With his victory in the presidential elections run off held on May 28, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 69, has reinforced his position as the longest-ruling leader of the modern Turkish republic. When his Justice and Development Party (AKP) won its first election in November 2002, Erdogan could not become prime minister. Turkey, back then, had a parliamentary system of government. Erdogan was kept out by a judicial ban imposed on him for using a few lines from a poem by Turkish nationalist Ziya Gokalp at a rally in the city of Siirt six years ago. He chose his trusted lieutenant, Abdullah Gul, as prime minister until the AKP-dominated parliament voted to suspend the ban. Erdogan took over as prime minister on March 15, 2003.
Erdogan’s political memories were made of impoverished Turkish villages and cities where he struggled in his childhood and student days. An angry, yet ambitious Erdogan joined student politics in 1976 under his mentor Necmettin Erbakan, the architect of political Islam in modern Turkey. Erdogan’s oratorical and political skills, and his piety helped him rise quickly through the ranks and he became the Islamists’ candidate for the Istanbul mayor elections in 1994. He won and used the opportunity to transform Istanbul into a truly modern city. Erdogan soon became a national icon as his nationalistic speeches buffeted by Islamist narratives appealed to a large section of Turkish voters.
In 1997, a court found Erdogan guilty of violating Turkey’s strict secular laws in the Gokalp poem case. He was stripped of mayorship and was jailed for 10 months. Erdogan, however, was able to convert the crisis to his favour, invoking populist and religious sentiments. As his popularity surged, he sought to take over the leadership of the Islamists.
Erdogan made two major policy shifts in Islamist politics: he asked the Islamists to abandon their long-held anti-European and anti-western mindset and to moderate their principles if they wanted to win power. Finding it difficult to unite multiple Islamist factions, he co-founded the AKP in August 2001, and it made an impressive debut in the 2002 general elections. Erdogan presented himself as a reformer and promised to deliver all necessary measures required to join the European Union. Soon, politicians from across the ideological faultlines started flocking to the AKP. Western newspapers were excited about Erdogan’s campaign as he promised strong relations with the west and also neoliberal reforms.
To Turkey’s alienated Kurdish population, Erdogan promised a fair deal. The AKP quickly emerged as Turkey’s largest gathering of Islamists, nationalists, secularists, Kurds and minorities who resented the Turkish elite, the corrupt coalition governments and the declining economy. The party won the election with 34 per cent votes as the new social engineering turned out to be extremely successful in gaining the trust of the people.
Erdogan gradually won over Turkey’s secular hearts and minds, but was left with one serious detractor, a staunchly Kemalist military that controlled major decision-making positions. For years, Erdogan remained cautious, non-confrontational and development-centric, to secure another term. After the Turkish armed forces issued a warning against AKP’s presidential candidate in 2007, Erdogan decided to conduct early elections and also organised a referendum to seek direct election of the president. He successfully neutralised the military’s objections against the AKP’s presidential candidate.
In 2010, he conducted another referendum for a slew of reforms required for EU accession, which curtailed the role of the military in most civilian institutions. By that time, he had visited most European capitals and held several rounds of dialogues for accession. Turkey was considered a role model of democracy and Islam.
Erdogan’s optimism with the west suffered a major setback after the entire Arab world, including Turkey’s immediate neighbour, Syria, fell into social and political chaos following the Arab Spring in 2011. As Syria faced a brutal civil war and armed insurgency, Turkey was left alone to deal with the conflict and the inflow of refugees.
Erdogan felt cornered as US president Barack Obama backtracked from his Syria policy and the Russian air force started bombing rebel-held areas in Syria. When Turkey shot down a Russian jet for violating Turkish airspace, the western response disappointed Erdogan. Soon, Iranian militias were all over Syria and Iraq, large swathes of territories were taken over by Islamic State, and northern Syria was declared a semi-autonomous territory governed by US-backed Kurdish forces.
This was Erdogan’s first-ever experience with a military conflict at his country’s borders. Most NATO members, meanwhile, disagreed that the creation of a semi-autonomous region on Turkey’s southern border posed a threat to Turkey’s national security. The Eurasianists, who used to be a weak bloc in the Turkish armed forces, proposed to disrupt the creation of a potential Kurdish state on the Syrian border by launching a cross-border operation.
Erdogan was quick to learn the new realities and agreed to re-engage with Russia and Iran to find a deconflict mechanism for Syria. The Astana peace process launched in January 2017 (by Russia and Iran, which supported Syria, and Turkey, which backed the rebels) to end the Syrian conflict became Erdogan’s biggest diplomatic victory. With Russian support, Erdogan launched military operations in Syria, as the Syrian government failed to stop Kurdish rebels from using Syrian soil against Turkey.
With these operations, Erdogan became more popular among the Turkish nationalists. In 2018, he changed Turkey into a presidential republic from a parliamentary one, based on a referendum conducted in 2017. Emboldened by his Syria operations, he supported Libya’s UN-recognised government against UAE-backed Libyan factions. In Azerbaijan, too, Turkish drones created new realities. Turkey’s growing defence industry aided Erdogan’s push for defence cooperation with many countries. Erdogan’s policies, however, led to a near total break with the west, stalling EU membership talks and widening the rift with the US, despite Turkey being a NATO member and hosting a base with American nuclear weapons and troops.
Despite achieving prominence on the world stage, domestic challenges remain a major concern for Erdogan. On July 15, 2016, he escaped a violent coup attempt by a section of the Turkish military. He responded with a ruthless crackdown against the rebels. To expel loyalists of controversial US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, said to be the coup mastermind, Erdogan used Kemalists, secularists and nationalists as replacements.
Back in 2003, the Kemalist elite in Turkey thought Erdogan would never survive in politics even for a few years, let alone for two decades. However, the “novice on the national stage” has now been “accustomed to proving himself”. Since then, Erdogan has been a great improviser in his style, politics, tactics and strategies. He has been successful in engineering winnable support from all ideological camps in Turkey.
His key skill is communication, which he uses to remain relevant, connected and accessible to all sections of the population. For example, he maintains very close and regular interactions with elected village heads who have a great influence on voters.
If anything should define Erdogan’s ideology, it is the pragmatism that he embraces in every crisis. He shook hands with every leader who once considered him a fierce opponent, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. At home, too, he readily reaches out to anyone who he thinks can be of benefit to him.
Reviving Turkish economy could be the biggest challenge for Erdogan in his new term. He had relied on upgrading infrastructure in the first decade of his rule and he realised only late that Turkey was going to miss the bus of the fourth industrial revolution, as sectors like information technology, innovation and research and development remained neglected. Turkish graduates are undertrained or underemployed as the job market has shrunken.
Erdogan has won the elections, but he knows that Turkey’s Gen Z is increasingly frustrated and disenchanted. He has very little time to revive the Turkish economy and meet young Turks’ genuine aspirations.
—Anas is an Ankara based academician and analyst.