Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most controversial politician in modern Turkish history was born in Istanbul’s neglected Kasımpasa district to a working-class family from Rize, a city at the Black Sea coast, on February 26, 1954. It was two years after Turkey’s membership to NATO and the Democratic Party (DP) was in reign.
Turkey’s deep division between secular and religious camps had started in that era surely within roots to Ottoman times. The DP was accused of violating the two main principles of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic; full independence and secularism in order to appease its base. While the discussion on those principles would continue to shape Turkish politics to this day, the Army, the self-appointed guarantor of the secular Kemalist Republic, consequently overthrew the DP government in 1960.
After a trial, the prime minister, foreign minister and minister of finance were hanged. This left deep scars in the psyche of religious people in Turkey since they saw the DP as “the party that saved Islam”. The political parties who claimed to be the continuation of the DP afterwards effectively use this, as would Erdogan. They further enhanced it by propagating that there was the CHP, the founding party of the Republic, behind the secular military coup of 1960. Erdogan frequently repeats this claim and apparently genuinely believes it since his childhood. His father was a supporter of the DP. Thus, Erdogan’s deep desire to cut the wings of the Army may have in roots in his childhood. He would see four more military coups, although different in nature, the last one was an attempt to overthrow him.
Erdogan had to start working when he was in elementary school. He sold Turkish pretzels, cold water and cardpostals to contribute to the family budget. “We had no money to buy a bicycle,” he sadly recalls. His father Ahmet who was a coastal sea captain in Istanbul was an unpermissive parent. He severely punished Erdogan once by hanging to the ceiling under his arms because of his bad language when he was six. He was religious. He sent Erdogan to Istanbul Imam Hatip Lisesi (Religious Vocational High School) as a boarding student even though its graduates did not have the right to attend to a university. An example of the strict secular practice. Thus, Erdogan had to take additional courses in a regular high school to gain the right to attend a university. In the summers, Erdogan went to Rize to help the tea and hazelnut harvests in the nearby village of his family. His father was not happy about his performance at the school so he sent him to a local religious instructor (hoca) there to improve his Arabic and Koran reading. Nevertheless, it was not all work but no play. During his high school years, he started to play football. It became his obsession. He was given a nickname by his teammates, “Imam Beckenbauer” after the famous German player. He played football for 16 years, as a semi-professional player at the various teams.
He would have another passion, politics. He was only 15 when he was first started to attend meetings and demonstrations of the MTTB (National Turkish Student’s Union) and soon given responsibilities. It was 1969, the cold war era. The leftist movements were rising, as well as nationalist and Islamists ones. The Union was the meeting point of the later. They were fighting to prevent the spread of communism in Turkey. There were armed clashes and killings among the university students. As Erdogan, many founder members of the Justice and Development Party, the AKP were raised in the MTTB.
In this climate Necmettin Erbakan, a young successful mechanical engineer and an independent deputy who would become the mentor of Erdogan, founded the Islamic National Order Party the MNP in 1970, with the Islamist cadres organized in the DP and later in the Justice Party, the AP. Influential Islamist circles, cult leaders and organizations like the MTTB supported him. They were against secularism, capitalism, Zionism, communism and western ways. “We are neither communist nor freemason” was their motto. Capitalism to them was the invention of the Masonic Jews. Their aim was to create an Islamic Union not to enter the European Economic Community. The party only survived 15 months and was closed after the 1971 military coup – actually a memorandum issued to restore order – on charges of having an anti-secular agenda. Nevertheless, the MNP paved the way for institutionalization of a National-Islamist ideology created by Erbakan, the National View.
Erdogan would be a fierce supporter of Erbakan and his National View until he broke up with his mentor and co-founded the AKP in 2001. “I am taking off the shirt of the National View” he famously said to assure the secular circles in Turkey and the West that he is leaving his Islamist past behind.
