The sudden resignation last week of Turkish finance minister Berat Albayrak came as a shock. The cosseted son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been considered unassailable by the scores of officials and businessmen he turned into bitter enemies. But the move highlights how Mr Erdogan, whose power has grown exponentially since he ascended to the presidency in 2014, is so cocooned by courtiers that he is losing the ability to set coherent policy.
What exactly triggered the departure of Mr Albayrak — the most powerful man in government after the president it seemed he was being groomed to succeed — is not clear. He cited health and family reasons for quitting, and barely mentioned his patron, Mr Erdogan.
But it is clear that Mr Albayrak kowtowed to Mr Erdogan’s diktat that interest rate rises are the cause of inflation rather than a brake on it. The failure to raise rates, and the continuing pursuit of an economic growth model based on consumption and credit, has landed Turkey in its second currency crisis since Mr Albayrak took over the finance ministry in mid-2018.
As Mr Erdogan, egged on by his son-in-law, dispensed with a sequence of central bank governors, Turkey has burnt through an estimated $140bn in foreign exchange reserves in two years in a failed attempt to defend the lira. The currency rebounded on news Mr Albayrak was leaving, a departure probably hastened by the president’s appointment of Naci Agbal, his predecessor at finance, to head the central bank. Some believe it was Mr Agbal, more orthodox and critical, who convinced Mr Erdogan that misguided policies have placed the economy in peril.
This seems plausible. It is not just that Mr Albayrak helped poison the president’s mind against any rival and isolated him from criticism. Mr Erdogan had long since sealed himself in his neo-Ottoman palace in Ankara, wilfully cut off from any free flow of information or pushback. Though undoubtedly a political phenomenon, serving three terms as prime minister before becoming president since his neo-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power, Mr Erdogan succumbed to the despot syndrome that seems to afflict many leaders who cling to office for more than a decade.
It was not always like that. Before winning the general election of October 2002, the AKP had interviewed 42,000 potential voters over 22 months. By doing that Mr Erdogan and his friends created a genuine mass movement. But it only took a decade in power for sycophants to block the free flow of ideas and information.
When Mr Erdogan — who had been banned from public office — became prime minister in 2003 he was in a position to know what the hopes and dreams of Turks were. But by mid-2013, urban and coastal Turks rose up in mass protests at his intrusion into their personal and political space — telling them what to eat and drink as well as how many babies to have. The Albayrak ascendancy soon followed.
Mr Erdogan cut loose from the liberal and secular fellow travellers of his early governments. He jettisoned virtually all the co-founders of the AKP: former president Abdullah Gul; Huseyin Celik, who ran the party and its message for Mr Erdogan; economic tsar Ali Babacan; prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his deputy Yalcin Akdogan.
He moved to the presidency, hitherto a ceremonial post, and made it the fount of all power and patronage — executive, legislative and judicial — abolishing the premiership and the essentials of parliamentary rule.
He entered into open warfare with former ally Fethullah Gulen, a US-based imam whose Islamist movement provided the AKP with a network of cadres inside the Turkish state. After the Gulenists attempted to topple Mr Erdogan in the failed 2016 coup, he purged tens of thousands of them, and some of the cream of academia and the civil service.
As the cycle of purges and defenestrations continues, Mr Erdogan has rid himself of almost everybody who might know which levers to pull on domestic policy. After stripping away so many layers of support, he and the AKP have become dependent on extreme rightwing national populists. One of the most successful ruling parties of modern times is being hollowed out, and the emergency switching of Turkey’s economic team looks unlikely to halt that.