Share This Article
Table of Contents Show
- Part One. How Erdogan Came to Power
- Part two. How Erdogan fought the army
- Part Three. How Erdogan strengthened Islam
- Part Four. How Erdogan Wanted to Make Turkey One of the Leading Economies in the World (But Couldn’t)
- Part Five. How Erdogan turned Turkey into an autocracy
- Part six. How Erdogan can lose to the opposition
- Part seven. How will the elections change Turkey’s relations with Russia
Hi, this is a Middle East scholar, Ruslan Suleimanov.
On May 14th, the first round of presidential elections will be held in Turkey, which could end the 20-year rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. It’s not just that the president’s health seems to be ailing, as he experienced illness live on local television on April 25th. Erdogan is rapidly losing popularity: his rating has fallen against the backdrop of a terrible earthquake and the country’s difficult economic situation.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has undergone significant changes. He systematically strengthened a personalized regime, crushed the opposition and pressured local media – and now he is referred to as one of the modern-day autocrats. As for foreign policy, Erdogan has helped Turkey gain a special role in the current war. The acting president is friends with both Ukraine and Russia, so Ankara is claiming the role of mediator and peacemaker between them. And it is precisely with the involvement of Turkey that the countries concluded a significant “grain deal”.
What was Erdogan’s path to power and in power, what happens in Turkey on the eve of elections, and how a possible change of regime will affect the country’s relations with Russia – all of this is the subject of my letter today.
The text contains more than 27,000 characters, and you will read it in 17 minutes.
The text consists of seven small chapters. The first one is about how Erdogan entered big politics. The second is devoted to his difficult relations with the army. The third tells how Islam became part of Turkey’s politics under Erdogan. The fourth is about how the country emerged from an economic crisis only to fall into it again. The fifth traces Turkey’s path to authoritarianism. The sixth explains why Erdogan doesn’t necessarily have to win the elections. Finally, the seventh chapter is about the relationship between Turkey and Russia.
Part One. How Erdogan Came to Power
An middle-aged man in a suit and tie is reciting poetry from a small stage in the middle of a square. “The mosques are our barracks, their domes our helmets, their minarets our bayonets, and their faithful our soldiers,” he confidently proclaims into the microphone, with his hands raised towards the sky. “Allahu akbar,” a voice from the crowd responds. This is a conservative rally in the Turkish city of Siirt on December 6, 1997, and the man on the stage is then-mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The militant lines he is quoting were written by Turkish poet and enlightener, as well as an ideologist of Pan-Turkism, Ziya Gökalp.
By that time, Erdogan was already a popular politician. From 1994 to 1998, he headed Istanbul and locals knew him as a strong manager. But not only that – Erdogan, who graduated from a madrasa, also became known as a defender of Islamic values. He can boldly be called one of the brightest Islamists of that time, and as the mayor of Istanbul, he adhered to radical Islam.
Poems about bayonets, faith, and soldiers cost Erdogan several months of freedom: in September 1998, he was found guilty of inciting religious hatred. Supporters of Kemalism – the secular ideology of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – wanted to extinguish the activity of the growing Islamist movement. They had ample opportunity to do so: many military officials, including high-ranking ones, shared the Kemalist worldview, and the role of the army in the life of Turkey at that time is difficult to overestimate. In addition, the Kemalists had levers of direct pressure on the court.
At the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, Ataturk advocated for the secular character of the state. His ideology was called laiklik, which can be translated from Turkish as “secularism”. This word was a borrowing from the French term, the essence of which was the separation of secular and spiritual power. In Turkish politics of the 90s, Kemalists were mainly represented in the influential Republican People’s Party (RPP). The military, as a rule, supported the Kemalists: the army positioned itself as the keeper of Ataturk’s ideas.
It is believed that this legal process strongly influenced Erdogan: coming to power, he did a lot to politically disarm the military. But there was another event that played a big role. It happened in Turkey on February 28, 1997 and remained in history as the “postmodern coup” – then the change of power in the country was brought about not by the actions of the military, as had often happened before, but by mere words.
On that day, the military body, the National Security Council (NSC) of Turkey, held an emergency meeting, during which they strongly recommended removing the ruling Islamist party “Refah” (Welfare Party) from power. It emerged in 1983, when Islamic ideas were gaining popularity again in Turkish society. Followers of “Refah,” which included Erdogan, advocated for the spread of Sharia law – Islamic law – in Turkey. In 1994, Erdogan was elected as the mayor of Istanbul as a candidate from “Refah.”
