Vol IV, No. 2, 30 October 2015 Palatial Presidencies

 Volume IV, No. 2         @eurasiaanalyst          October 30, 2015

Palatial Presidencies

By Susan J. Cavan

Are modern presidential-style democracies just another way of constructing corrupt oligarchic regimes with personality driven multiple decade, one-person rule? A “quick start” guide to identifying the type of presidential democracy in any given state might best be found in the size of the presidential palace. If a state’s leader constructs a multi-million dollar palace while in office…he probably isn’t planning to go anywhere else, anytime soon. Before long the presidency, like the palace, becomes a representation of the politician, and it’s just as hard to get him to leave office, as it is to evict him from the palace grounds.

Turkey’s White Palace, Ak Saray, initially was slated to be the seat of the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When Erdogan won the presidential elections in August 2014, Ak Saray became the presidential palace. (1) Interestingly, when Russian President Vladimir Putin first built his palatial estate, it was as prime minister as well. (2) Despite court ordered condemnation of Turkey’s White Palace construction, building suspensions, and protests over its placement in previously protected forest reserves, Erdogan persisted and answered court sanctions with: “If they have the power, let them destroy it.” (3) N.B.: rejecting judicial decisions that hinder even one’s most egregiously authoritarian actions are another sure sign that democratic might not be the proper adjective to describe this type of president.

In reality, elections are the real shorthand for democracy. As such, the levels of electoral fraud and fakery—often accompanied by the removal of election monitors—provide significant insight into the path a president might take. The June 2015 parliamentary elections in Turkey, which clearly were a disappointment to President Erdogan, as they failed to produce a majority for his Development and Justice Party (AKP), nonetheless represented a positive democratic development.   Disappointment in unexpected electoral results is not typical of the mature authoritarian presidency and holds some element of hope for Turkey’s democratic development. Despite June’s setback, President Erdogan remains as acerbic as ever, threatening opposition political leaders who refuse to visit his “illegally constructed” palace with claims that they will bend to his will: “May a rock as large as Kaçak Saray fall on your heads. You will come [to the palace] like a lamb. You have no other option.” (4)

Turkey’s snap elections, scheduled for this Sunday, November 1, are now also thought to be unlikely to produce a majority for President Erdogan’s AKP, assuming relatively free and fair balloting, and while that may move Turkey towards a coalition government, it may also result in more polarization as yet another round of elections are contemplated. (5) While domestic political turmoil is chaotic no matter the circumstances, ambiguous election results and coalition negotiations in an atmosphere of heightened tensions over a devastating terrorist bombing in the capital, an increasingly violent struggle with separatist minorities, a devolving state spinning off desperate refugees to the south, and jihadist ideologues threatening further terror attacks do not create an ideal atmosphere for calm political decision-making. Yet the chaos may be a more welcome result than the possibility of the consolidation of yet more power in the hands of Turkey’s first democratically elected president, whose thirst for power just might throw a shadow.

Turkey is facing a particularly critical political moment, with extreme challenges even a long-ingrained democratic system would find difficult to address. A coalition government might be a messier solution, but a one-party system under the palatial presidency of Erdogan might prove even messier. Consider Erdogan’s brief embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin: Despite simmering disagreements over Russian policy toward Syria and the annexation of Crimea, Putin and Erdogan managed a high level summit last year, resulting in cooperation agreements, most notably over new pipelines and nuclear power facilities. (6) Russia’s decision to intervene militarily in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad, as well as their poorly-reasoned testing of Turkey’s air defense systems seems to have cast doubt on previous arrangements. This week, Turkey’s state-owned pipeline company, Botas, announced that it would be suing Russia’s Gazprom over breached promises for price discounts. It seems Gazprom never signed off on the agreements made between the two presidents last year. (7)

Any blossoming relationship between the Russian and Turkish presidents may have faded with the reality of opposing foreign policy aims and energy cooperation goals. As a NATO member, and one that values its membership dearly, Turkey was unlikely to fall sway to Putin’s Russia. It is more likely that these two distinct palatial presidents saw a brief synchronicity in approaches to western criticism that set them momentarily on a similar path. Their divergent national interests, however, seem unlikely to draw near again despite the appeal President Putin’s highly personalized presidential system of rule might hold for President Erdogan.

