Sign Up

Absolute Power: Erdogan’s Self-Made Trap

With next to no obstacles in his way any longer, Turkey’s President will soon run out of people to blame for Turkey’s mounting woes. The country will suffer.

August 11, 2016

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Credit: Fotostory -

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would do well, for his own sake, to consider Lord Acton’s famous dictum. The 19th century English historian and politician is famous for his insight, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Mr. Erdogan is certainly succeeding with his effort to remove the few remaining obstacles to his near-totalitarian rule. The irony of it all is that the more he succeeds, the worse it becomes for his country — and, eventually, for himself.

A man with no restraints

In the current news context, it is important to remember that Turkey used to be the country in the world with perhaps the most un-systematic, but highly effective division of labor when it came to political checks and balances. It is precisely on this important frontline that Mr. Erdogan’s AK Party and the Gülenists long acted in a very symbiotic fashion.

Whatever anyone wants to think of the Gülenists, and there certainly are very many shady sides to them, they nevertheless did provide an effective check on Mr. Erdogan. And, to stay at the top of his game, nobody needs such a check/balance more than Mr. Erdogan.

Of course, anybody must wish that there were cleaner mechanisms for that. But absence of any check, which is the course Turkey is on now, could be disastrous for the preservation of the vibrancy of Turkey’s society and its already much more enfeebled democracy — if it is to have any qualitative meaning (beyond empowering Erdogan for anything he pleases to do).

Why checks and balances matter

Due to its Ottoman roots, the country has overly relied on the idea of the great man-leader (although more than a handful of the Sultans of the past turned out to be weak, even degenerate). Given that tradition, the question of how a system of checks and balances is effectively organized is of the utmost importance.

Mr. Erdogan isn’t satisfied with obliterating the Gülenists. He takes great pleasure in playing cat-and-mouse games with whatever passes as domestic opposition in Turkey. Old players like the CHP are just that – old, tired, toothless and ineffective.

They can’t mount an effective opposition. And they are scarily happy about getting some attention from the country’s top leader. It seems as if they can’t read the writing on the wall — that they will be coopted, if not swallowed in the process.

In addition to going after the Gülenists and embracing the disoriented opposition, Erdogan is at present going after independent-minded journalists and academics. They are among the very few independent thinkers left in the country, but now face either “inner” emigration, like East European intellectuals pre-1990, or real emigration (if there passports haven’t been seized).

Erdogan: Vain as Atatürk

Ultimately, Erdogan has but one ambition – a nation in total subservience to its fatherly leader. For that to become reality, he must root out any public display of Atatürk, the country’s predominant leader in its entire 20th century history. If Erdogan had his druthers, he would even eliminate the memory of him.

In a nutshell, Mr. Erdogan wants to be the new Atatürk, albeit in complete reverse. Erdogan stands against everything that Atatürk stood for.

The only parallel, and it is a very powerful one, is that both men are marked (and marred) by extreme vanity. They are completely taken by the idea of arranging personality cults centered around themselves.

Few obstacles left

Viewed in that light, it is no coincidence that Mr. Erdogan has also gone after Standard & Poor’s, the credit rating agency. He complains that the U.S.-based ratings agency issued a credit downgrade not because of market concerns about Turkey, but because it implicitly “sided with the coup, not with democracy.”

With the Gülenists already almost toothless after the coup, Erdogan is bound to get ever madder at the ratings agency, especially as the Turkish economy declines and the “father of the nation” must explain away the corrosive effects of his brand of leadership.

In that sense, going after Standard & Poor’s is only a precursor to understanding how Erdogan will collectively blame “the West” ever more for the problems that are essentially of his own making.

Creating economic mayhem

Lord Acton’s famous dictum, although of 19th century provenance, continues in a manner that makes it very relevant in today’s Turkish context:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you super-add the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

All one can add to this remark in an Erdogan context is that the past is obviously prologue.

Of course, to Mr. Erdogan, any criticism of his person is a matter of lèse majésté. And yet, corruption is rife. It is explained away as unavoidable and par for the course.

Shady business dealings are seen as a tool for AK Party-affiliated business elites to catch up materially with the often ill-gotten gains which Istanbul’s famous top industrial families extracted out of their own shady dealings with past military dictators and U.S. multinational corporations.

