A 'grand portrait' of Erdoğan: 'Sanguine, choleric, resentful and violent...'

We meet on a grey Paris day, on a busy afternoon. Two journalists sort of overwhelmed by the intensity of Turkey's endless story, which we from our own lenses tried to decode, interpret and tell. Thankfully, as it should be, sometimes we saw a similar picture, and at others, different shades and colours, or even opposing conclusions. The story of Turkey does this to you: It perplexes, confuses and, at times, disorients. But, never mind, if you are a journalist, you can't find a more fascinating journey than Turkey’s, however depressing and painful.

The colleague in front of me belongs to that category. 

Guillaume Perrier covered Turkey for Le Monde from 2004 to 2014, at its most intense periods and with what seemed an unlimited curiosity and energy. Now back in Paris, he is reporting about Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Earlier he had written a book about Turkey's Armenian quagmire ('La Turquie et le Fantôme Armenien / Actes Sud, 2013) and co-directed a documentary for Arte channel entitled 'Erdoğan, the Making of a Sultan' (Arte 2016).

He has now published another work, a book distilling his observations of a man who has re-defined the course of Turkey. Titled 'Dans la tête de Recep Tayyip Erdoğan' (Actes Sud), Perrier paints a grand portrait of the Turkish president, helping us understand the causes and circumstances which brought and kept him in power, which he has almost completely consolidated around him. Here in our interview, he deconstructs and explains the dimensions of what he calls 'Erdoğanism'; and tries to decipher the regime the Turkish leader is busy building.

Your book is about the person and the inner world of Erdoğan. Half of Turkey sees him as a curse and another half as a blessing for the land. Wherein lies the truth?

Let's ask the third half! I don't think the picture is that black and white. There are 50 shades of Erdoğan supporters and haters. There are many reasons why people dislike him, different profiles of opponents, but also different motivations behind people who support him. Islamists, nationalists, opportunists, groups seeking revenge... 

Elections are generally a moment when Erdoğan succeeds in ultra-polarizing the political scene, giving the impression that there is this 50% anti vs 50% fanatics. But the 50% who vote for him are not necessarily the same every time.

Erdoğan is not a curse nor a blessing: He didn't come by chance or accidentally. He came to power as a the strong leader that Turkey’s conservative classes wanted and/or needed in 2002, after a period of instability following 1997 “coup”, Erbakan's decline and the financial crisis. 

To say it in one word, he is matching his time and his people's expectations.


Politically, how would you label him? An extreme populist, an autocrat, a benevolent leader of the lower classes, a fascist, an Islamist, the final Muslim Brotherhood leader left in power, an Islamo-Stalinist, or an Islamo-Baathist? Is he truly an Islamist or just another corrupt politician who is tempted by the spell of money, and corruption?

Yes, all of those at the same time and many more. He is an extreme populist, a very absolute form of populist. This populism is the backbone of his very personal "ideology". This will probably be called Erdoğanism. He feeds on conspiracy theories, obvious lies but relies on vox populi, flatters nationalist and macho instincts and does not hesitate to appeal to religious codes. 

His populism reshapes history, architecture and even fashion with its famous checkered jackets.

It makes you dizzy and that is why Erdoğan gives the impression that he changes his mind on all topics and does not pursue any logical line. 

His turnarounds are sometimes unexpected and brutal: for example on Russia in 2016. But each time his strength is to make change a necessity. The end of the ceasefire with the Kurds? Under the pressure of terrorism, there is no other option. Gülen? He is given full powers and then the community is eradicated.

But Erdoğan is not just an instinctive, a pragmatist. We must not forget that he is nourished by an ideological background and his course within the Islamist movement. 

He is also the product of the evolution of the Turkish political landscape. Erdoğan comes from an anti-Kemalist tradition but did not deny totally his heritage. On the contrary, since he rose to the presidency, he posed as a new father of the nation, willingly comparing himself to Atatürk. The tribute speech of last November is the expression of that. 

Erdoğan achieves a kind of "Turkish-Islamic" synthesis.


How would you, in hindsight, describe his rise? What were the circumstances you detected, while writing the book, as specific causes which helped him to settle himself in power?

Erdoğan's ascension really began with his election to Istanbul City Council in 1994. His conquest was swift: In 8 years he became Prime Minister. 

Over this period he quickly understood two things: the old world collapses. The bipolar world of the cold war, the order of military juntas, corrupt government parties and helpless coalitions. The new urban and conservative populations, long marginalized, aspire to become a true middle class. 

