Turkey Joins the Big Palace Club
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should go down in history as "the Builder" -- though that won't necessarily be a compliment.
Erdogan loves construction projects -- from a planned airport that would be the biggest in Europe, to a shipping canal to rival Panama's. This building frenzy has helped Turkey's economy, but it also got Erdogan in trouble last year, triggering riots. Now he has completed a presidential palace that is four times as big as Louis XIV's Palace of Versailles, at a cost of $615 million. It displaces the Sultan of Brunei's residence as the biggest in the world.
The Turkish president is trying to make several points. The first is that his country has arrived as a world power: The White House is only 55,000 square feet; Erdogan's new house is 3.1 million square feet. The second message is that he has arrived as president, and that it is a much bigger job than when he took office.
His political opponents also see another message: Erdogan wants to show he isn't beholden to the traditions of Turkey's secularizing founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built the existing presidential residence at Cankaya. That interpretation has merit: Erdogan doesn't want to follow Ataturk or live in his house. He wants to displace him and become the religiously conservative founder of a redirected republic.
History has lessons for leaders who indulge in the cult of the massive palace. In many cases, gigantism signals lost perspective, the expression of a political ego untethered from reality. And it doesn't generally happen in developed democracies.
Louis XIV, of course, thought that he was both the Sun King and the state itself -- "L'etat, c'est moi." When Erdogan was questioned about his failure to get planning permission for his 1,000-room construction, he accused a "parallel state" of trying to thwart him. He was referring to his sparring partners in the Fetullah Gulen religious movement, but he also conveyed the sense that he saw himself as the embodiment of the Turkish state.
Romania's communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu showed even greater hubris by building the huge Palace of the People in the 1980s. Extravagant resources were devoted to the 3.8 million square feet project. For years, Romanians ate chicken feet, because Ceausescu was exporting the fowl's bodies to raise hard currency to pay off the country's external debt.
Ceausescu supposedly got the idea for his palace after a trip to his friend Kim Il Sung in North Korea, where he admired the architecture (though the architect responsible for the "Casa Poporului" says she had Buckingham Palace and Versailles in mind.) There's certainly a resemblance to Kim's residence, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
By comparison to Ceausescu, who demolished 9,000 homes in central Bucharest to make way for his vision, Erdogan's lack of planning permission and destruction of trees were minor impositions. Erdogan is by no means comparable to Ceausescu, despite his authoritarian bent and the erosion of Turkey's democratic institutions during his tenure. On the contrary, he remains popular among a majority of Turkish voters; Ceausescu was overthrown and executed.
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