As a result of the “postmodernist revolution”, the Turkish government resigned, the Refah party was dissolved, and a few years later the Islamists in Turkey split into two camps. The first is the conservative wing of “traditionalists” who created the Saadet party (Party of Happiness; currently part of the opposition anti-Erdogan coalition). The second are the so-called “renewers”, supporters of moderate Islam who called for political renewal of the movement and cooperation with other forces.
The “Renewers” formed the “Justice and Development Party” (AKP) led by Erdogan. By that time, he had already moved away from radical Islam and adopted a relatively moderate line. At the beginning of the 2000s, he insisted that he was not an Islamist. His AKP positioned itself as a coalition of conservative democrats advocating for a market economy and EU membership. Later, as prime minister, Erdogan said that the people had entrusted him and his supporters with the “mission of implementing democracy.”
The popularity of the AKP was rapidly growing, and many attributed it to the personality of Erdogan himself. In 2002, the party participated in parliamentary elections, and during the campaign, its leader repeatedly emphasized that he came from a poor family and started his career on the streets of Istanbul selling water, lemons, and bagels. However, Erdogan’s charisma was not the only reason for the success of his party. Turkey was hit by the most severe financial crisis in decades and the devastating earthquake of 1999, which claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 people, preceded those elections. The actions of the government were deeply disappointing to Turkish society, and they needed someone to lead them out of the dark times.
34% of voters believed that it is within the power of 48-year-old Erdogan and his young party to achieve this – the PSR won a confident victory.
Part two. How Erdogan fought the army
After his victory in the elections, Erdogan’s criminal record was the main obstacle on his way to the prime minister’s seat – the country’s constitution prohibited him from running for the position of head of government with it. However, this did not become a really big problem, because following the elections, the AKP received 363 parliamentary seats out of 550. The party easily changed the constitution, and Erdogan took his seat as prime minister in March 2003.
The army was wary of this – they had good memory of the Islamist past of the former mayor of Istanbul. And the military remained extremely powerful: throughout the 20th century, they intervened several times in the political process, periodically organizing state coups in the country. We are not just talking about the “postmodernist” era. For example, in 1980, the military stopped the activities of several leading parties, as well as dissolved parliament and the government, after which the country adopted a constitution that is still in place in Turkey to this day.
In the People’s Democratic Party, they were aware of the danger of conflict with the military, so every opportunity Erdogan and his supporters distanced themselves from Islamism and emphasized their commitment to democracy. At the same time, Erdogan systematically reduced the role of the army in Turkish socio-political life. As early as 2003, the overwhelming majority of seats on the National Security Council were given to civilians rather than the military, and meetings of the body were held twice as rarely. A year later, for the first time in Turkish history, a civilian, diplomat Yigit Alpogan, headed the NSC.
The authorities explained all these reforms by stating that as a candidate for the EU, Turkey needed to meet the criteria of the European Union. However, the concern of the military was growing, and its culmination was a harsh open letter from the Turkish General Staff in April 2007. In it, in particular, it was stated that “certain circles are attempting to exploit the sacred religious feelings of the people” and deviating from the secular foundations of the republic.
However, the letter did not particularly affect Turkey’s life – Erdogan’s actions were bearing fruit. Then, on the 30th anniversary of the military coup of 1980 – September 12, 2010 – a referendum on new amendments to the constitution was held in the country. Military courts were limited in power according to these amendments (in particular, all cases related to state security were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court), and organizers of military coups were allowed to be tried – prior to this, the constitution guaranteed immunity to the leaders of the 1980 military coup. The amendments were passed, and the army lost some of its powers.
The tension between the government and the military eventually led to an attempted military coup on the night of July 16, 2016, during which at least 250 people were killed. Erdogan’s reaction to these events became the most extensive act of pressure on the army. He carried out an unprecedented reform of the armed forces: tens of thousands of military personnel were dismissed or sent to prison, higher military schools and academies with a long history were closed forever, the Chief of the General Staff became directly controlled by the President, who also received the right to give orders to army commanders directly.
