How Erdogan came to power in Türkiye
From mayor to lawmaker and prime minister to president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan rose through the ranks to Turkey’s highest posts and then made them his own, bringing the country closer to one-man rule in 20 years.
On Sunday, Mr Erdogan will seek another term as president, but only after the opposition forced him to a runoff. The fact that the election has moved to a second round is a sign that his grip on the country has slipped, if not been broken, amid a host of problems including economic turmoil, widespread corruption and mismanagement by his government. catastrophic earthquakes this spring.
But Mr. Erdogan has gone through crises since the early days of his career, including a prison sentence, mass protests and an attempted coup. Several of these episodes illustrate how he not only survived crises, but also found opportunities to consolidate his power through them.
A lifetime ban that lasted a few years
In 1998, Mr Erdogan, then 44-year-old mayor of Istanbul, was a rising star in Turkey’s Islamist political movement, which was the target of a crackdown by military-backed authorities. That year, a court found him guilty of calling for religious insurrection by quoting an Islamist poem from the 1920s. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison and a lifetime ban from political activity.
Although predominantly Muslim, Turkey was founded as a secular republic, and traditional political elites viewed the Islamists as contrary to these values.
Mr Erdogan spent four months in prison, making plans to return despite the ban. In a general amnesty in 2001, Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the ban, and he soon formed a new political party with other reformists from the Islamist movement who promised good governance and sought ties to the West.
Allies who changed the rules
Mr Erdogan’s rise was nearly halted in 2002 by Turkey’s electoral council, which excluded him from an election because of his criminal conviction. But his party colleagues, who had invaded parliament, amended the constitution to let him run. Mr. Erdogan was elected and became Prime Minister in 2003.
His government has also begun to prosecute some of these figures, accusing dozens of people, including retired army generals and journalists, in 2008 of trying to stage a coup. Allies of Mr Erdogan have called the trial an attempt to address the history of Turkey’s violent power struggle. Critics called it an effort to silence secular opposition.
With the approval of voters in a referendum two years later, Mr. Erdogan again reshaped the Constitution. He said the 2010 overhaul brought Turkey closer to European democracies and broke with its military past, while opponents said it gave his conservative government greater control over the military and the courts. He won a third term as prime minister in 2011.
The mall that sparked protests
Mr. Erdogan was not without significant, if disparate, opposition. In 2013, protests that erupted against a proposed shopping mall to replace an Istanbul park turned into a show of discontent over many issues, including the drift towards Islamist policies and lingering corruption.
Mr. Erdogan has cracked down not only on protesters, but also on doctors, journalists, activists, business owners and officials accused of sympathizing. Some cultural figures were imprisoned and others fled, and for many who remained an atmosphere of self-censorship set in.
As his term drew to a close, Erdogan faced a problem: his party rules prevented him from playing another role as prime minister. In 2014, he ran for another office instead – becoming Turkey’s first popularly elected president, opening his term with words of rapprochement.
“I want us to build a new future with an understanding of societal reconciliation, while seeing our differences as our riches and highlighting our common values,” he said in a victory speech.
But rather than confine himself to the mainly ceremonial functions of the role, he decided to maximize his powers, which included vetoing legislation and the ability to appoint judges.
The Transformative Consequences of a Coup
Mr Erdogan’s rule nearly came to an end in 2016 when a chaotic insurgency by parts of the military and members of an Islamist group that had once been his political ally tried to overthrow him. But he evaded capture, called on the Turks to demonstrate in the streets, and soon reappeared in Istanbul to regain control.
“What is perpetrated is a rebellion,” he said. “They will pay a heavy price for their betrayal of Turkey.”
A subsequent purge reshaped Turkey: Thousands of those accused of links to the coup plot were arrested, tens of thousands of jobs lost in schools, police departments and others institutions, and more than 100 media have been closed. Most of those caught up in the purge have been accused of affiliation with the Gulen movement, Islamist supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Mr Erdogan accused of orchestrating the coup while he lived in exile in the United States.
Within a year, Mr Erdogan had held another referendum for voters, this one on whether to abolish the post of prime minister and transfer power to the president, as well as granting the role more of capacities.
With his opponents under pressure and his allies reinvigorated, he narrowly won the referendum, calling for changes needed to make government more effective. The following year he was re-elected for another five-year term.
A blitz of decrees and growing discontent
Hours before his inauguration in 2018, Erdogan issued a 143-page decree that changed the way nearly every government department worked. He fired another 18,000 state employees and made several important appointments, appointing his son-in-law the new finance minister.
The decree was just a sign of the extent to which Mr. Erdogan has led Turkey down the path of strongman rule. The government has announced new internet restrictions and launched monumental projects, including soaring bridges, a huge mosque and a plan for an “Istanbul canal”.
Many Erdogan supporters hail efforts like these as visionary, but critics say they fuel a construction industry plagued by corruption and wasted public funds.
These frustrations have spread among many Turks in recent years. While Mr. Erdogan has elevated Turkey’s stature abroad and pursued grand plans, his consolidation of power has left some uneasy and the economy has suffered.
This dissent has loosened Mr. Erdogan’s grip on the country.
In 2019, his party lost control of some of Turkey’s biggest cities – to contest the results in Istanbul. Turkey’s High Electoral Council ordered a new election, a move condemned by the opposition as a capitulation to Mr Erdogan, but his party also lost that second vote, ending 25 years of dominance in the biggest city from Turkey.
And now, with his government criticized for its earthquake preparedness and response, and Turkey’s economy on the brink of crisis, Mr Erdogan has persisted with heavy spending and lower interest rates despite inflation, which left many Turks feeling far poorer.