The prime minister has one. So does the culture minister. Even the previously clean-shaven ministers of economy and foreign affairs recently began sporting theirs.
Neatly-trimmed moustaches, similar to that worn by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have become increasingly popular among government ministers from his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, ahead of a crucial referendum Sunday on expanding the president’s powers.
Some analysts say that’s no fluke in a country where facial hair has a history of political significance, and where ministers’ loyalty to Erdogan is being closely scrutinized following a failed coup attempt last year.
“These days, when Turkey is fighting terror organizations — and in the aftermath of the coup — the mustaches provide a strong and stern image,” said Mesut Sen, professor of Turkish studies at Istanbul’s Marmara University.
Historically, men in Turkey have worn moustaches not only to assert their manhood but express their political leanings. Traditionally, nationalists wear their moustaches long and downward-pointing — like the crescent moon on the Turkish flag — while leftists tend to grow theirs bushy and Stalin-esque.
Erdogan wears a bristly and tidily-trimmed moustache that is popular among conservative and religious Turks. Some religious men also grow beards.
A year ago, more than half of the Cabinet members were clean-shaven. Now only three of Turkey’s 27 ministers — including the only woman — don’t have facial hair.
The trend appears to have begun with a Cabinet reshuffle last year, triggering speculation that ministers were trying to please the powerful president by growing moustaches similar to his. Senior AKP officials continued to grow moustaches, sometimes coupled with beards, after the failed coup attempt in July.
One government minister, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said some ministers grew facial hair because Erdogan urged them to. He declined to give further details.
The trend is not limited to the Cabinet. The chief of Turkey’s intelligence agency, who was the source of controversy over his alleged failure to warn Erdogan about the coup attempt, first grew a mustache and then a full beard. Erdogan’s closest bodyguard, who used to be clean shaven, now sports a mustache, too.
In Istanbul’s Kasmipasa neighborhood, where Erdogan was born, barber Ahmet Guler said he believes AKP members are growing moustaches to resemble the president — the party’s founder and long-time leader.
“Because otherwise it draws attention: ‘Look, he doesn’t have one. A Muslim or a man should have a mustache,’” said Guler, 57.
Facial hair remains an important reference point in Turkish society and politics but that’s starting to change, said Barin Kayaoglu, an expert on Turkish culture and history. He noted that many young Turks are growing “hipster” beards, which cut across all ideologies.
“Turkish culture sees facial hair as an expression of masculinity but that association is no longer as powerful as it used to be,” Kayaoglu said.
According to Hurriyet newspaper, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci, who had shaved off his moustache, re-grew it recently after Erdogan remarked, half-jokingly, that some ministers didn’t listen to him.
The paper also reported that during a February meeting between Erdogan and a group of AKP legislators, several participants had barely visible moustaches, suggesting that the moustaches were grown in haste before the president’s arrival.
Some Turks say the trend shows how much influence Erdogan, affectionately known as “the chief,” wields over the government, his party and the bureaucracy despite the current constitutional requirement for the president to be neutral.
On Sunday, Turks will vote “yes” or “no” to constitutional amendments that would abolish the office of the prime minister and transfer executive powers to the president, something Erdogan’s critics fear would cement his powers and further mold Turkey according to his conservative and pro-Islamic views.
Opinion polls suggest he could win by a whisker.