Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and What’s at Stake in the Turkish Election?

Recep Erdogan Turkey AKP Turkish emergency decrees US pastor Turkey who is recep tayyip erdogan
Ankara (GPA) – Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what does this upcoming snap election mean for Turkey?
Recep Erdogan Turkey AKP Turkish emergency decrees US pastor Turkey who is recep tayyip erdogan
Turkish President Recep Erdogan
Image: Flickr – Democracy Chronicles

Many readers with this site are likely familiar with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but that knowledge may be limited to his appearances in matters involving other countries like Syria and Russia. Yet even when you do hear about Turkey, the coverage primarily revolves around the statements of one man (or his underlings backing him up), Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This coverage limited to the boisterous Turkish President is perfectly reasonable due to the man’s stranglehold on control over the Turkish government, society, and policies. But it wasn’t’ always this way, and may not always have to be this way and the upcoming snap election scheduled for June may be a final chance to stop Erdogan from further expanding the powers of his imperial presidency.

As previously written here, it is important to understand that many of Erdogan’s foreign policy decisions are driven by the man’s domestic political concerns. Whether it is support for Palestine, or whipping up anti-Kurdish nationalist fervor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decisions are made to strengthen his position at home.

Related: Turkish Snap Elections Set for June as Erdogan Looks to Secure Power

Despite this, Erdogan still only has the support of around half of Turkish society, and if the opposition to the President and his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Development Party (AKP) play their cards right they may be able to finally remove Erdogan from the positions of power he has held since 2003. To better understand how Turkey reached this point and what is at stake in this election it is important to understand the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and what he stands to gain from this election.

Who is Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Skipping over Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s early life, we can start his biography back in the 1990’s when he served as the Mayor of Istanbul before the AKP existed, as a member of the Islamist Welfare Party. During this time as a rising star in the party, Erdogan was arrested after the military issued a coup memorandum to then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997.

The coup left the parliament and government structures in place while forcing Erbakan to resign (earning the event the moniker of “a post-modern coup”). Other demands in the memorandum included 8 years of mandatory secular primary schooling, the closure of religious schools and the abolishment of sectarian religious groups known as Tarikats. Under this strict military control of key facets of government, the future-President found himself imprisoned for 10 months on charges of “inciting hatred” by reading a religious poem, earning him a portrayal as some kind of free speech crackdown victim in western media like The New York Times.

The direct effects of this coup are a crucial part of the Islamist backlash that would later help Erdogan and the AKP rise to power (and also take control of the military).

Erdogan first made his return to the political scene after his release from prison with a new Islamist party, the Virtue Party (FP). The FP was outlawed in 2001 for violating secularism laws in 2001, which led to Erdogan taking up the helm of the AKP and running for Prime Minister in 2002.

After this election, Erdogan enjoyed immense popularity and began enacting some of the programs that have maintained his base of support for the last fifteen years. The reforms enacted included popular measures such as making vast improvements to the Turkish healthcare system and launching major infrastructure projects. Economic growth in Turkey under Erdogan eventually rose to a level where the only economies expanding faster were China and India (and Turkey may have surpassed them last year).

Erdogan also placed new civilian controls on the military, in a series of reforms welcomed by much of Turkish society. Following four major coups and other smaller shows of the military’s control on Turkish society, it is probably safe to say most Turkish citizens had some kind of “coup fatigue.”

Related: How The Turkish Military Lost Power by Trying to Keep it

It may also surprise people to learn that Erdogan had Kurdish support in his initial bid thanks to the Turkish government being party to a ceasefire with the insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with whom it was expected Erdogan would pursue further negotiations with (although these hopes were quickly dampened).

Opposition to Erdogan did begin early on, however, it first bubbled up to a point where it made international news in 2013. This was the year of the Gezi Park demonstrations, which began with Turkish activists occupying an Istanbul park the government planned to build a mall on, but later spread throughout the country and demanded the government address a list of grievances focused on the government’s violent response to the initial demonstrations.

Demands of Gezi Park protests Image: What is Happening in Istanbul [Archived]
This year highlighted the amount of violence the state, under Erdogan, was willing to use but it was also the year when Erdogan’s corruption first became public knowledge, and when Erdogan carried out some of his early purges. This all began with the arrests of several Turkish banking executives and businessmen who were laundering money for Iranian oil (and violating sanctions at the time).

It was later revealed that this illegal business wasn’t just private enterprise breaking the law but also seemed to have cooperation from several high ranking members of the government and their children (who were arrested), including then-Prime Minister Erdogan himself. Erdogan later crushed the investigation into the corruption into his cronies – while only reshuffling his cabinet – and firing or reassigning police, prosecutors, and judges involved in the case. While this case was crushed in Turkey, it is still working its way through the US courts and is a source of some of the tension between the two NATO allies, since it was the US sanctions on Iran being violated.