Thus, the Turkish army, which traditionally played a key role in the country’s socio-political life, was pushed into the background. The likelihood of a new military coup has been almost reduced to zero by Erdogan.
Part Three. How Erdogan strengthened Islam
On the morning of May 2, 1999, Turkish parliament deputies gathered for another session. One of the female deputies entered the hall with her head covered with a scarf and headed to her seat. However, she was not able to stay there as outraged deputies made a noise and forced her to leave the room with their screams.
This event in modern Turkey’s history remains as the first appearance of a woman in a headscarf at a parliamentary session. For many years, Turkish women were forbidden from wearing the chador, a local version of the hijab, in public places. It was considered that the covered head undermined the secular foundations of the republic, laid down by Ataturk, and all attempts to weaken the ban were suppressed by the Constitutional Court as conflicting with the basic law.
However, Erdogan’s party was able to convince society that the headscarf is a part of Turkish culture and women have the right to wear it wherever and whenever they want. Erdogan’s wife Emine set an example for all women by wearing a headscarf. As a result of long public discussions, the ban on wearing a headscarf in government institutions, schools and universities was lifted in 2013. And when in October of that year four women appeared in Turkish parliament wearing headscarves, no one booed them anymore.
Another large-scale reform was carried out by the AK Party in 2012, this time in the education system. After it, studying in religious schools became more prestigious, and Quranic studies and Arabic, the language of Islam, were even added to the programs of secular educational institutions. Erdogan declared the main goal of the education system to be the “upbringing of a pious generation” – in opposition to the concept of the “golden generation” popularized by Turkish writer and public figure Fethullah Gulen, who advocated for the upbringing of highly educated Muslims who are competitive in the global job market. Erdogan himself responded to all questions with: “Do you expect our party, conservative and democratic in its nature, to educate atheist youth?”
From 2002 to 2022, the number of mosques in Turkey increased by 18% – from 76 thousand to almost 90 thousand. And Aya Sofia (which for Christians is the cathedral of Saint Sophia), which had been open as a museum since 1934, Erdogan returned the status of a mosque – and personally participated in the first Friday prayer in 86 years.
And so gradually Islam became a part of Turkey’s politics. At the same time, the role of religion in everyday life has not substantially changed, in some ways it has even decreased. According to surveys, from 2008 to 2018, the number of believers in Turkey increased from 31 to 34%; while the number of religious people who adhere to all Islamic canons decreased from 55 to 51%. The most noticeable decrease was in the number of those who fasted – it was 77% and became 65%.
Part Four. How Erdogan Wanted to Make Turkey One of the Leading Economies in the World (But Couldn’t)
When the AKP, led by Erdogan, came to power, the Turkish economy was in a very difficult state. One of the consequences of the 2001 financial crisis was the rise of inflation – it reached 54.4% per year. In addition, almost 10% of Turkey’s working citizens were unemployed.
Erdogan’s team managed to significantly improve the economic situation in a short period of time, including through active attraction of foreign investments. If in 2005 the capital inflow amounted to $8.5 billion, then in 2006 it was already $17.6 billion, and in 2007 – $19.2 billion. As a result, the budget deficit decreased, and inflation was reduced to 8.7%. Speaking to students at the Bosporus University in 2010, Erdogan even promised to make the republic one of the top ten economies in the world by 2023.
But Erdogan’s economic model had a dark side – the country’s prosperity was too dependent on foreign investment. This was vividly demonstrated by the index compiled by The Economist magazine. In English, it is called the capital freeze index and reflects the vulnerability of national economies in the event of a cessation of external investment. In 2013, the magazine assigned Turkey the maximum vulnerability score of 18 out of 20.
Problems became noticeable in the late 2000s, when leaders of Western countries began to lose faith in Erdogan’s policy against the backdrop of political repressions in Turkey. As Ankara’s relationship with the West deteriorated, Turkey lost external sources of financing, which could not but affect its economy. According to the World Bank, in 2010, inflation on an annual basis reached 8.6%, but by 2018 it had doubled to 16.3%. And as of November 2022, it reached a record high of 85.5% since 1998.
