The personalities of the 2014 Presidential rivals in Turkey

Reading a recent report by the Democratic Progress Institute on the probable rivalry between incumbent PM Erdogan and incumbent President Gul over the 2014 Presidential elections in Turkey, triggered me to write a post on the personalities of both men.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Among the media and academics there is the perception that Erdogan is a “charismatic and popular Prime Minister.” His difficult youth and his years as being the mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998), coupled with his imprisonment following the reading of a particular poem in one of his speeches in 1998, are often highlighted as having shaped Prime Minister Erdogan’s leadership style. The New York Times database of background information mentions that “Mr. Erdogan rose from a tough-talking Istanbul mayor representing a rising underclass of religious Turks.” Referring to his youth – he came from a poor and religiously devout family with a very strict father and had to take care of himself on the streets of a poor neighbourhood in Istanbul – the NYT goes on to describe Erdogan as “hotheaded, with a street fighter’s swagger that becomes more pronounced in crises.”

A cable, revealed by WikiLeaks, written in 2004 by then-US Ambassador to Turkey, enumerates five character traits of Prime Minister Erdogan which negatively impact his capability to govern Turkey effectively. These are: (1) “overbearing pride”; an (2) “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey”; (3) being “an authoritarian loner streak which prevents growth of a circle of strong and skillful advisors, a broad flow of fresh information to him, or development of effective communications among the party headquarters, government, and parliamentary group.” Also the perception that Erdogan (4) has a strong “desire to stay in power which, despite his macho image, renders him fearful and prone to temporizing even at moments which call for swift and resolute decisions”. And lastly, (5) he has “a distrust of women which manifests itself not only in occasional harsh public comments but also in his unwillingness to give women any meaningful decision-making authority in AK.”

Another cable, dated from October 2009, from the US Embassy in Ankara, describes then-Israeli Ambassador to Turkey, Gabby Levy’s, worries of the deterioration of the Turkey-Israel relations. Levy attributes the deterioration of these relations fully on Erdogan’s attitude towards Israel. The cable mentions that

“Levy dismissed political calculation as a motivator for Erdogan’s hostility … Instead, Levy attributed Erdogan’s harshness to deep-seated emotion: ‘He’s a fundamentalist. He hates us religiously’ and his hatred is spreading. Levy cited a perceived anti-Israeli shift in Turkish foreign policy … .”

US Ambassador James F. Jeffrey goes on to state that

[US diplomats’] discussions with contacts both inside and outside of the Turkish government on Turkey’s deteriorating relations with Israel tend to confirm Levy’s thesis that Erdogan simply hates Israel.

On the basis of these two cables, one gets the impression that the United States, or at least its Embassy in Ankara, and Israel attribute Turkey’s negative stance towards Israel on the personality of Prime Minister Erdogan. He allows his emotions to stand in the way of a smooth development and sustaining of diplomatic relations.

Given the interesting and relevant nature of the information which can be derived from the leaked diplomatic cables, of which WikiLeaks is the current major source, a third cable offers further useful details. It sheds light on the perception of a person who was, at the time of the writing of the cable in October 2007, in daily contact with Prime Minister Erdogan. This person characterises Erdogan as a “perfectionist”, a “workaholic” and “a very fair person in his relations with employees.” Beyond that, the contact person in the cable states that

[i]f you know the Prime Minister well, then you know he is very stubborn. … He is also very skilled and influential in direct personal relationships, which he works to cultivate with foreign leaders.


[Erdogan] takes interest in and the utmost care of his employees and is attentive to their needs and concerns. He has a compassionate heart and inspires tremendous loyalty.

The first two leaked cables depict Erdogan as overly proud; somewhat self-centred; fearful of losing power; ill-tempered person who at times being is carried away by emotions – in a negative sense. Contrasting, the third cable gives the impression of the PM being a highly charismatic and likeable person who does his best to get the things right, but seemingly has a self-image of being the one who also knows what is right.

A further primary source of the person of Erdogan derives from a 2003 article by Deborah Sontag; who offers an in-depth analysis of Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his years as mayor of Istanbul and also during the first months as prime minister. She bases her findings on her own interview with the Prime Minister and on other people who were in direct contact with him. In the interview, Erdogan reflects to his tough childhood and the neighbourhood where he lived, arguing that “I was shaped by that mud, not like the poor kids of today who are surrounded by asphalt.” Furthermore, the people who knew him from his young days said that Erdogan was “a very serious child.” Ishak Alaton, a businessman who is part of the small Jewish community in Istanbul, believes that Erdogan is ”practical man of good will” who represents ”the forces of change” in Turkey.

Furthermore, Stephen Kinzer conducted some interviews with Erdogan. At the time Erdogan was still the mayor of Istanbul, Kinzer got the impression that he

seemed out of his depth whenever we talked about world affairs. He had troubling, ill-defined notions about the power of Islamic politics and the short-comings of democracy. … This lack of sophistication suggested to me that Erdogan would never emerge as a serious national leader and certainly not as a figure of Ozal’s stature

However, Kinzer’s perception of Erdogan changed in the years that followed. At another interview, when Erdogan had been in power for almost 2 years, this was Kinzer’s impression:

What stuck me most during our conversation was his burning sense of his own authority. He seemed to see himself, not his party or his government, as the force driving Turkey. When we talked about what had happened in the Anatolian city of Bingol after a recent earthquake, for example, he told me, ‘I build a new town for four thousand people who lost their homes,’ and ‘I build new schools right away, much better than the old ones.’ This was not a self-effacing man or one unsure of his mission.

