Albayrak’s rise and fall emblematic of authoritarian Turkey

The meteoric rise and sudden fall of Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, underscores the transformation of Turkey into an authoritarian state, according to Daron Acemoğlu, a professor at MIT and co-author of Why Nations Fail.

Albayrak, who resigned as Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister on Nov. 8, was able to use his personal connection to the country’s powerful president to implement unorthodox economic policies that brought Turkey to the brink of a financial crisis.

“It’s very emblematic of an authoritarian country,” Acemoğlu told the Financial Times. “Because of his father-in-law’s position, he was able to be very influential and build a team around him that acted autonomously and very destructively. Those are things that you shouldn’t have in functioning democracies.”

Erdoğan installed Albayrak as Turkey’s economy czar in July 2018, just hours after he was re-inaugurated as president with vast new executive powers. Mehmet Şimşek, a former Merrill Lynch economist, was discarded to make way for him in an appointment that shocked foreign investors and proved the harbinger of a period of economic and financial turmoil.

Albayrak’s eventual departure and the endless discussions among political pundits about the reasons for his resignation, show that family matters in Turkey have taken over from the normal toings and froings that characterise political life in regular democracies.   

“In normal democracies, everybody talks about cabinet quarrels, political struggles, party struggles,” a former government official said, according to the FT. “But what is happening here is that we are discussing family matters. What kind of a country are we?”

Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a former parliamentarian for Erdoğan’s governing party, remembered the president balking at media speculation a decade ago that his youngest daughter, Sümeyye, might become his paid adviser.

“He didn’t like those false reports,” Kınıklıoğlu said. “At the time, he seemed reluctant to appoint family members to such positions.”

Former senior officials of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) say that Erdoğan’s style of leadership changed as he won a series of elections and saw off threats to his power.

Over time, those traits became interlaced with paranoia and fear, they said.

“There was a slow evolution of both the party and of Erdoğan,” said one person who has known the president for decades.

With Albayrak gone - Erdoğan was allegedly grooming him as his possible successor – talk of a Turkey without him may get louder.

“The legitimacy of Erdoğan and his regime has been weakening and (the question of succession) had become very salient,” says Sinem Adar, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, the FT reported. “More and more people are talking about a post-Erdoğan world.”

Fehmi Koru, a prominent conservative columnist, said that future elections in Turkey are likely to be even less fair and free than previous votes.

Erdoğan is “not quite popular enough to win in a competitive political landscape”, he said.

Erdoğan may now be giving his approval for economic reform, including a hike to interest rates,. to contain a financial crisis rather than to introduce real change, said Selva Demiralp, director of the Koç University-Tüsiad Economic Research Forum.

The lira slumped to a record low just prior to Albayrak’s departure. It has since strengthened after Erdoğan appointed Naci Ağbal, a respected technocrat, to head the central bank and said his government would focus on the needs of foreign investors.

“Once the exchange rate stabilises, he will most likely return to low-interest policies to stimulate growth,” Demiralp said

The same could be said about the judicial reforms Erdoğan has promised to improve human rights and the rule of law. It is unlikely that any meaningful change will be enacted by a man who needs to keep pressure on opposition parties and the media to retain his grip on power, according to the FT's Laura Pitel.

“He’s not going to be voted out,” said Sinan Ciddi, a political scientist based at Marine Corps University in the United States. “There is no situation under which Erdoğan will hold some kind of electoral process, lose and say, ‘Here are the keys to the country.’”