Erbakan was allowed to establish another party, National Salvation, the MSP by the military leaders in 1972, the reason is still matter of discussion. In 1973 general elections, the MSP won 48 seats and formed a coalition government with the CHP. This coalition was going to intervene to Cyprus in 1974, after a Greek Cypriot military coup on the island.
In the meantime, Erdogan was finished his high school in 1973 and by giving the exams of the extra courses, he obtained the right to enter a university. According to his official CV, he received his graduation diploma from Marmara University’s Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences in 1981. Yet the opposition argues that he did not graduate from that school and his documents are false. It is a matter of great discussion since the presidential post requires a bachelor’s degree in Turkey.
Erdogan elected as the chairman of the MSP, Istanbul Youth Branch in 1976 when he was 22, and hold this position until the party was closed by the military coup in 1980, like all other political parties. The coup was intended to stop the climbing political violence as the one in 1972.
Erdogan and his would-be wife Emine, who is from a modest family with Arabic origin, saw each other in a political meeting in 1977. Erdogan was reciting religious poems, Emine Erdogan who was 22 years old that time very much impressed by his good performance. The attraction was mutual. A common friend introduced them. After a while, they decided to get married but Erdogan’s family wanted a bride from Rize. According to their close friends, Erdogan was in love, so much so that when his parents rejected Emine he got sick and lost many pounds. Consequently, they gave their permission for the marriage and the two got married in 1978. Yet in 1996, when asked by a reporter probably because of his male chauvinist tendencies he said: “I’ve been married for 18 years but I never fall in love.” Apparently, Emine Erdogan had a few words with him thus, in 2013 in a TV show he said, “I completely fall in love with my wife. The moment I saw her thing called love has happened, it was electrical. Love is losing yourself in the other.” Erdogan’s usually walking hand in hand even during the official trips, quite unusual for a religious couple in Turkey. They have two sons and two daughters.
The 1980 coup had changed the priorities of the army; the new enemy was not Islamism anymore but communism. Military leaders tried to create a moderate Islam under their strict control to fight against communism. They formulated it as “Turkish-Islam synthesis”. This project was aimed to control the rising Kurdish liberation movement as well since a large portion of Kurds is strictly religious. Meanwhile, Washington had initiated the so-called “Green Belt” policy of Zbigniew Brzezinski – the political aide of former US President Jimmy Carter- to contain the Soviet influence by surrounding it with moderate Islamic regimes. Even though some people dismissed the existence of the “Green Belt policy” –claiming that it was just an idea- and its relation with Turkey as a conspiracy theory, it is a fact that the 1980 coup cleared the way for the Islamists. Thus for Erdogan to rise for the power.
After the coup, Erdogan did his military service and worked sometime in the private sector. He returned to political activities in 1983, with the establishment of the third Islamist party by Erbakan, the Welfare Party, the RP. Because of earning Erbakan’s trust Erdogan rises within the party swiftly, in 1985 he became a member of the Central Executive Board of the RP. In 1989, he was elected as the candidate of the RP for the mayoral elections of Istanbul, Beyoglu district. He let female members of the party to become active in the field for the first time during the election campaign. He lost but the RP’s votes increased significantly. In 1994, he raised the bar and won. He became the mayor of Istanbul by using the slogans like “It will be O.K inshallah (God willing)” and “The voice of the silent masses.”
Erdogan’s victory against the well-known secular politicians was not expected. His party also won the mayoral elections in Ankara and 6 other cities. At the 1995 general elections, the RP became the top party and formed a coalition with the center-right True Path Party, the DYP. Erbakan became the prime minister.
This rang the alarm bells for the secular establishment. Erdogan further increase their concerns when he banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in city-owned cafes and in receptions by reportedly saying, “I am not just the mayor of this city but also it’s Imam.” He also organized conferences, which he invited international Islamist figures like Sheik al Murabid who preached reinstallation of the caliphate and the Ottoman Empire to fight with capitalism.
