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From humble beginnings, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown into a political giant, reshaping Turkey more than any leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered father of the modern republic.
Now he is the proud creator of a muscular presidency, wielding unrivalled power and heading a political system focused not on a party or bloc but on one man, Erdogan himself. To his supporters, Erdogan has brought Turkey years of sustained economic growth, increased Ankara’s international clout and championed a strident Sunni Islam, Ottoman-nostalgic nationalism. To his critics, he is an autocrat, intolerant of dissent from his vision of Turkey’s future and his methods of achieving it.
In partnership with Abdullah Gül who preceded Erdogan as president, he founded the AKP in 2001, a centre-right conservative party that sought to bring Islamist politics into the Turkish mainstream. He has achieved this goal with stunning success, winning general elections in 2002, 2007, 2011 and two in 2015.
Not since Ataturk has a figure dominated Turkish politics for so long. Yet his meteoric rise has been marred by a string of allegations of misconduct, human rights abuses, repression of free speech and nation-wide purges.
Born in 1954 in Istanbul and raised on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, Erdogan, the son of a coastguard, is a graduate of an Islamic high school and the management programme at Marmara University.
While at university, Erdogan met Necebettin Erbakan, who would become the country’s first Islamist prime minister and a mentor to the young would-be politician. Following the military coup of 1980, Erdogan joined Erbakan’s Welfare Party, rising through its ranks until his election to parliament in 1991 (he was prevented from taking his seat on a technicality). A more resounding success came in 1994, when he was elected Istanbul’s mayor, sparking fears among the city’s elites that he would try to impose restrictions on alcohol and ‘non-Islamic’ ways of life. Although he proved to be a capable and pragmatic manager of the city, his time as an elected official was short-lived. In 1997, he was stripped of his position and sentenced to ten months in prison for reading an Islamic poem in a public address.
The poem included the line, ‘The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…’ and was considered a violation of the country’s Kemalist principles by the secular judiciary. He served only four months behind bars, but this was to be a seminal moment for the future president, who used his trial and the attention it garnered as a lightning rod for Islamist-minded Turks angered by the oppressive secularism of the country’s constitution.
Forced to give up his position as Istanbul’s mayor, he was also banned from parliamentary elections for five years, a ban that the AKP government promptly overturned in 2003, after it became Turkey’s largest party in the 2002 elections, winning over a third of the votes cast. In March 2003, Erdogan contested, and won, a by-election in Siirt, his wife’s home city, completing a long-awaited turnaround in Islamist politics in Turkey.
Throughout his career, Erdogan has been careful to maintain perceptions of his closeness to the people, relying on a style of populist politics heavy on rallies and public speeches to connect with voters. His speeches are typically laden with daily Islamic terms, a conversational tone and a healthy disrespect for institutional authority at home and abroad. His oratory, Islamic and Ottoman-friendly politics, and even his short career as a professional footballer have all endeared him to his largely working-class, conservative voter base. That said, as Turkey’s economy has blossomed, so have the fortunes of Turks. A self-made success story himself, Erdogan has become a symbol of good fortune for many from Turkey’s growing conservative middle class.
The core of Erdogan’s AKP party was the breakaway Virtue Party, which the courts shuttered in 2001 for its ‘anti-secular’ activities. Ironically, it was by distancing himself from Turkey’s previous Islamist movements and embracing a more centrist line that Erdogan came to the power with the AKP.
Nevertheless, he has carried his grievances against the old-guard of Kemalist Turkey with him. Still smarting from the humiliation of a prison sentence and a political ban for his religious beliefs, on coming to power he made curbing the clout of the once-powerful military something of a personal crusade. Starting with the Ergenekon trials in 2003, which implicated dozens of senior military officers in a coup plot, and continuing through to the purge of the past year, Erdogan has firmly recentred the country’s power in the hands of the parliament, and now in his hands, through the executive branch. The military has been forced to toe the line of parliamentary rule, with their top ranks seeded with loyalist figures who have a similar background to Erdogan. These are the kind of men who, like the president, would never have risen so high under the old system.
The centrepiece of Erdogan’s politics has been his vision for the ‘New Turkey’. Although a vague concept, Erdogan has claimed it refers to a democratic Turkey free from military coups. In hindsight, a more accurate description might be the upturning of the past centres of power in Turkey.
Few could argue that when the AKP swept to power, Erdogan presided over a government that implemented much-needed liberalizing reforms far more quickly and effectively than almost any of its predecessors. His parliament opened up everything from schools, the army and even parliament to women wearing headscarves, heralding a new acceptance of religion in official Turkish life.
A non-smoking, teetotal father of four, Erdogan has been criticized for imposing on Turkey the Islamic values that underpin his own life. His government brought in tough regulations on alcohol sales in 2013, and three years later he claimed that no Muslim family should consider birth control. Critiques of gender equality and feminism have also marked his rhetoric. He went so far as to say that men and women cannot be treated equally.
That said, from his earliest days in politics he encouraged female participation in the political sphere. At that time, the inclusion of veiled women in Turkish public affairs was a key goal of Islamist politicians, as they represented a powerful symbol of the Muslim day-to-day life of most Turks within an ardently secular system of governance.
Under Erdogan’s reign, Turkey has developed into a manufacturing and export powerhouse, allaying fears of financial crisis and putting the country’s soaring inflation rates of the 1990s firmly in the past.
Yet this ‘New Turkey’ holds some disturbing hallmarks of the old, many of which have resurfaced as Erdogan’s hold on power has tightened. His ongoing conflict with exiled cleric and former ally Fethullah Gülen was supposedly behind the 2014 allegations of massive corruption at the highest levels of government, which implicated Erdogan and his sons.
However, far more insidious has been the crackdown on human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and even democracy. Scores of opposition politicians, journalists from across the media spectrum and tens of thousands of public servants, military personnel and citizens have been jailed on charges of involvement in terrorism. Last year’s attempted coup, allegedly by Gülenist groups, can certainly be seen as a response to Erdogan’s concentration of power in his own hands, which reached its zenith with his victory in the constitutional referendum last April 2017.
Erdogan has cemented his place in the history books as modern Turkey’s second-most notable ruler, but he seems determined to better that. Even after last year’s referendum, he has orchestrated a purge of elected AKP officials in cities where results from the vote were lower than expected. Loyalty to Erdogan seems to be the sole determinant of survival in this latest reshuffle of Turkish politics. If Turkey’s future seems unsure, one thing is certain: Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be at its centre.