On Aug. 28, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan took over Turkey’s presidency from Abdullah Gul, his comrade-in-arms and co-founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), he declared the day “the birthday of New Turkey.”
In terms of the continuity of the existing constitutional system, Erdogan’s pronouncement is devoid of any substance and a poor metaphor. The only new thing about Turkey so far is the way Erdogan was elected — the country's first popular presidential election. And, of course, his ascent to the presidency is a novelty in itself. So Erdogan seems to suggest that he himself is the embodiment of the “New Turkey.”
Erdogan is entitled to the same powers as the presidents of the “Old Turkey,” for the constitution is the same. There will be one difference, though: Erdogan says he will be using his constitutional authority and powers to their full extent. None of his predecessors chose to fully exercise the powers granted by the constitution, a product of the 1980 military coup — not even Kenan Evren, the coup leader-turned-president.
All of Erdogan’s rhetoric and actions indicate he will remain the man who governs Turkey — both through his constitutional powers and the enormous clout he wields, free of any legal limits, over the government and the AKP. This prospect is the reason why some argue that Turkey ushered in a de facto presidential system on Aug. 28.
To make the regime truly “new,” the AKP needs to win a three-fifths parliamentary majority in the 2015 elections, which would allow it to amend the constitution to install a presidential system and take the amendment to a direct referendum.
In short, the “baby” is not yet born. Aug. 28 could be seen as its conception date at best. For the result, we need to wait nine months for the elections in June next year.
While looking forward to a parliament that will tailor a constitution to the needs of his presidency, Erdogan is already building the regime’s symbols. The most striking is the gigantic presidential palace he has erected for himself in Ankara and is expected to formally inaugurate with a reception on Oct. 29, Republic Day.
Sprawling over 91,000 square meters (22.5 acres) inside the Ataturk Forest Farm in west Ankara, the 1,000-room building, inspired by Seljuk architecture, is equipped with extensive security systems: bunkers, tunnels against chemical attacks, high-tech defenses against cyberattacks and espionage, “deaf rooms” with no electrical outlets to fend off bugging attempts and an underground “war room.” A three-floor residence, absent in the original plan, was added to the complex for the Erdogan family.
The building, said to have cost more than $350 million, was given a name: Aksaray. It is a combination of two words — “ak” and “saray” — meaning “white palace.” The word “ak,” which equally means "clean" and "spotless" in Turkish, also figures in the acronym the ruling party uses for itself, AK Party. Hence, “Aksaray” also symbolizes the AKP’s transformation into a “state party.”
It’s easy to show that Erdogan built the complex for himself personally. When construction started in 2011, the project’s official title was “prime ministry service building.” Now it is a “presidential palace.”
Everything was planned. Had Erdogan lost the Aug. 10 election, the winner would have used the old presidential residence, Cankaya Kosku, and Erdogan would have still had the new one. And when he became president, the “prime ministry service building” became his “Aksaray.” The completion date for construction also appears to have been timed for the presidential polls.
The complex is clearly oversized for the needs of the impartial and ceremonial president the current constitution envisages. It seems to have been designed for a president controlling all executive powers, authorities and institutions.
Let’s give the floor to Erdogan himself to tell what “Aksaray” symbolizes: “Turkey is no longer the old Turkey. The New Turkey needs to manifest itself in certain ways,” he told journalists during a Sept. 4 flight to the NATO summit in Wales aboard his new Airbus 330-200, a large, richly equipped aircraft whose delivery also coincided with his presidency. “The presidential office in the new building was designed in a very different way. This poor fellow contributed much to the project. We need to convey the message that Ankara is a Seljuk capital. We paid great attention to that. We paid attention to Ottoman themes in the interior, also adding elements reflecting the modern world. We had it constructed as a smart building. … [Such are] the requirements of being a great state,” Erdogan said.
A number of key words — “new,” “Ottoman,” “great” — stand out in Erdogan’s remarks.
We see the new building also helps forge a perception of Ankara as a “Seljuk capital,” which has nothing to do with historical facts. The Seljuks were the Turkish dynasty that opened the door to Anatolia’s Islamization by defeating the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071.
There is also implicit symbolism in “Aksaray” that invokes Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
“Aksaray” was erected on land inside the Ataturk Forest Farm, which Ataturk created in 1925 and donated to the state in 1937. The farm, which functioned as a pioneering model for modern agriculture, was registered as a first-degree protected site in 1992, which meant that constructing buildings there was illegal. It remains illegal.
On March 4, an administrative court in Ankara ordered the construction suspended. The Council of State followed suit with a similar ruling on March 13. Erdogan not only ignored the rulings, but openly challenged the courts. “Let them tear it down if they can. They ordered suspension, yet they can’t stop this building. I’ll be opening it; I’ll be moving in and using it,” he said.
Hence, overriding court rulings, Erdogan had his palace erected on the land of the farm Ataturk had established. His attitude combines historical score-settling and an arbitrary style of governance that flouts the law.
The second negative message Erdogan delivers with “Aksaray” vis-a-vis Ataturk symbols lies in his refusal to reside and work at Cankaya, which was built during the Ataturk era and hosted all Turkish presidents thus far, including Ataturk himself. The historical mansion will be now used as an office and reception venue by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Now, let’s move to Istanbul, another front line where Erdogan is battling the old regime by erecting the largest, newest and “most Ottoman” symbols of his rule.
Take, for instance, the mammoth mosque being constructed on Camlica, Istanbul’s highest hill. The six-minaret mosque, a replica of classical Ottoman architecture designed to be the largest mosque built in Republican times, is expected to accommodate up to 60,000 worshipers within it and in its outdoor areas.
When announcing the decision to build the mosque, Erdogan stressed that it would “be seen from all corners of the city.” He also said it would be a “selatin” mosque. This description is worth a closer look, for it is loaded with striking symbolism.
“Selatin” is the plural of “sultan.” Until the 18th century, the mosques Ottoman sultans commissioned with war profits and later with their personal wealth were called “selatin” mosques. Erdogan’s choice of this particular adjective for the new edifice reveals the meaning he wishes to ascribe to his rule and especially to himself.
And as an Istanbul office for his presidential term, Erdogan appears to have long ago chosen the mansion of Vahdettin, the last Ottoman sultan. A highly controversial overhaul has been underway at the mansion since 2012. As part of so-called “restoration,” the mansion was torn down and replaced with a concrete replica that did away with its hallmark onion dome.
Taksim Square, Istanbul’s bustling heart, appears to be saved from Ottomanization for now thanks to the Gezi Park resistance of last year. Had the protests failed, the park’s 70-year-old sycamores would have been cut to make room for a shopping mall in the form of a replica of the Ottoman barracks that had existed there until 1940.