An Homage To Himself, Erdogan's Own Personal Versailles

At 1,000 rooms and a $350 million pricetag, the vast new palace the Turkish president has had built for himself is both illegal and a bold expression of his own power and that of the "new Turkey."

Erdogan and his wife during the celebration of his presidential victory, on Aug. 10.
Erdogan and his wife during the celebration of his presidential victory, on Aug. 10.
Boris Kálnoky

ISTANBUL — If he had a choice today, Sun King Louis XIV might actually prefer to be the Turkish rather than the French head of state. Only a few buildings since Versailles have offered as salient an expression of a sitting leader's claims to power as the new official residence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Though there was also the "People's House" of erstwhile Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the villainous leader was executed before the colossal construction was finished. By comparison to "Genius of the Carpathians" Ceausescu, who laid claim to 3,000 rooms in Bucharest, the ruler of the "new Turkey" is relatively modest with a mere 1,000 rooms.

The best thing about the $350 million new palace, to be inaugurated Oct. 29, is its name, Aksaray, which means "pure, white palace." Those who have leveled corruption allegations at the government would hardly call it a stronghold of virtue. And never mind the occasional nasty tricks the government plays on its critics. The Turkish newspaper Gazeteport published pictures showing just how grand the new compound is.

Of course, the entire construction and massive public expenditure is illegal. It was built without permission in the Atatürk Forest, on land that is under both monument and nature protection. This violation is symbolic: Erdogan is above Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. And obviously above the law too.

"Just let them try to tear it down," Erdogan said as one court after another ordered construction stopped. "I will inaugurate the building, and I will move in."

From the start, the palace was conceived as a place Erdogan would live. Construction began in 2011 when he was still prime minister. Even if, against all expectations, Erdogan had lost the presidential election in August, he still would have moved into the palace as prime minister.

The president, who unlike the prime minister does not constitutionally possess particular authority, will enjoy greater security than Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The assumption is that at Aksaray there are bomb-proof rooms as well as areas safe from bio and chemical attacks. What's not clear is whether Erdogan is also safe from telekinesis there. His chief advisor Yigil Bulut is of the opinion that the dark forces of this world want to assassinate the leader of the Turks using telekinesis or "the supposed ability to move objects at a distance by mental power or other non-physical means."

It is assumed that Erdogan will not claim all 1,000 rooms for his private use. Various offices are due to be set up there from which he could govern, officials say. That's all the more interesting, as the constitution gives the president no powers to govern. But details like that won't stop Erdogan, who has generously told the prime minister he will "always help" him run the country.

In terms of its architectural style, Erdogan says the palace is intended to show that Ankara "is a Seljuq capital." Historically, that is sheer nonsense: The Seljuqs, to some extent the predecessors of the Ottomans, never ruled from Ankara. But what's history? Ankara's history "begins with the AKP Justice and Development Party," says Mayor Mehli Gökcek, an Erdogan loyalist. So of course the party of Erdogan should be able to do is re-write city history to suit itself.

But all this nevertheless demonstrates what's on Erdogan's mind. The Seljuqs were there before the Ottomans. In 1071, a Seljuq victory established the Turks in what had been Byzantine (Greek) Anatolia. Erdogan wants to create a leadership position for himself that ties him in with the old Seljuqs.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!