Vladimir Putin is not the first leader to warp ideology to fit his executive authoritarian vision, however his multi-polar, sovereign democracy rhetoric is driving a distinctly anti-Lockean view that states are not created to represent the will of the people, but rather to appear to represent the citizenry, while in fact focusing on enlarging the bank accounts of a few authoritarian-minded individuals who control the mechanisms of voting and knock out election monitoring, all while pumping out opinion polls that show stratospheric personal popularity (the alleged validity of which really makes one wonder why the election monitors are hamstrung).  State controlled media pump fears of outside interference as a rallying point for nationalistic rage. Despite Putin’s concerns, however, sovereignty (however diminished) still exists as a concept of contemporary international relations, so if the elections are solid and your citizens sustain support for you, there is no need to fear the popular protests or color revolutions that once shook the former Soviet Union, nor those of the Arab Spring. That is, if the elections are valid….

The irksome element of Putin’s rhetoric is its appeal, particularly to other would-be authoritarian presidents who see parliamentary structures as constraining their ability to construct a super-presidential regime much as they build their presidential palaces. With authority aggregated in the presidency, as the argument goes, the state would be more effective in facing terrorism, civil war, economic decline, corruption, etc. Sadly, free speech and freedom of the press are the first victims in such regimes: no need to draw back the curtain on methodologies that might cause citizens to balk at the cost of suppressing minorities or noticing that corruption investigations target only political rivals.

In Russia, where economic sanctions and import restrictions deliver hardships for the population, it’s not just the presidents who get to construct palaces. Recent weeks have seen the release of images of a grand estate reputed to belong to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. (8) It has brought the wrath of the authorities upon him, but Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny has long sought to publicize the outrages of Russian apparat fortune, such as the recent revelations about Putin’s spokesman’s multi-million dollar home. (9) So perhaps, it’s not just the size of the president’s palace that stands as a test for authoritarian governance, but the breadth of the palatial hubris within his entourage.

Sunday’s elections are likely to represent an important moment in Turkey’s political journey. For now, President Erdogan has offered qualified assurances that he’ll respect the results: “We will all together respect the result that emerges from the ballot boxes. But when we look at societies in the world where stability and confidence exist, we don’t tend to see coalition governments; rather, we see single-party governments….” (10) Time will tell.

By Susan J. Cavan


Source Notes:

1) Turkey’s President And His 1,100-Room ‘White Palace’

December 24, 2014 9:23 AM ET, via http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/12/24/370931835/turkeys-president-and-his-1-100-room-white-palace.

2) Council of State decides presidential palace illegal, May 26, 2014, Today’s Zaman, via http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_council-of-state-decides-presidential-palace-illegal_381813.html.

3) Images purpoted to be of Putin’s estate are available here: http://www.rferl.org/content/putin_mansion_photographs/2283270.html;

Erdogan’s White Palace images, here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2014/oct/29/turkeys-new-presidential-palace-unveiled-in-pictures.

4) Erdoğan tells opposition boycotting his palace they will come to it later ‘like a lamb’, Today’s Zaman, 17 October 2015, via http://www.todayszaman.com/anasayfa_erdogan-tells-opposition-boycotting-his-palace-they-will-come-to-it-later-like-a-lamb_401811.html.

5) Turkish poll shows AK Party falling short of majority on November 1, Reuters, Thu Oct 15, 2015 5:27pm EDT, via http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/15/us-turkey-election-survey-idUSKCN0S92RP20151015.

6) See, for example, “Putin’s Pitch to Turkey,” Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, December 17, 2014, via www.eurasiaanalyst.org.

7) Turkey sues Gazprom over Gas Prices, New Europe, 28 October 2015, via http://neurope.eu/article/turkey-sues-gazprom-over-gas-prices/.

8) See, for example: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/11963934/Russias-defence-minister-secretly-builds-12-million-palace-say-campaigners.html.

9) Kremlin Spokesman Linked To $7.1 Million House In Latest Navalny Exposé, RFE/RL, September 17, 2015, via http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-peskov-house-navalny/27254407.html

10) Wishing for a ‘single-party gov’t,’ Turkish president says he will respect Nov 1 result, Hurriyet Daily News, October 30, 2015, via http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/wishing-for-a-single-party-govt-turkish-president-says-he-will-respect-nov-1-result.aspx?pageID=238&nID=90526&NewsCatID=338.

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