Mr. Erdogan may want to laugh all of this away and feel very happy about his current ability to roll up the remaining independent remnants of Turkish society, including among academics and smart professionals.

Indiscriminately assigning almost anybody with an independent brain the pariah status of being a Gülenist may be an effective political strategy in an environment wrought by intimidation and criminalization. But it is bound to backfire.

From now on, everything will be Erdogan’s fault

Not only that. With his persecution complex, Mr. Erdogan also effectively robs his country of its impressive creative potential.

Most of those professionals, if their passport has not yet been revoked, have but one goal — to leave a Turkey, where the last hope for any remnants of liberal thinking can be written off.

Democracy-cynic and pure majoritarian that Mr. Erdogan is, this won’t be of much concern to him. What should concern him, though, is that by removing all other power centers, he does not just centralize authority in his person, but any and all responsibility for how things will evolve in Turkey.

The longer he rules, the worse it gets

Things have already taken a decisive turn for the worse. Tourism used to be an important component of the Turkish economy.

As hotel owners are experiencing all over Turkey’s coasts can attest, the sector can basically be written off as a source of economic stimulus. It has turned into yet another drag on the Turkish economy.

One can rest assured that Mr. Erdogan will assign the blame for this development to devious foreigners – just as he is pre-assigning the future problems in Turkey’s financial system to the machinations of a dark force like Standard & Poor’s.

Self-subjugators in front of the Sultan

Mr. Erdogan, blinded by his vanity, will also interpret as a sign of strength what is really a sign of great weakness — the subservience of so many men who otherwise believe themselves to be in very exalted positions in Turkish business and politics.

Anybody who over the years has attended one of those glitzy conferences, which were addressed by Mr. Erdogan in one of Istanbul’s ritzy hotels, has repeatedly witnessed this amazing scene.

Powerful Turkish executives essentially do the equivalent of falling onto the marble floor in front of Mr. Erdogan’s path, most extremely full-of-themselves, dressed to the nines.

The ostensible purpose of this peculiar form of self-diminution, or so it seemed, was to clean off any remaining dust particles, to clear the path of their leader.

Erdogan as the ultimate victim of his policies

A country that features such distasteful displays of subordination badly needs a system of checks and balances. And so does its leader, perhaps even more so.

However, as is abundantly clear from observing the various strands of Turkey’s so-called political ”opposition,” that the latter won’t be able to muster any serious challenges, is likely for decades to come.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely” — that sentence in the global political lexicon is the last thing that stands in Mr. Erdogan’s way.

People in the bag

Cynic and realist that he is, Turkey’s President knows full well that he does not have to worry about his own population.

More than half of it will be eternally grateful to him personally for having bettered their economic lot. There is no question that he actually did so, which really underscores the incompetence of Turkey’s Istanbul-based industrial elites. Entirely for their own self-enrichment purposes, they abused the Turkish people through various strands of political parties for many decades, before the emergence of AK Party.

The shortsightedness of Mr. Erdogan

The shortsightedness of Mr. Erdogan lies in the fact that he does not realize that he is committing exactly the same mistake of those secular business elites before him. Contrary to his protestations, it’s ultimately all about him – not the country and its people.

For quite a while, perhaps as much as a decade, Mr. Erdogan will get away with playing a combination of defensive games meshed with ever more absurd conspiracy theories.

In a country whose political culture was shaped by the mind-numbingly restrictive environment of the court during Ottoman times, conspiracy theories are the life blood of the political process.

Accordingly, Erdogan’s ”just blame the foreigners” school of thought will tide him over for a while. But the longer he plays this game, the more Turkey will suffer. The country will undershoot its otherwise considerable potential.


A country whose past has relied on great man leaders needs a system of checks and balances.

Going after S&P’s is a precursor to understanding how Erdogan will blame “the West” for problems he has caused.

Erdogan’s ambition is to root out any memory of Atatürk, long the country’s predominant leader.

Erdogan wants to be the new Atatürk -- albeit in complete reverse.

Erdogan is committing the same mistake as those of the secular business elites before him.

For a while, Erdogan will get away with playing defensive games meshed with absurd conspiracy theories.