Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) insiders draw a bleak picture of the small inner circle around powerful Prime Minister and AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that acts as a “shadow government” in governing the country. While the official Cabinet members become a lightning rod for the government on issues that draw criticism from the public, most of Erdoğan’s advisors work “in the shadows,” playing a significant role in shaping the tone, views and policies of the government.
That is why Education Minister Nabi Avcı was seen as contradicting himself in his public remarks on the government’s controversial plan to ban all privately run prep schools in Turkey because he was kept out of the loop most of the time. When the phone rang in the early hours of the morning, waking him up, on the day a major leaked story on the draft bill on the ban was exposed by Turkey’s largest daily Zaman, he said to the caller, an AK Party heavyweight, that he did not have a clue about the issue. He had to rush to the ministry to get briefed before making comments publicly. The fact that Avcı’s remarks have created more confusion than clarity with conflicting and even incorrect statements at times led other officials to take the podium to explain what the government is up to.
This small team of advisors appears to project more powers than Cabinet members and elected members of the AK Party in Parliament. They are reportedly administering the government through “point persons,” (undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries or deputy ministers) bypassing the established rules in bureaucracy and overriding standard operating procedures. At the same time, they connect to other groups of advisors at the AK Party headquarters, shaping the party’s public face and drawing upon on state resources to help the party. For example, a chief coordinator of the AK Party’s social media drive sent instructions to ministries and government agencies on Monday, suggesting to civil servants what to post on Twitter related to the prep school row. The opposition, claiming that the move is against both laws and the principle of separation of powers, submitted an inquiry motion to Parliament.
Since Erdoğan’s advisors have an impact on policy decisions in practically every field ranging from economy to foreign policy, from social policies to education, their profiles and characteristics obviously matter a great deal for observers of Turkish politics. It is fair to say that most come from a politically charged Islamist background with strong traits from the anti-Western National View ideology, the hallmark of the late Necmettin Erbakan, who had championed a very narrow-minded political Islam in Turkey. Hence it should not come as a surprise that some of these advisors strongly uphold anti-US and anti-West views with some clearly anti-Semitic strains. For example, just this week one of Erdoğan’s chief advisors publicly accused advocates of prep schools against the government ban as “Israel’s servants” in his Twitter message and stood by his statement when confronted with anti-Semitism accusations.
Through this team, Erdoğan micromanages the government and interferes in jurisdictions that normally fall into ministers’ portfolios. This has created uneasiness not only among Cabinet members but also within the AK Party primarily because, unlike elected officials who have to take concerns of their constituencies into account, these advisors have a strong personal loyalty to Erdoğan and their allegiance only lies with him, nothing else. After all, it was Erdoğan who offered them these positions and ultimately it will be him to decide whether to keep them on payroll or fire them.
This team of advisors makes sure Erdoğan enjoys unimpeded control over executive and legislative branches of the government. The consolidation of power at the hands of Erdoğan is achieved through means such as controlling legislative agenda, public procurement, government purchases, licensing and approvals. For example, an advisor to Erdoğan who looks into government permits and licensing has more to say on a given subject matter than a minister whose portfolio covers the area that involves that licensing. The reason why so many applications for authorizations, permits and licensing for business ventures, both from domestic and foreign investors, have piled up on the prime minister’s desk is because of this bottleneck created around Erdoğan’s advisors.
According to many government insiders, most of these advisors are in their 30s or 40s, way younger than 59-year-old Erdoğan, who sort of fosters a personality cult requiring adulation and approval. They say his approach is more patronizing and controlling than consultative and participative. Coupled with that, Erdoğan’s intolerance for what he perceives as criticism, especially from the foreign media, does not give any encouragement to his advisors to confront the root causes of the perception problem for Erdoğan in the media. They are afraid to speak candidly and even bluntly in addressing what and how Erdoğan should communicate in his message to the audience. Instead, the advisors take the easy way out, shifting the blame to the media for Erdoğan’s blunders, which reinforces their boss’s own thinking.
There is one tactic the prime minister’s team of advisors consistently sticks to when they face a crisis they want to weather. Although Erdoğan wields almost unchecked control over state resources, his advisors always try to picture him as the “underdog” who is ready to take on domestic and foreign enemies all the time. They often like to recall Erdoğan’s brief jail time and forceful removal from the mayoral position after the court verdict more than a decade ago and play that to the public as a constant reminder of victimization phenomena. This serves well in rallying people around Erdoğan in crunch time especially when the government faces an uphill battle. It also helps muzzle criticism within the party. For example, Erdoğan was depicted by his advisors as the underdog fighting for the Turkish people against unidentified or vaguely defined enemies like the “interest lobby” during the Gezi Park protests in May and June of this year.
Erdoğan’s desire to be an important leader in the Muslim world and even in the world per se plays well among his advisors who pick up on his demand to be recognized as such a revered personality who will have a lasting legacy in history. It must be like music to Erdoğan’s ears when one top advisor who used to be ultra-nationalist and a harsh critic of Erdoğan before converting and becoming his chief aide said on TV that there are only two-and-a-half leaders in the world — and Erdoğan is one of them.
“The world has a leadership problem. Today there are two-and-a-half leaders in the world. One is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the second is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the other half is [US President Barack] Obama,” he said, adding that lobbyists in the US had reduced Obama to a “half-leader.” The same advisor also claimed that powerful groups, possibly both inside and outside the country, were trying to kill Erdoğan — with telepathic attacks — because of his struggle against the interest-rate lobby. He floated these claims after the Gezi protests without offering a shred of evidence to support this claim. As an expression of his admiration for the prime minister, he even went so far as to say he was ready to die for Erdoğan if need be.
These advisors enjoy a network both inside and outside the government that communicates well among their own inner circle, which draws its strength from a shared past and shared political Islamist ideology. Some in this network are sympathizers of the Iranian revolution and adore Ayatollah Khomeini’s teachings. As such, their views are propagated through government agencies, with the resulting impact not only on policy decisions but also on the tone the government line adopts. Some unusual tweaks in foreign policy issues, channeling development funds, networking with Turkish expats abroad, cooperation among academia and think tanks and outreach activities in religious and charity work can be partially explained with the input coming from this tight ship of networks the Erdoğan advisors run.
The concerted smear campaign run against government critics by some circles in Turkey and the fact that they are supported to some extent by some of Erdoğan’s close aides who tap into the social media and Internet to spread these rumors fuels suspicions that a government-sanctioned secret campaign is going on. It also gives rise to speculation that the government, using intelligence assets, is eavesdropping on its own critics, intruding into the private lives of journalists. It was exposed last year that the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) tapped the phones of several journalists using court orders in which the journalists were only mentioned by their foreign codenames. When a suit was brought against MİT for privacy violation and communication interception in breach of the law, MİT chief Hakan Fidan asked Erdoğan to halt proceedings by not granting permission for the case to move forward. Erdoğan granted that wish in May of this year, protecting MİT from legal troubles.
If rumors and claims about this small network of advisors the government insiders have been telling are true, Turkey needs to come a long way to get rid of a highly centralized and authoritarian political landscape that nurtures this undemocratic culture in the state.