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Erdogan envisaged as aide for the elite, says biographer

In an interview with DW, author Cigdem Akyol talks about the fighting nature of Tayyip Erdogan, a former underdog, his out-of-control ambitions and how he has forgotten his roots over time.

DW: Ms Akyol, why does a statesman who reigns over nearly 75 million people waste his time chasing down journalists?

Akyol: Tayyip Erdogan is highly sensitive when it comes to criticism. He's not someone who questions himself, who looks back, who attempts to illuminate his mistakes. He simply doesn't tolerate anyone who criticizes him. To him, that's like insulting the king. And that's exactly what we are witnessing in the case of Jan Böhmermann.

DW: Does he not have any adviser willing to pull him to the side and say, stop now, this is enough?

The advisers that he has are all yes-men. Erdogan has created a system in which all of the people around him are like-minded, who do not speak a word of opposition and only do what he as the president wishes. Previously, there were critics within his own Justice and Development (AKP) party, but over the years they have been shoved aside. In the meantime, the AKP has become a party that functions on fear; a party of those who walk the same line. People know what will happen if they go against him or criticize him.

Where does this personality trait come from?

Erdogan biographer Cigdem Akyol

Erdogan biographer Cigdem Akyol

The answer can be found in his life's history; he grew up in a poor neighborhood, labeled as a so-called "black Turk" as he came from the under-class. His career was quite impressive as he pulled himself up the rungs of the ladder. He pushed through every opposition movement, worked against the Kemalist System. He developed the kind of ambition that only an outsider can have. And this ambition has transformed into a character trait in which reflection isn't allowed, one that doesn't allow him to sometimes observe things quietly from afar.

He only wants to continue moving forward, gathering more power, to create a presidential system that is all-encompassing in its power. His lack of consideration, his inability to accept criticism comes from that place. At the moment, he has directed everything to 2023, when the country will celebrate its 100 year anniversary as the state of Turkey. Erdogan would like to memorialize himself, still remaining president at the time, his name spoken with the same regard as that of the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Which is absolutely possible.

You've just spoken about the followers of Ataturk reformism, the Kemalists. Did they ever envision someone like Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey's political system?

No. Nearly a century ago, a person like Tayyip Erdogan was absolutely unimaginable. Someone like him would have only been envisaged as an aide working to clean the houses of the elite, the "white Turks." It was never imagined that someone like him could rise to power, which makes his career even more remarkable.

Is he currently leading a campaign of retribution against the former establishment?

It's a campaign of retribution combined with payback for all those numerous humiliations he had to endure.

Is it his fighting nature that fascinates people about him?

Without a doubt. Erdogan has behaved in a very clever way. He rose to power for the first time in 2003 as prime minister by doing something that had been neglected for decades: he spoke to those "black Turks." He pretended as though he were at the same eye-level as they were and suggested that he, as a man of the people, could finally offer a voice to the disenfranchised. That heavily contributed to the myth of the man. "One from down there" had managed to make his way to the top and many would say, "If he can do it, then I can, too."

You said he acted "as if." Is it not true?

At the start of his time in office, back in 2003, that may have been true. But in the meantime he has nothing to do with the people. We only have to look at the palace he has had built in Ankara, with its over 1,100 rooms. That he's no longer at the level of the average citizen is made clear.

If one sees Tayyip Erdogan at an election event or at public events, one can see that people celebrate him. Is he like a pop star in Turkey?

Tayyip Erdogan was a pop star in Turkey; he was a harbinger of hope. And he pushed through a number of reforms - something that people, even in Germany, tend to overlook. He brought Turkey to the doorstep of the EU. It's hard to believe now but he had even broadened press freedoms and the expanded the rights of women. He reformed the healthcare system, and the social system, something that all previous governments had neglected. And for those reasons, the people celebrated him for a long time. In the meantime, however, the bubble has burst; he has done too many ugly, hateful things. But there is no other politician in Turkey who can touch Erdogan, there simply is no other alternative person.

Erdogan also appears often at public events in Germany, where you will meet people who say that Erdogan had given Turkey, given them, something to be proud of. How would you explain that?

Many Turkish Germans are still connected to Turkey in their hearts; when asked, many would say they identify more readily with Turkey than with Germany. For decades, they had to live in Germany with a feeling of not being welcome, of being the "Turks." And then along came this prime minister who finally gave them a sense of national pride. One shouldn't underestimate that. Nationalism is a huge motivator in Turkey. Erdogan had turned to the people and said, "You are my citizens." "I will work for you." "You no longer need to be ashamed." And with that, he grabbed their hearts and minds.

The journalist Cigdem Akyol has recently published a biography of the Turkish President after years of working with the subject. The interview was conducted by Daniel Heinrich.

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