He understood that by making room for these millions of Turks, in society, on the political scene, in the economy or in culture, he would embody the revenge of the "voiceless". 

He managed that blow in Istanbul. That's how it happened in 2002-2003 with the AKP. He then adapted the strategy each time by getting rid of his allies to reform another coalition. 

His rise is calculated, reflected until 2007. Then, the arm wrestling with the military could have turned in the other direction. But he won. 

From 2008-2009, the EU accession process lost its role as a driving force for reforms and Erdoğan turned to other goals: 

Revenge against the military, repression of the Kurds and the takeover of the media. In 2011, he took aim at the justice system to better control it, then moved away from Gülen and became obsessed with the ''presidentialisation'' of the regime. 

From 2013, Gezi, then the revelation of corruption cases, fear has governed and the war against Gülen has structured the political life.


How would you see him as a personality, if somebody asked you to do so? What are his outstanding features? What makes him special in the eyes of Turks who support him so fanatically?

Sanguine, choleric... "He has the tongue close to the heart". 

But not only. He is extremely resentful, able to react very violently to a sense of betrayal. 

Nothing makes him more angry than betrayal. The psychiatrist Cemal Dindar refers to Erdoğan's childhood to explain some of his violence. His insecurity, which has been exacerbated over the years, reinforces what Kadri Gürsel calls "his instinct for danger", his ability to crush adversity.

Erdoğan may have a more complex personality. He looks warm, animated by humanity and has compassion for some people. But perfectly cold, ruthless to others. 

What pleases his fanatical supporters is undoubtedly his natural charisma, his very paternalistic authority, his populist accents, his style. It is the people who speak through him. 

His incredible talent is to continue to embody the defense of the oppressed and the popular classes, while he has become the chief oppressor, and now has the lifestyle of a billionaire.


He has won so many elections consecutively. People ask all the time, how come he manages to stay on top, and how does he survive all the odds and challenges? Is it his cunning mind, or his luck or his charisma?

Erdoğan excels at campaigning and running for elections, thanks to his party and its militant base, a real war machine. The control of the means of communication, and the monopolization of the media, helped him a lot. 

But at every major election, it's a new story. Erdoğan was able to recompose the landscape each time to get a strong majority. In 2007, the Kurds help to re-elect him. In 2011, Kurds started to turn away from the AKP, which was tightening around an Islamist base.

In 2015, faced with the rise of the HDP, Erdoğan swallows part of the MHP... He knows about all of the Turkish electoral map, he supervises all the nominations, meets the least responsible section. 

Finally, while the elections have long seemed regular and indisputable, there have been strong suspicions of irregularities since 2015. Notably for the April 2016 referendum. Erdoğan may not have won this election at the polls. This is what is suggested by the OSCE, which has the authority in this field.


So, is he a profound strategist or a shrewd tactician?

I see him more like a tactician. No deep vision. For example, he relied on people like Gül and Davutoğlu but fired them. But that can also be a strategy.


In another perspective, you ask the ultimate question in the book: Did Erdoğan have a hidden agenda as an Islamist from the beginning, or did he evolve into an Islamist autocrat due to circumstances? In other words, in comparison with Mussolini or Hitler or (in another perspective) Peron or Fujimori, do we have a political leader who had a calculated road map to absolute power or, facing challenges all the time, he became hardcore authoritarian along the way?

That is the ultimate question. And it remains hard to answer. His sentence about democracy in 1996 suggests that he always used democracy as a “tool”. 

His former advisor, Hüseyin Besli, claims he would write again the same speech today. Erdoğan used the circumstances and events. Did he have a hidden agenda? An Islamist agenda as feared by the secularists in 2003? I remain unconvinced by this idea, I think he could have evolved another way.


Some would argue that he climbed to power constantly by using and abusing supporters and fellow travelers, and he is a master of deceit. That he used, abused and threw away, wasted, reformists, Kurds, the entire EU process, and (as some would argue) even the Gülen Movement, cunningly, to achieve his objectives. Do you agree?

Yes, we can only note that there have been many missed opportunities. The sacrifice of the liberals, the Kurds, the European waste, the failure of the Armenian overture... And even the failure of the strategy of regional reconciliation orchestrated by Davutoğlu... At the end, it can be seen as a series of missed opportunities.


