Fear and Loathing in Erdogan’s Palace
Turkish Finance Minister’s Instagram Farewell: the Unmaking of the Erdogan Dynasty?
The whole world, the New York Times accurately reported, held its breath when more than 150 million American voters cast their ballots on a historic election last Tuesday. The identity of the next occupant of the Oval Office was important beyond any definition and who won the election mattered more than anything else, given its world-wide ramifications for international politics, not just for the American domestic affairs. For this particular reason, countries around the world divided along the lines of Trump and Biden in accordance with their respective national interests. They prayed, they wished, and they waited in anxiety. The state of limbo was no deeper in Turkey than anywhere else.
The Biden win unleashed a political earthquake in Turkey where months of rooting for the re-election of Donald J. Trump is now tempered by the sober realization of a new course of relations ahead. A day before Biden’s victory speech on Saturday in Wilmington, Delaware, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan removed Central Bank Chief Murat Uysal from his post. Late on Sunday, entire Turkey was rattled by the resignation of Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and the finance minister overseeing the wobbly Turkish economy, via his Instagram account. For days, no mainstream media outlet covered Albayrak’s unceremonious leave. The double-slaying of both figures, according to observers, was not completely independent of Biden’s presidential election. It was, many pointedly think, a direct fallout of the election result.
Among many other things, the president’s incompetent minister was responsible for establishing a direct channel with the Trump White House through Jared Kushner, bypassing the traditional channels of communication. What Biden's presidency would augur is of no secret for the Turkish administration where a personal bond between Erdogan and Trump became the main vehicle of diplomatic conduct between the two countries for the past four years.
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What put Uysal and Albayrak into the same package of dumping was their involvement in a scheme that placed Halkbank, a state-run Turkish bank, under the radar of the U.S. jurisdiction. Turkey’s tacit enabling of Iranian authorities via Halkbank to bust the U.S.-led international sanctions drove a wedge between Ankara and Washington. But it went beyond a mere expression of diplomatic displeasure. It ended up at a Manhattan courtroom where several Turkish ex-ministers and high-profile bureaucrats were added to the case as suspects.
The twin dismissal of the two figures was the number one topic in social media in Turkey, while the mainstream media played the dumb with no coverage of the news at all. For the international media, it was a headline-grabbing story. The silence of the Turkish media only punctuates the abominate state of media freedom (there is none) in the country where the resignation of the most important minister in the cabinet is treated as a nonevent. Although there was no official confirmation, the entire international media outlets already passed the news after confirming through their sources ensconced in the higher echelons of power in Ankara.
What to make of this? There is ample reason to believe that Erdogan is angling his administration for facing a Biden presidency, which could not be as amenable as the previous president had been. And there would be a moment of reckoning, as I recently suggested, for the Turkish government after four years of Erdogan-Trump bromance. Against this backdrop, Erdogan has no scruples to get rid of figures, even his son-in-law, who may be a liability for his already-faltering political fortunes.
But even though the specter of potential Halkbank sanctions might have hovered over this Sunday massacre, it would not be the only motivation that swayed Erdogan against one of his family members. Albayrak’s incompetent economic management is already the stuff of legend. It is no secret to any sane observer. It would be more accurate to suggest that the unavoidable reality of a pandemic-hit economy forces the government to brace for a harsh landing. In this frank admission of the unpalatable options regarding economic affairs, Erdogan now returns back to some semblance of meritocracy and professional handling to salvage a flagging economy so as to save his own political skin from an increasingly disgruntled public.
Minister Albayrak’s Instagram post received zillions of likes, though they meant the endorsement of his resignation with unconcealed relish. Albayrak’s pitiable dismissal even roused some form of empathy from the most unlikely quarters of the social spectrum. The palace coup and inside intrigues that ended the young minister’s career for the foreseeable future reminded the old Turkish saying about the fate of those within the vicinity of the source of power. “The closer someone is to the power center (Sultan), the closer he/she is to the danger, even death (in old times).”
The saga also brings an end to supreme fears of the opposition about the potential making of an Erdogan dynasty through the perceived heir Albayrak. No matter how inflated such concerns, they were there; they were real. A sigh of relief, for the moment, seems to have reigned. How long? Only the next course of politics and God knows.
In an Orwellian twist, the content of the minister’s official Twitter account and his recent posts were dutifully erased from public view. It goes without saying that how the Albayrak affair played out offered a boon to the opposition. Cuneyt Ozdemir, a Turkish journalist with million followers, hosted Ali Babacan, Erdogan’s former Economy Czar, and former premier Ahmet Davutoglu on a Youtube program that went viral on the internet. “The Emperor has no clothes” was the main theme raised by many politicians when they cited the deeper management crisis that enveloped the president.
If Erdogan cuts his son-in-law loose without blinking an eye, it says volumes about the government’s eroding self-confidence regarding how to deal with a teetering economy. After years of a full-blown assault on common sense, expert opinion, and the demands of the markets, the president appears to be humbled by the external forces of nature and the world economy that are simply beyond his control. One positive takeaway enables us to conclude that there is a silver lining in this whole drama: with this silent reshuffle among the figures in his most inner circle, Erdogan begrudgingly listens to what competent experts say, no matter how painful the truth and how bitter the prescription. The other takeaway, though not entirely excludes the first axiom, suggests that Erdogan has axed Berat Albayrak to remove a stain on the relations with the U.S. for a clean start with the Biden presidency.
In either case, Erdogan’s painful absorbing of dynamics beyond his control is a good sign in itself that the Turkish strongman eventually concedes that there are stronger forces (economy, Covid-19, the threat of U.S. sanctions) than him, and he must take them into account if he intends to survive in his post. We hope he would act with prudence regarding the economy and democracy as well. For his own benefit and for his country’s.