Ottomaniac

The Madness of Turkey’s ‘Sultan’ Erdogan

The Turkish president’s addiction to power is a disease his country can no longer afford.

Umit Bektas/Reuters

LONDON—Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002, a year after the formation of his AK party. But spending 11 years as prime minister wasn’t enough. In 2011, Erdogan changed the system, clearing the way for him to become the country’s first directly elected president in 2013.

True to all incremental power grabs, he initially sold this move to Turks as merely “ceremonial.”

That facade has now ended.

After this month no one was left in any doubt as to Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman delusions of grandeur, as he pushed out Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu while maneuvering to replace him with a long-time crony. At one point his own son in law seemed a likely appointee.

To use the cliché “palace coup” would not even be metaphoric on my part. Perched atop a hill on the outskirts of Ankara sits Erdogan’s specially commissioned 1,000-room White Palace, or AK Saray. Bigger than the White House and the Kremlin, this Sultan-like extravagance cost even more than the budgeted $615m. And as Erdogan’s sultanate grows, so too does Erdogan’s sultan-like caprice.

Freedom House reports that Erdogan has been eroding freedom of the press in Turkey at an alarming rate over recent years. This unhinged crackdown on journalists culminated last month in the seizure and state takeover of opposition newspaper Zaman, which is now embarrassingly owned and operated by the Turkish state. Such has been Erdogan’s assault on journalists that even President Barack Obama felt the need to warn the authoritarian Erdogan to back off.

But this is all run-of-the-mill for tinpot strongmen, who so often mistake their ability to retain office as a demonstration of popularity and power. The truth is, it's also a weakness. Power is a weapon. And like a domestic firearm, it is a weapon that is likely at least as dangerous to you as to others.

Nothing highlights this weakness, this manic insecurity, and this puerile obsession with control in a more darkly comical way than the stunt Erdogan just pulled in Germany.

The president of Turkey, this once great leader of that proud and historic nation, filed a criminal complaint against Jan Boehmermann, a German satirist for… writing this poem about him.

The origins of the truly serious offence that was taken are found in the peculiar incident of Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, Martin Erdmann, being summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry over an ‘Extra 3’ satirical video about Erdogan. There, Erdmann was asked to explain—yes, explain— the video, and to ensure that it was taken off air. It was this incident that inspired Boehmermann’s poem.

You see, the Great Leader was butt-hurt.

But he won. Due to Germany’s archaic laws against offending organs of “foreign states,” one of Germany’s most intelligent satirists has been ordered by a Hamburg court to censor his song about Erdogan’s brutal assault on Turkey’s press.

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Boehmermann responded on Twitter by linking to the iconic Beastie Boys song, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).”

From there, it was the reaction of the traditionally irreverent British liberal press that stole the show. The Spectator’s Douglas Murray responded to Erdogan’s cry-bully tactics by introducing an “insult Erdogan” poetry competition. That magazine even offered a £1000 ($1,448) prize for the most insulting limerick. The more offensive the better, they said, and the winning entry is worth repeating here:

There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

‘Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

One suspects that this prize entry was noted less for its lyric virtues, and more for its author. Deliciously, it was uttered ad-lib by London’s former mayor Boris Johnson, of part-Turkish ancestry himself. One would be forgiven for tweeting the insulting lines under hashtag #OffendErdogan.

Mockery aside, there is a very serious and very dark element to Erdogan’s megalomania. Article 299 of the Turkish penal code—barely used in the past—states that anybody insulting the head of state can be jailed for up to four years.

Under Erdogan, between August 2014 and March 2015 alone, 236 people were investigated for "insulting the head of state.” From 2003 to 2014, 63 journalists were sentenced to a total of 32 years in prison. A 16-year-old boy was indicted earlier this year for calling the president a thief during a demonstration. If convicted, he faces a four year sentence. Even a former Miss Turkey has been charged for posting a poem on her Instagram account that the “Sultan” found offensive.

This is how the great Turkish Republic, long a bastion of pluralist secular Islam, is slowly being reduced to the midlife crisis of one man hunting down comedians in foreign countries.

Once upon a time—a couple of election cycles ago and before he kept changing the system to ensure he stayed in power—I used to defend Erdogan. I drew hope from the way he wrestled the Turkish economy from ruin to an expansion of 68 percent. That’s an average annual growth rate of 4.5 percent, second only to China. I was impressed by the way in which he pushed the perpetually interfering, habitually undemocratic Turkish military back into base camp. I was optimistic about his post-Islamist direction of travel towards religiously inspired secular democracy.

No longer. I was wrong, and I wholeheartedly apologize to liberal Turks everywhere.

To say that Erdogan has become drunk on power would be an understatement. The man is more like a crack addict. The sooner he is retired, the better. Indeed, the whole “Turkish Model” is dead, overdosed on Erdogan.