Erdogan: The man who has dominated Turkish politics for 20 years

As Turks gear up to vote this weekend, here’s a look at key moments during the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This weekend, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man who has dominated Turkish politics for two decades, is seeking to extend his rule for another five years.

Erdogan is vying to secure a third term as president, adding to his three previous spells as prime minister from 2003 to 2014.

Ahead of the May 14 first round, the polls were widely billed as the toughest Erdogan had yet to face. And even though he did not secure an outright victory, the 69-year-old is seen as a strong favourite in the May 28 run-off after receiving received 49.52 percent of the first-round vote, compared to 44.88 percent for his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan comes from a conservative political tradition and has developed a reputation as a divisive figure in a country that was founded along secularist lines in the 1920s by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

He surpassed Ataturk’s 15 years in Turkey’s top post five years ago, becoming the longest serving leader the country has known. In 2014, he became the first president elected by popular vote, going on to win a referendum that concentrated power in the president’s hands.

Worsening cost-of-living crisis

The election will be held as Turkey is experiencing a series of economic crises that have led to rampant inflation and a deepening cost-of-living crunch.

February’s earthquakes in southeastern Turkey heaped further pressure on Erdogan with many people criticising his government’s response and failure to enforce building regulations, claiming these factors contributed to the loss of more than 50,000 lives.

“He has to go. It is his one-man regime that helped create this disaster,” Furkan Ozbilgin, a 29-year-old resident of Antakya, the city worst hit by the quakes and a stronghold for the opposition, told Al Jazeera before the first round.

“It is through his rule that contractors were allowed to get away with building such poor buildings that collapsed, killing thousands of people,” Ozbilgin charged.

The president, however, has many supporters who point to his successes over the years and see him as the man to tackle Turkey’s current troubles.

“Of course, over 20 years, there are going to be bad periods as well as good,” said Ahmet Gokkaya, a shopkeeper in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district. “Our president cannot be held responsible for the earthquake disaster. Does he control every building site in Turkey?

“We have seen what he’s done for this country, and we should not abandon him now.”

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a rally ahead of the May 14 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ankara, Turkey, May 11, 2023
Erdogan supporters attend a rally in Ankara on May 11, 2023 [Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters]

Rising through the political ranks

Erdogan’s political career can be traced back to the 1970s in Beyoglu, the Istanbul district that includes his childhood home in Kasimpasa, a working class neighbourhood on the slopes leading from the glitzy shops of Istiklal Avenue to the waters of the Golden Horn.

His first political role came in 1976 as the head of the Beyoglu youth branch of the National Salvation Party, led by Necmettin Erbakan, a future prime minister widely viewed as Erdogan’s mentor.

He rose through the ranks, in 1994 becoming mayor of Istanbul, where he addressed many of the problems facing the city’s rapidly growing population, such as air pollution, rubbish collection and a lack of clean water.

But four years later he attracted the attention of the courts for reciting a controversial poem. This led to a four-month jail term for inciting religious discrimination.

Emerging from prison in July 1999 with a ban from politics still in place, Erdogan went on to form the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) two years later.

Fifteen months after the party’s founding, it won the 2002 elections against the background of a financial crisis. Due to his ban from politics, Erdogan was unable to take office as prime minister until the following March.

So began two decades of power that many observers said have seen a dramatic change in Erdogan’s politics.

Interative_Turkey_elections_2023_5_Voting at a glance

Changes over 20 years

Most commentators see the first decade of AK Party rule as one in which the government embraced democratic reforms as Turkey sought to join the European Union. Erdogan was heralded by liberals at home and abroad for loosening the military’s grip on the country and addressing the rights of women and minorities.

In the past 10 years, however, Erdogan has been criticised for adopting a more authoritarian outlook that many said has further polarised Turkey, particularly in the wake of nationwide anti-government protests 10 years ago and a 2016 coup attempt, during which he narrowly escaped with his life.

Purges after the failed coup saw tens of thousands of people jailed or dismissed from their jobs as the government went after the supporters of US-based Muslim leader Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government blamed for orchestrating the putsch attempt with his followers.

Critics said the clampdown was used as a cover to target wider political dissent and the term “Gulenist” had become a brush to tar any opponent.

Erdogan’s success in national elections hit a bump in 2015 when the AK Party lost its parliamentary majority, leading the president to ally with ultra-nationalists and abandon the Kurdish peace process.

Four years later, Erdogan suffered his first electoral defeat when local elections saw major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, elect the opposition. A rerun of the vote in Istanbul, held after the AK Party protested the outcome, led to the opposition candidate for mayor winning by an even wider margin.

Erdogan now promises future economic prosperity and has sought in the run-up to the election to relieve rising living costs by introducing subsidised energy bills and hikes to pensions, public workers’ salaries and the minimum wage.

Focusing on the AK Party’s record of building bridges, roads and hospitals, Erdogan has also highlighted the improvements made to Turks’ everyday lives while also heralding prestigious projects, many in the military sphere, such as the development of drones.

Source: Al Jazeera