Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister of Turkey for 12 years, is now determined to become the country’s first president to be elected by direct universal suffrage rather than by parliament.
The best-placed of the candidates was born in Istanbul in 1954, then grew up in the village of Rize on the Black Sea. The family moved to Istanbul for good when he was 13. He longed to become a professional footballer. He went to a religious high school, and then got a management degree at the University of Marmara. He kept playing semi-professionally, throughout.
While at university, he met Necmettin Erbakan, who was campaigning to become prime minister. Erdogan then joined the conservative political movement the Islamist Welfare Party.
A military coup in 1980 slowed Erdogan’s career in politics, as the party was outlawed. He relaunched with the new conservative Prosperity Party in 1983. A decade later he had risen to elected Mayor of Istanbul, aged 40, and set about solving some of the city’s chronic problems, literally cleaning it up, introducing more greenery, working on traffic, tackling corruption and paying down debt.
A poem he recited in public angered the secular establishment, however: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
That was in 1997. It won him four months in prison, judged to have been religiously provocative. Immediately after his release, although he had been stripped of the mayor’s job, he was not a bit discouraged, and founded the AK Justice and Development Party.
Those close to him, such as Hüseyin Besli, say he remains resolutely positive in the face of setbacks: “He emphasized recently, that victory grows with defeats. This summarises Erdogan’s political career. He grew from defeat after defeat. He believes that as long as life goes on, there must be a way out. He continues his struggle and search. All this has an impact on his political understanding and style.”
The AK party won the parliamentary elections of 2002, but Erdoğan was still legally barred from taking a seat. Instead, he swiftly replaced his close friend Abdullah Gül as prime minister. Since then, he has succeeded in winning elections and keeping that job three times in a row. His party won a steadily greater share of the votes.
He accomplished what had seemed to be impossible. The economic crisis that had ravaged Turkey ended. Inflation fell to around ten percent. The country paid off all its debts to the IMF. And the Turkish pound gained value. International relations also improved. Turkey’s official procedure to become a member of the European Union was launched — in late 2005. While secularists were wary he might undermine Turkey’s modern separation of religion and state, his regional stature rose.
Arab countries praised him as a hero for his outspokenness against Israel’s actions in Gaza, with remarks about ‘killing children on beaches’ — although Turkey and Israel had built up multiple ties.
At home Erdoğan substantially reformed the constitution — civil rights, labour rights, privacy, civilian powers… These moves won approval in a referendum by 58 percent of the turnout.
But finally, starting last year, Erdoğan’s stars started to lose some of their shine. People protested against urban plans to remove trees from central Istanbul — demonstrating in other cities, too. The police responded violently and the government was sharply criticised, at home and from abroad.
Added to this, the prime minister’s party clashed with the Gülen movement, increasingly influential in Turkish society. And then in December 2013, investigations into financial scandals implicated senior figures in the AK party, weakening Erdoğan. He reacted with massive purges of the police and by curtailing the judiciary’s powers.
Yet the charismatic AK leader still clinched municipal election victory in March this year, once again showing his resilience and longstanding, broad support base.
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