Erdogan’s quest to escape from Ataturk’s shadow

As much as the region looks less amenable to Turkish interests, it is internally that the stakes are higher

Manuel Almeida
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If there were still any doubts about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s lavish neo-Ottoman predisposition, the president’s detractors argue, they were surely dissipated with his new Aksaray palace in the outskirts of Ankara. The cost of the massive project has drawn heavy criticism from Turkey’s opposition. Last week, the Minister of Finance Mehmet Şimşek revealed that the overall bill stands at $630 million, well above figures previously released. But there is far more to it than accusations of overspending.

The decision to build Aksaray is also Erdogan’s refusal to be based in the Çankaya Villa, where all presidents of Turkey lived since the Republic was founded. Located in Ankara’s city centre, the Çankaya palace was renovated in the early 1930s according to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s specific instructions to become both presidential office and residence. As a Turkish columnist put it while recognizing Erdogan’s significant legacy and lamenting his decision to leave Çankaya, this was the building that symbolized Turkey’s fight for independence, “where Ataturk made his historic decisions.” Çankaya will instead become the office of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.


Yet Erdogan’s snub of Çankaya should not come as a surprise from a leader who has publicly embraced the legacy of Ataturk, as all Turkish politicians must, but whose ideological views are at odds with those of the “Father of the Turks.” The construction of the controversial palace is part of an attempt to break away from Ataturk’s dominant inheritance of secularism and Western modernization and trace a new course. Tellingly, Erdogan also opted out of the Versailles-style Dolmabahçe Palace overlooking the Bosphorus strait in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul. Ataturk died in a Dolmabahçe room that is open to tourists.

Affronting Ataturk’s legacy?

More than an attempt to break with the past, for some the choice of site is interpreted as a not too subtle affront to Ataturk’s legacy. The Aksaray palace was built within state-owned Ataturk Forest Farm, despite the ire of environmentalists and court orders declaring the project in the protected natural reserve illegal.

Turkey’s recent achievements but also its many uncertainties are intertwined with Erdogan’s past and future

Manuel Almeida

Aksaray, which carries the hallmark of an executive presidency rather than the largely ceremonial post as defined in the constitution, is one among many massive infrastructure projects that characterize the rule of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). In May-June last year, anti-government resentment was channelled into the massive Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul’s Taksim Square against urbanization plans supported by the government.

Adding to the already heavy symbolic charge, the unveiling of the palace coincided with the anniversary of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) landslide victory in Turkey’s general elections of November 2002. The party had been formed only the previous year by Islamist reformists and social conservatives, including Erdogan and former President Abdullah Gul.

Twelve years on, Turkey’s recent achievements but also its many uncertainties are intertwined with Erdogan’s past and future. Emboldened by their successes and a weakened and divided opposition, the president and prominent AKP figures such as Davutoglu embarked in ever more ambitious projects in Turkey and the region. Are these ambitions sustainable on the long run?

Some of these projects did not go as planned. The Arab uprisings dealt a severe blow to Turkey’s so-called policy of zero problems with neighbours. The Turkish government also has itself to blame for some foreign policy misgivings. The unconditional support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood backfired.

Turkish interests

As much as the region looks less amenable to Turkish interests, it is internally that the stakes are higher. The AKP-led Islamization drive is becoming blunter as it consolidates its grip on power. This increasing Islamism resonates with a large section of the electorate. However, it threatens to undermine Turkish democracy. It is further polarizing Turkey by marginalizing liberals as well as majorities within large groups such as the Alevis and the Kurds, who do not belong to AKP’s Hanafi school of Sunni Islam.

Crucially, AKP’s real lure is its remarkable economic record and not so much its Islamist credentials. As long as minimum stability is maintained and the economy continues to perform, the ruling party is likely to get their way.

The whole controversy surrounding the Aksaray palace reveals that Erdogan’s pursuit of reinforced presidential powers is turning into reality even before the required constitutional changes to formalize it. Ironically, as he transforms the secular nature of the state that Ataturk built, Erdogan is following the same path that Ataturk chose to modernize Turkey by becoming an all-powerful president.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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