Related: As US-Turkey Relations Simmer, Reza Zarrab’s Strange Case Adds Fuel to the Fire

These early demonstrations of the lengths Erdogan was willing to go to preserve his grip on power should have been a red flag to anyone paying attention, but should anyone have missed it, Erdogan soon showed his totalitarian leanings again in 2016. This time the response was triggered by a coup attempt in which the AKP attributed to “Gulenists” – or followers of exiled Turkish cleric and former AKP ally, Fethullah Gulen. The labels of “Gulenist,” terrorist, and PKK sympathizer were all soon applied to Turkish citizens ranging from journalists and generals to judges and activists who have either been fired from their jobs and, in many cases, arrested.

The use of state violence clearly wasn’t enough for Erdogan, however, and he soon began seeking to bolster his power through legal precedents rather than violence. This came in the form of a referendum in 2017 which dissolves the office of Prime Minister and grants the office of President (Erdogan’s current office) further executive authority over the government.  This referendum was approved by the Turkish voters by a margin of approximately one percent amid countless claims of voter fraud.

With the referendum passed and much of the opposition out of work and possibly in jail, Erdogan has now likely secured his power for the foreseeable future. The only thing Erdogan doesn’t have yet is the full powers granted by the referendum. This new authority won’t be placed on the Turkish President until the next one is inaugurated.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Snap Election

Keeping these new powers in mind, it makes sense why Erdogan wants to win the next election but as for why he called this election, as we previously stated:

Erdogan..probably called these elections based on his recent rise in polls amid an atmosphere of heightened nationalist fervor. This is a result of Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch”, the incursion into the northern Syrian city of Afrin, which so far seems successful (though reliable sources are scarce since both sides are compulsive liars).

Erdogan has also seen another recent rise in his popularity – just in time for the election – with the tension surrounding Palestine and the recent opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and his public opposition to the decision. Following the murders of dozens of Palestinians protesting in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Erdogan quickly made a well-calculated decision to call back his top diplomatic envoys in the US and Israel and later expel Israel’s ambassador in Turkey.

Reality: Erdogan: Netanyahu a ‘Terrorist’ for Gaza Deaths

These pro-Palestine decisions may seem like purely foreign policy decisions, but support for Palestine is an important issue to Erdogan’s religious base. The support for Palestine was seen across Turkey following the massacres in Gaza when protests sprung up across the country, including a riot outside of the Israeli embassy, in a fervor Erdogan saw a chance to capitalize on and use to bolster his supposed religious credibility.

Erdogan is also on the verge of losing one of his major advantages if he doesn’t have his election soon. Even though Turkey’s economy “ended 2017 on a good note” according to investment firms like Wells Fargo, there are signs a slow down is on the horizon. Lacking the money to continue previous amounts of public spending, coupled with growing debt for the latest military operations, some of this economic pinch is already being felt by some Turks.

The good news for Erdogan though, is that he will have other advantages provided to him by new elections laws included in the 2017 referendum. One of these newest features likely to be most visible to average Turks will be the presence of security forces lording over the ballot boxes. There are also other moves that have made the Turkish elections more susceptible to fraud such as separating different groups of voters at polling locations – making it harder for volunteers to monitor voters against registries – and the end of official seals placed on ballots – a move which used to be to confirm Turkish ballots (but was still practically ignored during the referendum anyway).

If the referendum was any indicator of the AKP’s support, it appears the vote is split about 50/50. The problem with the fifty percent opposed to the AKP is that is split among a host of parties with little common ground. From the pro-Kurdish HDP to the Kemalist-secularists in the CHP to the new nationalist iYi Party (good party), led by a former member of the AKP’s coalition partner party, the nationalist MHP.

The current state of all of these affairs combined provides the AKP with what is likely a considerable advantage in the election. The CHP candidate Muharrem Ince is likely to pull the party’s usual 25% but the Good Party may be able to draw some of that away for the sake of just being the most viable alternative. Even though many voters may not agree with the Good Party, their candidate, Meral Aksener has promised a return to parliamentary-ruled, rather than executive, state. If the CHP isn’t going to be the most viable opposition to Erdogan this party, then it is like Aksener will. We will profile her candidacy in the next piece in our series on the Turkish snap election. The first piece on this series, highlighting the CHP candidate, Muharrem Ince is available below:

Turkey Elections: Muharrem Ince, The Man Looking to Unseat Erdogan