Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a live broadcast video message to his nation on Wednesday on the occasion of the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha.
During the broadcast, the president appeared to be sluggish and struggling with some of his words, speaking with a slight slur. At one point, Erdoğan let out an audible sigh, before dozing off for a second.
The Turkish president was quick to recover and complete his speech, but the fuse had been lit on questions pertaining to his well being.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency ran the video in full, while state broadcaster TRT edited out several seconds from the clip.
Journalist Fatih Altaylı wrote on the presidential speech in his column for news network HaberTürk the next day.
“It was not a good image at all,” Altaylı said. “It clearly points to somebody close to the president trying to put him in a difficult spot, to make him look weak.”
Moreover, the president’s health has been opened up for global debate and has “become an open sign of vulnerability”, according to Altaylı.
“This is an issue of national security in my opinion,” the columnist added.
In response, Presidential Communications Director Fahrettin Altun accused HaberTürk of disinformation and slander.
“We will work to guarantee the right of our people to access true news, and the reputation of our media in general,” Altun said in a tweet where he condemned the media outlet.
Can Dündar, a veteran journalist currently living in exile in Germany, recalled Erdoğan urging for a probe into a previous prime minister in 2002, over concerns for his health.
“One does not die before living through what one condemned,” Dündar said in a tweet, citing a phrase attributed to Prophet Muhammad.
Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit of the centre-left Democratic Left Party (DSP) “is clearly understood to be seriously ill, and cannot fulfil his duties”, Erdoğan had said in May 2002, daily Hürriyet reported, shortly after founding his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and months before he came to power for the first time in November.
Ecevit had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time, as well as a muscle condition called myasthenia gravis, according to an articleby columnist Sedat Ergin, who said he had minor issues in his eyes and ears that were not interfering with his ability to head the government. Regardless, Erdoğan called for Ecevit’s resignation and snap elections.
Wednesday’s incident wasn’t the first time Erdoğan had shown signs of ill health.
In 2017, during a press event with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, the Turkish president repeatedly fell asleep, and yawned several times. Visibly disturbed, Poroshenko tapped the desk in front of the two leaders in a bid to wake up Erdoğan.
In February this year, Erdoğan was seen holding on to his wife Emine Erdoğan’s arm and the shoulder of an aide for support as he walked down a flight of stairs during an AKP congress.
“The person we are talking about is a man who holds the fate of a giant country, Turkey, with its population of 90 million, between his lips and in his hands,” public health expert Ahmet Saltık said during a televised discussion on Friday.
Saltık spoke of a 2006 incident in which Erdoğan had been unable to open the locked doors of the car he was in and his bodyguards had taken a sledgehammer to the car windows to get him out. The incident happened in front of a hospital in Ankara, and the then-prime minister was admitted immediately after.
“A neurologist colleague of ours named Sümer Güllap was the first one to see him,” Saltık said. “A while later the 42-year-old doctor died of flu. That also remains an unanswered question, why did our colleague die, whether there is an autopsy report.”
Information on the state of the Turkish president’s health, who has near-absolute control, is unavailable via official means, but, some doctors have spoken on the matter over the years.
Saltık cited Switzerland-based psychiatrist Hakkı Akalın as saying Erdoğan’s condition most resembled epilepsy. According to Saltık, Akalın said the president had many other conditions that were associated with epilepsy.
There have been rumours that the 2006 incident was related to an epilepsy attack, however, this also remains unconfirmed.
However, Akif Beki, a journalist who was a Prime Ministerial Spokesman at the time, said Erdoğan had not been sick, but rather suffered an episode of low blood sugar, pro-government daily Yeni Şafak reported.
In televised debate in 2019, Beki admitted to confiscating a journalist’s camera at the time of the incident when he tried to take photos of Erdoğan from the car window, and keeping him held up until the prime minister was rescued and taken into the hospital.
“We didn’t know what happened, and he had the first images. We didn’t even know if the prime minister would get his health back. So, I requested that he stay there until we figured it out. And I told him his images and camera would be returned to him as is,” Beki said in a Fox TV broadcast, according to a reportby Haber 3.
The journalist in question, Serdar Özsoy, has a different take on the incident, saying Beki had ordered bodyguards to attack him and take his camera away.
“Why would one get angry at interest on the health of the president, or other public figure?” asked journalist Murat Yetkin in an article on his website.
“Altun gives the United States as an example for restrictions on the media, but this is another example,” Yetkin said. “The president of the United States regularly publishes his health reports on the website of the White House.”