Another reason for the sharply deteriorated situation in the Turkish economy is considered to be Erdogan’s personal interference in the affairs of the Central Bank – experts even called this process “Erdoganomics“. Formally, the Turkish CB is independent of the executive authorities, but since around 2014, Erdogan, first as prime minister, and then as president, has begun to pressurize the regulator. Moreover, contrary to international practice, the politician demanded not to raise, but to lower the interest rate – although it is well known that such steps only exacerbate inflation.
Erdogan’s persistent desire to lower interest rates is explained by his religiosity, as usury is condemned in Islam. He himself has said that “as a Muslim, he will continue to do everything necessary” (i.e. lower rates) – because “religion requires it”.
One way or another, over the past 20 years, the AKP first pulled Turkey’s economy out of a prolonged crisis, and then returned it to almost the same state it was in at the beginning of the century. Residents of the republic are particularly suffering from the rise in food prices. In just the past year, butter has gone up by 134%, meat by 188%, and bulgur, which is popular in Turkey, by 328%. There is an opinion that Erdogan insisted on moving the elections from June 18 to May 14 precisely because of the rapidly worsening crisis. And yes, a month decides a lot – prices continue to rise.
Part Five. How Erdogan turned Turkey into an autocracy
Erdogan not only managed to strengthen the political role of Islam in the country and weaken the Turkish army, but he also fundamentally changed the structure of the country. And he began with total control over his supporters.
When creating the Justice and Development Party in 2001, Erdogan promised that there would never be a dictatorship in the party. However, in the next two years, the party’s charter changed significantly. For example, Erdogan left himself the right to form the party’s highest body – the Central Executive Committee. And gradually, the Justice and Development Party became more and more Erdogan’s personal domain, where leading positions were given to his relatives. That is why independent media dubbed the ruling party a “family club of interests.”
Erdogan, of course, did not only seize power within the party. In 2017, another referendum on amendments to the constitution was held in the country, as a result of which Turkey transformed from a parliamentary republic into a presidential one, and the position of prime minister was abolished. Several years before that, in 2014, Erdogan became president, and he did not need a strong prime minister.
These constitutional amendments have essentially given the President unlimited powers. Firstly, the head of the republic now personally appoints most of the members of the Constitutional Court (12 out of 15). Secondly, he can dissolve parliament and issue laws bypassing it, with just a presidential decree – this is how Erdogan moved the upcoming presidential election to May 14. Finally, the President’s tenure is limited to two terms, but if early presidential elections are held during the second term, the previous two terms are “reset.” That is, all conditions have been created in Turkey for a lifelong presidency – independent analysts call this situation “a one-man regime.”
As the autocracy in Turkey strengthens, there is increasing pressure on the media and civil society – in the “Reporters Without Borders” ranking over the past 20 years, the republic has moved from 99th place to 149th. At the same time, there has been a sharp increase in the number of criminal cases under the “insulting the president” article in the country. In the first seven years of Erdogan’s presidency, there were more than 38,000 cases, whereas from 1980 to 2014, during the four previous heads of state, there were not even two thousand of such cases.
Particular attention deserves the increased pressure of Erdogan on the opposition, especially in 2016-2018, when a state of emergency was introduced after an attempted military coup in the country. Probably the most famous political prisoner in modern Turkey is the former co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtas. For more than six years he has been in custody on several fabricated criminal cases, including “insulting the Turkish nation” and “supporting terrorism”.
In local press, Demirtash is often compared to Alexei Navalny. “Both politicians are still quite young, both are lawyers and are in prison. Going through their own kind of ‘leadership test’, both chose to stay in their country, even if they have to be behind bars,” noted Hakan Aksay, an expert on Russian-Turkish relations.
However, despite the strengthening of Erdogan’s personalistic regime, Turkey still perhaps has one of the remaining democratic institutions – elections.
Part six. How Erdogan can lose to the opposition
It is amazing, but it seems that the elections in Turkey have been genuinely honest so far, and the results of the 2019 municipal vote prove it. At that time, representatives of the leading opposition Republican People’s Party (the same “Ataturk’s party” that advocates for secularism) won in the three largest cities of the republic – Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. Why didn’t Erdogan’s team resort to falsifications? With such strong opposition, cheating in elections is very difficult – the public control over the voting process is too serious.
