkish state.[6] On the other hand, staunch supporters of Erdogan and the AKP admire the Presidential Palace, applauding Erdogan’s nationalistic domestic policy and aggressive foreign policy, and appreciating the Palace as a symbol of the lavish success of Erdogan’s policies that purportedly drive the nation’s newfound prosperity and influence in the region.[7]

In terms of foreign policy, this domestic polarization has corresponded with the rise of two major blocs: a European-leaning and EU membership-focused bloc, and an interventionist policy that seeks to establish Turkey as a regional power. Despite initial rhetorical signs of following the former, Erdogan clearly prefers the latter and, alongside his moves to consolidate power under his regime, has worked to create a ‘neo-Ottoman’ state with a strong influence over the entire Middle East.[8] The ‘new Turkey’ that Erdogan outlined in his speech at the opening of the Presidential Palace is one that is based on Turkey’s ascension as a ‘regional role-model.’ He suggests that more fragile states in the Middle East, ranging from Egypt to Iraq, should emulate his doctrine of moderate Islamism for a stable ‘twenty-first century democracy.’ This concept of democracy, however, is one that follows the path of Russia and India with an array of authoritarian policies legitimized by a rapidly growing economy, rather than a democracy modeled on Europe.[9]

Uncertainty marks the trajectory of Erdogan’s ‘new Turkey’ foreign policy. The assumptions upon which Turkish Prime Minister and former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu based Turkey’s current foreign policy, including the prediction of a decline in power of the autocratic regimes in Gulf States as well as the assumed result that the Middle East will model their governments on the AKP’s brand of populist and religiously conservative policies, lack a remarkable degree of success in the volatile region.[10] Firstly, the demise of the AKP’s infamous ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy, which sought to eliminate ‘problems with neighbors’ by encouraging the acceptance of the AKP’s model abroad, failed most notably in Israel and Egypt after diplomatic conflicts resulted in the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador in both countries. Convincing other countries in the region to accept Turkish values proved to be a more difficult task than even Erdogan’s bravado could accomplish.[11] Furthermore, Turkish refusal to combat the threat the Islamic State (IS) poses in Syria and Iraq wins neither regional influence nor allies. Indeed, Turkey’s policy of strategic inaction against IS resulted in neglect of the acute refugee crisis, as well as the flow of Islamic militants travelling to Syria via the Turkish border, and the instability in Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated eastern regions, all to the detriment of Turkey itself. In other words, the failure of the ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy, combined with its weak stance in the conflict against IS, signals Erdogan’s serious lack of a foreign policy backup plan. Despite Erdogan’s best efforts to cover-up these weaknesses in the form of a massive palace to display Turkey’s power and greatness, the palace simply shows that Erdogan’s current ‘new Turkey’ policies are as hollow as his rhetoric and as shallow as his new presidential mega-mansion.














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