How did Recep Erdogan turn from a moderate democrat to a neo-Ottoman? In that story lies the tale of modern Turkey.
If you’re seeking to write a political thriller and are searching for inspiration, you need look no further than the career of Turkey’s current President. From footballer to moderate democrat to neo-Ottoman and world-famous misogynist, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has come a long way. The day after Turkey has voted for the first time in simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, possibly further extending his grip on power, it’s worth looking back not only at his politics, but also at the trajectory that the Republic has followed over the last century.
The Legacy of the “Sick Man of Europe”
Much of Erdogan’s politics has reflected the profound identity crisis that modern Turkey continues to go through. The Republic of Turkey, formed in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire – at a time when this “Sick Man of Europe” was being torn apart by Balkan rebellions, unscrupulous Western partitions, and the forces of globalisation – took on a markedly modernist, reformist stance, rejecting apparently outdated and backwards traditions. Profound social, economic, and political reforms were carried out, giving Turkey the shape of a secular nation-state. The powerful personality and popularity of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic’s first president, helped facilitate this transition, gradually shaping a distinctly secular Turkish (as opposed to an Islamic/Ottoman) identity.
The death of Atatürk and the Republic’s move towards a multi-party democracy complicated the process. The political history of the Republic has been marked by lurches towards authoritarianism and multiple military coups to “restore democracy”. As the 20th century reached a close, it saw armed insurgencies from both ends of the political spectrum; weathered waves of recession; and became embroiled in international conflicts in Cyprus. Yet the fundamental question of identity, of the “Kemalist” and the “Islamist”, continues to shape its politics as it does in many other post-colonial nations.
Enter Stage Erdogan
Perhaps no two individuals embody this dichotomy as well as Fetullah Gülen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Gülen, a spiritual leader who founded the massively popular Gülen Movement and its associated media, health, education, and financial empire, pushed for a greater role for religious leaders in public life. That was a position which Erdogan, then (the 2000s) a footballer-turned-mayor who was imprisoned and banned from parliamentary elections thanks to his public comments in favour of a religious government, was happy to endorse.
Within the space of a few years, Erdogan’s moderate Justice and Development Party (AKP) dominated Turkish politics, and the disgraced former mayor had become Prime Minister. The AKP struck a progressive stance, seeking EU membership, attempting reconciliation with the Kurds, cutting through regulations, attracting foreign investment and turning Turkey into a major tourism destination. The Gülen movement’s wide membership – including influential bureaucrats and members of the judiciary and executive – was a valuable means of support.
This charmed existence was not to last. Turkey never quite qualified for EU membership, and a recession set in after the 2008 financial crisis. Erdogan gradually shifted to an increasingly hardline stance, pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy and cracking down on protesters at home.
From 2013 onwards, Gülen and Erdogan’s relationship declined calamitously, with the latter blaming Gülenist officials for a corruption crackdown on members of his government. In 2014, Erdogan became President with the academic Ahmet Davutoglu serving as Prime Minister in a cabinet packed with Erdogan loyalists. This further increased fears of authoritarianism as he showed no sign of reducing his role in government, instead supporting an executive presidency, weakening the office of Prime Minister, and finally forcing Davutoglu’s resignation. As before, the military stepped in, with a coup attempt in 2016. However, a massive show of popular support saved Erdogan’s presidency and strengthened his hand.
Erdogan then began a counter-purge of Gulenists in government, while openly pursuing a neo-Ottoman foreign policy and cracking down further on dissent.
The woeful state of Turkey’s economy in 2018 prompted a response from Erdogan, who, contrary to established economic thinking, ordered the central bank to reduce interests rates to combat inflation, denting investor confidence. With the lira spiralling out of control and causing Turkey’s tourism industry to take a massive blow, the presidential elections became less about security – an issue where Erdogan traditionally does well – and more about the economy. This was despite his ramped-up campaigns against Kurdish separatists, and the avowedly anti-Israel stance he adopted after the American embassy was shifted to Jerusalem. (It is interesting to note that Israel delayed a UN debate on the Armenian genocide until after the election: Erdogan could have made much political mileage out of a vote against Turkey).
The incumbent President also contended with unprecedented Opposition unity, which appears to have been undented and undaunted by arrests and clampdowns on both social and traditional media. His primary rival, Muharrem Ince, as well as other candidates such as the “She-Wolf” Meral Aksener, addressed packed rallies, lampooned him for his mishandling of the economy, and promised to restore democratic institutions and secularism.
But it’s important to remember that Erdogan has not clung to power for so long without having learned a trick or a dozen. A last-minute announcement of a $200 billion infrastructure package, coupled with his dominance over the apparatus of the state and the airwaves, might have served to push him over the edge. The Sultan may yet have his throne.