Erdoğan’s rival aides bring bitter power struggle to halls of power in Ankara

The new executive presidential system handed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping new powers when it came into force last year, but it also enhanced the influence of top civil servants in the presidency beyond that of some ministers, and they are now engaged in a power struggle.

At the top of the bureaucracy are two rival figures frequently seen flanking the president; Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun on one side and Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın on the other.

Both moved from the academic world to the civil service, and both have also managed to escape ill effects from the kind of black marks on their resumés that often end careers in Turkey.

Turkish Presidency spokesman İbrahim Kalın (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)


Kalın for years wrote for Zaman, a newspaper that was closed in 2016 for its affiliation to the outlawed Gülen religious movement. Even tenuous links to the movement have been enough to cause serious problems for thousands in Turkey. Altun, meanwhile, was known during his academic years as a disciple of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister whose rift with Erdoğan led him and several allies to quit the ruling party this year.

The younger Altun managed to climb to the top much more quickly than Kalın did, attaining in one year a level of influence that his rival spent a decade amassing.

Turkish Presidency Communications Director Fahrettin Altun
(Photo: Turkish Presidency)


Now that Erdoğan frequently chooses Altun over his own spokesman Kalın to make critical statements and manage his social media output, the former academic is seen as the top man in the Presidency.

One of the greatest factors behind Altun’s rise has been his close ties to Serhat Albayrak, the head of the media group that runs flagship pro-government newspaper and television outlets, and brother of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak.

This relationship has brought him another powerful ally in the shape of the Pelicanists, a group of journalists and academics centred around the Bosphorus Global think tank and Serhat Albayrak’s media organs that got its name from the role it played in removing Davutoğlu from office.

A leaked document released on social media presented a long list of conflicts between Davutoğlu and Erdoğan, creating a situation where the prime minister was forced to resign. The document became known as the “Pelican file” after a John Grisham political thriller.

Altun took sides with the Pelicanists as they targeted his old mentor Davutoğlu and his followers in the media operations that have become their trademark. Earlier this year, the group also took aim at Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank and Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül.

After the transition to the executive presidential system, Altun was appointed as the head of the Presidency Communications Directorate. This gave him control over vital state institutions, including the institution responsible for all public advertising and announcements, the public broadcaster TRT and the agency that grants press cards to journalists.

Since the ruling party controls most seats at the state’s broadcast monitoring council, it too is under Altun’s control.

When the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, in local elections this year, the decision to suddenly stop broadcasting the vote count has been attributed to Altun.

This illustrates the hold the former academic has over the media in Turkey; now neither state media organs, nor private outlets publish news without his knowledge.

Moreover, besides a handful of critical outlets, the vast majority of the media are run from a single base with Altun at the centre, with various pro-government newspapers often running the same headlines on a daily basis.

Altun is also believed to have been behind the aggressive media campaign that aimed to deal with Davutoğlu and another old AKP heavyweight, former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, both of whom announced plans to launch political movements to rival the ruling party this year.

The announcements were greeted with attacks from pro-government media outlets, which denounced the pair as traitors.

This type of tactic is believed by many to have deepened rifts in the ruling party, which has seen hundreds of thousands of resignations this year with the resignations of numerous heavy hitters.

However, this has not diminished Altun and the Pelicanists in Erdoğan’s eyes. The president’s visit to the Bosphorus Global headquarters on Aug. 3 was widely seen as a firm declaration of support for the group, despite the disappointing local elections results.

Kalın, meanwhile, came onto the scene in 2009, when he was appointed chief foreign policy adviser at the prime ministry. By 2014, he had reached his current position as Erdoğan’s spokesman.

Kalın came up through the pro-AKP think tank SETA, and his academic career as a scholar of Islamic thought led him to the College of the Holy Cross and Georgetown University in the United States as well as Turkey’s most prestigious universities.

Kalın is considered to be one of Erdoğan’s most loyal and most trusted men, and was reportedly considered for the foreign minister’s role after the national elections last year.

But he faces stiff opposition from Altun and the Pelicanists, who see him as a rival. Political circles in Ankara say the group thwarted his move to the Foreign Ministry.

The Pelicanists have been unable to launch a direct attack on a loyal aide to the president who is likely privy to many of his most closely guarded secrets.

Nevertheless, while the battle continues between Erdoğan and former AKP bigwigs, the struggle for power is growing ever deeper among his aides.

A key date will be Nov. 13, when the president is to visit Washington, almost certainly with both Altun and Kalın in tow.

Sources in Ankara believe that if Berat Albayrak takes his place on the delegation despite concerns that he could be hit with targeted U.S. sanctions over Turkey’s military operation in northeast Syria, it would be a sure sign that things are going in Altun’s favour.

This would set the Pelicans in good stead for the future, with political circles noting that the rival factions are likely competing for influence now but with one eye on the future, when Erdoğan’s successor will have to step up.