Stephen Kinzer characterises Erdogan as having been ignorant during his time as the mayor of Istanbul, while at the end of the second year of Erdogan’s tenure as Prime Minister as being sure of himself and slightly arrogant in his statements.

In an article which reviews the underlying causes of the rift between the Justice and Development and its diplomats there is a joint statement by 72 retired Ambassadors criticising Prime Minister’s Erdogan’s attitude towards them and his foreign policy approach. They blame him for ignorance of past achievements which led to successes for the Republic of Turkey. Also, they blame him for being ignorant of the difficulties of the Turkish diplomats and “also the difficulties endured by our families as a result of our profession.” They furthermore mention in their joint statement that the foreign policy approach of Erdogan and Davutoglu is “thoughtless” and “shallow”, only focusing on the short term. Beyond that, in the interviews conducted by Damla Aras with some of the retired Ambassadors, one of them mentioned that “[Erdogan] abhors criticism.”

Abdullah Gul

President Abdullah Gul

Again I would like to have a look at some Wikileaks cables for the opinions of diplomats and foreign policy analysts on the personality of Gul.

The first cable is from 16 November 2002, with Gul as the Prime Minister of the AK Party, winning the elections for the first time. It goes on to talk about Gul’s personality and his viewpoints. The writer is remarkably positive and extensive about Gul:

Gul is a long-time, close contact of Embassy Ankara. He has an excellent understanding of the American mind and of U.S. foreign policy priorities. For years he served as a de facto spokesman — judged to be reasonable and open-minded by Western and Islamist interlocutors.

Gul has an obliging (mulayim) and courteous character stemming from his modest and very pious upbringing. His faith in Islam is rock solid, as is his courage of convictions: Gul is no pushover. Comfortable with intellectual and political give-and-take, he nevertheless maintains his principles and is sincere in the belief that Turkey must accept women in Islamic headscarves as full participants in society.

Gul has the serene but focused temperament (huzur) similar to that of late president Turgut Ozal. At the same time he is untainted by the corruption surrounding the Ozal family and government.

A second cable, also from November 2002, is by another member of the Embassy in Ankara and says the following:

Abdullah Gul is widely regarded even by many Kemalist secularists as an engaging, tolerant man, though one with deep convictions. These traits, and the evident importance of Islam to the Gul family, reflect a cardinal Ozalist virtue that is a key to success in Turkish politics, and to Turkish social peace: to be at once both modern and forward looking, yet with an abiding respect for the religious and traditional values.

Then a third cable is right after Abdullah Gul was elected – in a third round of voting in parliament – to become Turkey’s President. Gul is characterised as being

personable and understands how to talk about things in a way he thinks will get listened to.

When thorny issues have arisen over the past four years, Gul has approached them calmly and pragmatically, at times in stark contrast to PM Erdogan’s more off-the-cuff, emotional style. But he can deliver the tough messages, too. He sees himself as a problem solver.

The three cables looked at shared the common feature that Gul is a calm person who knows how to get things done. The 2002 cables also focus on his strong faith, but not with any negative connotations.
A positive view of the incumbent President.

Shortly turning to Stephen Kinzer again, one of the few sources I have come across who personally met both Erdogan and Gul, and Davutoglu. Quoting from his book Crescent and Star, page 184,

Part of the reason so many Turks voted to re-elect the AKP in 2007, and by extension to support the choice of Abdullah Gul as president, was that Gul was such a reassuring personality. I had had many conversations with him during his years as a member of Parliament, sometimes over dinner at Kiyi, a classic seafood restaurant that overlooks a lovely Bosphorus cove. Over meze and drinks–raki for me, cola for him– I came to know him as a reflective and thoughtful conciliator, committe to democracy but also eager to avoid confrontation.

The rivalry for President of Turkey 2014

Already in 2002 it was well-known within diplomatic circles that

a number of long-standing embassy contacts has told us consistently that the relationship between Gul and party chairman Erdogan is complex. He is loyal to Erdogan but has his own ambitions and occasionally in comments to us has chafed at his subordination to the more rough-edged Erdogan. While Erdogan is far and away the most popular figure in AK, Gul has strong grass-roots and parliamentary support of his own and has built a formidable network of relations with politicians of all stripes, bureaucrats, academics, and journalists.

So, who to hope for being elected? My perception of a president is that he is the symbolic representative of a state out the outside world – very similar to the status of the European monarchs. When you view the President of Turkey to embrace such a function, is seems that Abdullah Gul is –or rather, continues to be– absolutely the man for the job, for a number of reasons:

  1. he is fluent in English, a skill which appeals to non-Turks all the more, for the more worldly standing it brings
  2. he is a calm and pragmatic speaker who is very able to manoever in the language of diplomacy, rather than emotion
  3. he seems to be more open-minded, and aiming to make the worse better off as well

The overly-emotional language of Prime Minister Erdogan lacks the nuance which is necessary in diplomacy.


4 thoughts on “The personalities of the 2014 Presidential rivals in Turkey

  1. Pingback: A step in the right direction for Turkey and Israel, and hopefully also for the rest of the M-E « Thinking politics

  2. Pingback: Thinking politics | Turkish is a polarised country, what’s unique about that?

  3. Pingback: Thinking politics | Foreign Policy Decision Making – the role of psychology, cognition and personality

  4. Pingback: Erdogan is damaging Turkey’s democratic accountability through censorship | Thinking politics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s