Even though his supporters very much satisfied with Erdogan as the mayor of Istanbul, the secular opposition accused him for nepotism, corruption, and preparing the ground for jihad by using the recourses of the city.
On the other hand, Erbakan’s practices considered as anti-secular was creating concern. On February 28, 1997, the army gave a ultimatum to the RP-DYP government to comply with the decisions it took to “restore the secular character of the regime”. As a result, prime minister Erbakan was forced to resign and the RP was outlawed. This forth coup what became known as the “post modern coup” since it toppled the government by pressure not bloodshed started a period of harsh measures against Islamists. During this period speaking at a rally in Bitlis, on December 1997, Erdogan read a poem: “The masques are our barracks. The minarets are our bayonets. The domes our helmets. The faithful are our soldiers. Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar (God is great. God is great)”. His speech created quite a controversy. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and banned from all public services for violating the secularist law and inciting religious hatred. Therefore, he had to resign in 1998 before completing his term as the mayor of Istanbul.
Thousands gathered to bid farewell to Erdogan before he went to jail in 1999. He said, “This song won’t finish here” to the crowd. It became a slogan among Islamist circles. After a while, an album with the same name was released with a photo of Erdogan on the cover. It was consist of seven poems from Islamist poets, the first one was “A letter from the dungeon”, recited all by Erdogan quite successfully. In addition, there was a popular song sang by a chorus to Erdogan: “You are a song that will last life long.” The CD sold 1 million. Erdogan was released after 4 months.
At the beginning of the 1990’s the cold war was over and there was no communist threat anymore. Yet this time a fight had started between the supranational powers. The globalists saw Islamist movements as a vehicle to weaken the nation states and spread neo-liberal ideas, thus supported them. Perhaps that was the real reason behind the fourth military coup in Turkey. Some American experts as Samuel Huntington openly declared that Turkey should reject Ataturk (meaning secularism and the nation state) as Russians rejected Lenin. Because of the Ottoman heritage, Turkey could be the core country for Islam (meaning there should be a Turkish caliphate.) Thus, she needs a strong leader, a second Ataturk for this transformation.
In December 1997, the Virtue Party, the FP was founded by the close circles of Erbakan, since he was banned from politics, but was closed in 2001. After only a month another Islamist party was established, the Felicity Party, the SP by the same cadres. In 2001, Erdogan with a group called “The Reformers” broke with Erbakan and the SP and formed the AKP. It would become the top party in 2002 elections. Erdogan was banned from the politics because of his conviction in 1998. However, through a constitutional amendment and winning a by-election, this obstacle was removed and in 2003 he became the prime minister of Turkey.
The AKP has dominated Turkish politics since its first elections in 2002 .It has increased its popular vote from 34 percent in 2002 to 46.58 percent in 2007 and 49.83 percent in 2011.
Erdogan tried very hard to convince the West that it has no hostile feelings anymore against them. He worked painstakingly to prove that and became the darling of the West.
He advanced Turkey’s bid to become the member of the EC. He tried to secure an approval for the U.S. troops to be stationed in Turkey during the US invasion of Iraq yet could not succeed. In 2004, he supported the UN Secretary General’s Kofi Annan’s plan for the reunification of the island. Turkish Cypriots approved the referendum, but Greek side rejected it. He started a reconciliation process with the Armenia and peace talks with Kurds. He followed the economical plan imposed by the Western financial institutions, reigned in inflation and encouraged foreign investment.
On the other hand, he brought great wealth to his vote base through giving funds and privileges and created a rich middle class out of them. This further increased the polarization between the Islamist and secular camp.
In 2008, the AKP passed an amendment in the parliament that lifted a ban on the wearing of headscarves on university campuses. The Islamist cadres were getting dominant in bureaucracy; Erdogan was curbing the wings of the army by making the military more accountable to civilian courts. Those facts intensified the struggle between Erdogan and the secular establishment.