Then, could the EU and USA have acted differently to see through Erdoğan and assist steering Turkey onto a democratic path? What has gone wrong? Who is responsible?

The EU could certainly have a more positive role in the negotiations. As Cem Özdemir, whom I have long questioned about this process, says: "Europe slammed the door in the face of Erdoğan and pushed him to entrench himself in Islamism and Turkish nationalism. Europeans underestimated the potential of Erdoğanism in Erdoğan." 

After the opening of the negotiations in 2005, the Europeans made the question of Turkey's accession to the EU a matter of domestic politics, by instrumentalising it for electoral purposes. 

Very quickly, on both sides, the oppositional positioning gained more than the unionist one. Turkey - EU relations were finally approached in a strategic way when we were in a situation of rupture. 

Everyone is a bit responsible for the failure, but in the first place, Turkish power has gradually moved away from the European process. 

The Turkish opposition has not been very brilliant, to say the least, and has left Erdoğan without any challenger.


You ask the question, whether or not the coup d'etat attempt in July 15 was the last stop in his tram journey where he jumped off the wagon. What is your answer?

Hard to say. It seems that Erdoğan had already jumped off the tramway many years ago. Remember that in 2011, Turkey was already the country that imprisoned the most journalists, the army was purged and Kurdish activists were imprisoned by the thousands in the KCK case. Then his war against Gülen, which began before the coup attempt. 

July 15th is a catalyst. This allows Erdoğan to accelerate the implementation of the purification. 


So after all this, can he get back on the tram? 

It seems difficult. But after all, a thousand things can happen, and for Erdoğan it would not be his first flip-flop.


How do you describe and define the coup d'etat attempt? Was it a premeditated act on Erdoğan's part to provoke the putcshists to rise up then to be crushed, or was he caught unprepared and (as the claims go) helped by the Russian intelligence and its accomplices at home to beat them?

On the attempted coup d'état, this is apparently one. Honestly, I read everything that is written and I hear the testimonies, I question.

I hear the theses you are referring to but I have no certainty on the subject. Like everyone, I want to know! Now, there are many strange things that happened during this night. Many shadows. 

And we can only note that Erdoğan has, once again, turned the situation to his advantage, very quickly. Which tends to feed the suspicions.


How would you assess Erdoğan's state of mind now? Is he in panic, in stress, or does he remain in control of the course of events?

I suppose that since the corruption cases of December 2013, since phone conversations appeared on the internet with, possibly, his voice, Erdoğan is on the alert. 

He is obsessed with conspiracies, no longer trusting anyone. He isolates himself, his circle is restricted most often to his family and a few faithful people. 

He imagines plots against Turkey, internal plots against him. Gülen's betrayal also seems to trigger an uncontrollable feeling of vengeance and violence. He trains his collaborators and supporters in this direction. 

I imagine that today he is fully focused on the goal of his own re-election in 2019.


Where is Turkey heading under Erdoğan? Is the path irreversible? Is there any force or dynamic you see as possibly challenging him successfully? What are those?

Neo nationalists, former Ergenekon suspects, and Eurasianists linked to Moscow suddenly returned to service from 2016. 

These networks had been accused of plots from around 2004, and were subjected to purges conducted from 2007 on by the couple Erdoğan - Gülen. 

Since their divorce, Erdoğan has managed to use his former enemies released from prison, to eliminate Gülen networks within the state apparatus. 

This radical nationalist wing has returned to business. In justice, the police, the army... It now settles its old accounts with the Kurds and the left, and pulls Turkey towards an anti-NATO, pro-Russia alliance. 

But this group could in turn take up too much space for Erdoğan and another internal conflict cannot be ruled out in the coming months or years. 

This nationalist wing could also be tempted to come closer to Meral Akşener, who promises to be Erdoğan's main opponent in 2019.


Guillaume, we are, nevertheless, where we are now. How would you describe the current regime in Turkey in political terms? Fascism, autocracy, police state, totalitarian, mobocracy, or what?

There is a debate on that and I leave it to the experts in political science. There are facts and definitions. It’s no longer a democracy, and not yet a dictatorship or a totalitarian state. Yet how to define it? 

Hamit Bozarslan argues that a concept is lacking to define the destruction of Turkish society. Some compare it to fascism but it’s not exactly corresponding to the Mussolini regime. Labels on regimes have a limited impact. 

The important point is not how you name Erdoğan’s rule, but to explore the causes and consequences of that oppressive power.