ISTANBUL / ANKARA: Hovering in his helicopter over a packed parade ground, its perimeter fences brought down to let in thousands more supporters, Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed at the height of his powers ahead of his election as Turkey’s president last August.
Sweeping to victory with 52 percent of the vote, he became the country’s first popularly elected head of state after almost 12 years as prime minister, taking up a largely figurehead role he planned to convert into a powerful executive post.
Yet just 10 months later, the ruling AK Party he hoped would endorse that plan is unable to form a government alone, the loss of its parliamentary majority at an election this month blamed largely on his outsized ambitions.
Erdogan’s haste in trying to forge a presidential system and amass greater powers, fueled by reliance on an ever-tighter circle of advisers, appears to have been one of the most damaging miscalculations of a towering political career.
Critics say he flouted his obligation to remain above party politics in campaigning openly for the AK Party. His dominance of the airwaves ahead of the vote, at one point clocking up more than 44 hours on live TV in a week, turned it into a referendum on him and his vision of a powerful presidency. So much spoke of impatience.
For all his efforts, the AK vote fell to 40.9 percent.
“He acted too soon,” said one senior official who worked with the Turkish leader for more than a decade and remains close to the Party.
“Yes, he became president after winning 52 percent of the vote, but it is evident now that this decision was made too early ... He left the office of prime minister too soon,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Erdogan won credit at home and abroad for political and economic reforms in his first two terms as prime minister, establishing civilian dominance over a troublesome military, pursuing closer integration with the European Union, and overseeing a sharp rise in incomes.
But a series of setbacks in recent years, including anti-government protests in the summer of 2013 and a corruption scandal six months later, fueled a sense of paranoia.
Some also see hubris in the prosecution of critics for “insulting the president,” in tweets, newspaper articles and at protests.
Erdogan, for his part, sees himself building a new Turkey, defending it against an old militant secularist elite that, he says, treated religious conservatives for decades as second class citizens, briefly jailing him in 1999. His political hero is a former prime minister, Adnan Menderes, a reformer, intolerant of opposition, toppled in a coup in 1960 and hanged.
Disagreements with the West on issues ranging from Syria and Israel to whether or not the mass killing of Armenians a century ago by Ottoman forces should be labeled “genocide” have left him looking isolated on the world stage.
From a weakening lira to Istanbul losing its bid for the 2020 Olympics, he has cast negative events as part of a foreign-backed conspiracy and has, officials in Ankara say, put his trust in an ever-diminishing circle of aides.
“The fundamental problem here is evidently the close circle of advisers,” a second senior official said. “Erdogan was left very alone, but let me say this: Loneliness is a choice.”
Erdogan, 61, forged the AK Party in 2001 as an alliance of religious conservatives, center-right and nationalist elements. The movement ended an era of fragile coalition governments, and won a growing share of the vote in three successive general elections.
Former President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, co-founders of the AK Party, were among his right-hand men until recently, both of them seen as more conciliatory and as balancing influences to his combative instincts.
Their power has waned as a smaller circle of new advisers gained prominence, among them Yigit Bulut, a former TV commentator who once accused Erdogan’s opponents of seeking to kill him through telekinesis and who was appointed as his chief economic adviser last year.
“If his staff of advisers had been better, I think Erdogan would have explained himself better to Turkey and to the world, and would have continued on his path as a much stronger leader,” a senior source within the AK Party said.
In implicit criticism of Erdogan, Arinc told Turkish TV in February that increasing polarization meant that a “discourse of hatred” was emerging among the 50 percent who did not support the AK Party and that it risked making the country ungovernable.
“In the past, when we went onto the street our supporters liked us very much. The opposition ... felt respect,” said Arinc, whose term as a deputy prime minister will end next week when a new parliament is sworn in. “Now I sense a look of hatred. There is a hardening, a polarization, a division into camps.”
Erdogan’s language, long one of his great weapons, has helped drive that division, his critics too readily cast as “terrorists,” “traitors” or “riff-raff.” The increasingly religious tone of his pronouncements has revived the fears of those who, albeit with some reservations, had taken him on his word that he did not seek to undermine the secular order.
A new book by Ahmet Sever, an aide to Gul, suggests the former president was locked in a silent power struggle with then-Prime Minister Erdogan over issues including the 2013 protests, restrictive Internet laws and foreign policy.
Gul, seen as virtually the only figure capable of mounting an internal challenge, considered returning to politics after his term ended but was blocked by Erdogan, according to Sever’s book, launched this month.
Stretching the constitution to its limits, Erdogan has held onto the reins of government since assuming the presidency last August, holding Cabinet meetings at his palace.
Should the AK Party succeed in finding a coalition partner, those days could be over, at least for now. Rivals have made clear they will not tolerate Erdogan’s meddling in government.
“It is Erdogan himself ... who burned bridges and alienated the opposition by unabashedly campaigning for the AKP prior to the elections,” wrote Semih Idiz, columnist at Hurriyet Daily News. “He has no one but himself to blame if the CHP, MHP and HDP [opposition parties] want to firmly pen him within the constitutional bounds of the presidency and refuse him any possibility of playing a role beyond this.”