The West was still giving credits to Erdogan. In a 2011 profile TIME has reported; “He has, it is true, also displayed an autocratic streak, running roughshod over political rivals, tossing enemies into jail and intimidating the media…Critics say Erdogan‘s government is censoring the Internet, muzzling regulators and interfering in academic institutions. But, to his admirers, these failings pale against his successes. Democratic, economically ascendant and internationally admired: as political templates go, Turkey’s is pretty irresistible to people shaking off decades of authoritarian, impoverishing rule—and to Westerners worried about what those people might do next.”
In 2013, several senior military officials imprisoned for life for plotting to overthrow the AKP got the known as the “Ergenekon case”. He harshly responded the protesters who were trying to protect Gezi Park, a green area of Istanbul earmarked for a building project. Anti-government demonstrations started all over the country and thousands are reported injured in the clashes. Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions. A corruption probe started against the inner circle of Erdogan. The government dismissed 350 police officers in the course of the investigation and the the inquiry was dropped. Erdogan accused Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who is in exile in the US with a strong power base in Turkey. They were in collaboration since his ascendancy to the power. Erdogan started to eliminate his cadres.
In 2014, Erdogan ran for the presidency although the post was largely ceremonial. Because of the party rules a fourth term as a prime minister was not possible. Thanks to the constitutional amendments of 2007 for the first time a president elected by the people instead of the parliament. After his victory, he announced that there should be a new constitution after the parliamentary elections in 2015.This interpreted as his intention to expand his powers.
In 2015, for the first time because of the informal coalition of the opposition – including Kurdish HDP – aimed to prevent Erdogan’s plan for the powerful presidency, the AKP could not win a parliamentary majority. However, the opposition failed to form a governing coalition because of the nationalist MHP, In November, in a snap election, the AKP won back its parliamentary majority.
On July 15, 2016 a military coup attempt took place. While its true nature is, still a mystery Erdogan survived it by the support of nationalistic circles in the army. Since the attempt was seen by them as a Western plot. Erdogan was reportedly also received support from Moscow and that was the beginning of his friendship with the Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Erdogan again blamed Fethullah Gulen, and demanded his extradition from Washington yet no avail. He started a mass witch-hunt by removing tens of thousands of soldiers, police officers, teachers, judges and civil servants from their jobs, imprisoning, and putting them under investigation for their alleged collaboration with the coup and Gulen Movement. He declared a national state of emergency. In April 2017, a controversial constitutional referendum was held in this environment. With a small margin, abolition of the post of prime ministry and executive powers for the president was accepted despite of the claims of the opposition that it was not a fair count.
On June 24, 2018, at the presidential elections Erdogan won a majority of the vote for his second term, thanks to its collaboration with the nationalist party, the MHP, again in spite of the protest of the opposition that it was not a fair election. After the inauguration on July 9, Erdogan assumed the expanded presidential powers thus Turkey had effectively changed its parliamentarian system to a presidential one.
However, in 2019 the economy has decayed, the inflation rose to some 20%, unemployment reached about 15%. Although Erdogan’s party, the AKP won the 31 March local elections nationally, lost in big cities like Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Adana, and Diyarbakir. As a former mayor of the city losing Istanbul was a quite a shock for Erdogan. He once said, “Losing Istanbul is losing Turkey.” The AKP contradicted the results but the re-run of the election brought even a bigger success for CHP candidate Ekrem Imamoglu and he became the new star of the Turkish politics.
Moreover, Erdogan now faces a challenge from his old colleagues. Ahmet Davutoglu, who was forced to resign by him as Turkey’s prime minister in May 2016 is going to form his own party. Former economy minister and deputy prime minister, Ali Babacan is also planning to set up a new party with the backing of Erdogan’s once close friend, the former president Abdullah Gul.
In this climate as Erdogan’s disagreements with the West and pro-Western circles intensifying his companionship with Putin and the pro-Russian circles in Turkey are growing.