The most painful for Erdogan was certainly the defeat of his candidate, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, in Istanbul. After all, Erdogan himself, as the mayor of the country’s largest city, liked to repeat that “he who owns Istanbul, owns all of Turkey”. If in the elections on March 31, the gap between opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu and the candidate of the ruling party was only a few thousand votes (48.77% versus 48.61%), then in the repeat elections held at the request of the Republican People’s Party, the difference was already more impressive – 54% versus 45%.
Today, the united opposition represents a conglomerate of six completely different and unrelated parties. They call themselves the “Millet İttifakı”, which means “National Coalition”. In addition to the Republican People’s Party, it includes nationalists (Good Party) and Islamists (the same Happiness Party mentioned in the first part), as well as the Democratic Party and, importantly, very young liberal parties created by former Erdogan supporters. These include the Future Party, led by former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and the Democracy and Progress Party, led by former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan.
For several months, opposition members have been fiercely debating who will become the sole candidate for president. The leader of the Good Party, Meral Akşener, insisted that the candidate with the best chance of defeating Erdogan should oppose him- which, judging by the ratings, is either Istanbul Mayor Imamoglu or equally popular and energetic Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavash. But both of them, as members of the Good Party, obeyed party discipline and left the right to choose to the party leader, 74-year-old Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
The uncertainty persisted for a long time – the “National Coalition” did not name a candidate for more than 10 consecutive meetings. Finally, on March 6, the opposition announced that Kylıçdaroğlu would be the sole candidate. In case of his victory, he promised to immediately appoint seven vice-presidents: five chairmen of coalition partner parties, as well as the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.
According to social surveys over the past year and a half, Kylıchdaroglu was less popular than both Erdogan and his party comrades Imamoglu and Yavash. However, the situation changed dramatically on February 6th when Turkey experienced its largest earthquake since 1939, claiming the lives of more than 50 thousand people according to the latest data.
In the first hours after the tragedy, Erdogan and his entourage called for not politicizing what was happening. However, the opposition refused to consider the consequences of the earthquake separately from politics. And Kılıçdaroğlu stated in a special video address: “I will not talk to Erdogan, his palace and [associated with him] gangs of profiteers on any basis. I will fight alongside my people. Until the end.”
Erdogan promised to eliminate the consequences of the earthquake within a year, but it is clearly not enough for the society. People ask themselves: has everything been done during the 20 years of the ruling of the AKP to protect the country from what happened? In this context, many criticize the building amnesty, which was announced eight times during the AKP’s rule. According to it, owners of illegally constructed buildings can simply pay a fee to the state and keep their illegal construction. Building amnesties existed in Turkey even before the AKP came to power, but under Erdogan they became much more frequent, often announced before elections to attract voters.
The last and most large-scale procedure of this kind was carried out in May 2018, just before the presidential and parliamentary elections. At that time, as part of the amnesty, applications for 1.8 million buildings were approved, and 300 thousand of them were in those provinces that were later more affected by the earthquake. The state earned $1.3 billion from this, and already then the amnesty was criticized by many builders and engineers. For example, the Chairman of the National Chamber of Engineers-Builders Jamil Gekche warned that Turkish cities “can [in the event of an earthquake] turn into cemeteries”.
In the end, the pre-election campaign in Turkey was divided into before and after the earthquake, even the pro-government newspaper Hurriyet acknowledges this. Erdogan’s rating is rapidly falling, and according to the results of nine social surveys at once. And after the president felt unwell on April 25 during a live broadcast on a Turkish TV channel, amid rumors of Erdogan’s deteriorating health, his rating may plummet even further. As for the opposition candidate Kilicdaroglu, his victory no longer looks like fantasy. For example, the polling agency PİAR predicts that Kilicdaroglu can beat Erdogan with a result of 57% of the votes.
However, Erdogan is an experienced and cunning politician who will likely fight for power until the end. It is not excluded that in case of defeat, he will demand a recount of votes and new elections, as well as bring thousands of supporters to the streets of the country.
Part seven. How will the elections change Turkey’s relations with Russia
Turkey occupies a special position on the international stage. Of course, geography plays an important role here: these lands connect Europe with Asia and the country has access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean Sea. But it’s not just that, modern Turkey is a unique member of NATO: despite the country’s membership in the alliance, Erdogan gets along well with Vladimir Putin.
Turkey did not join the sanctions and did not close its airspace to Russian aircraft, as NATO insisted. In turn, Russia provided Turkey with $20 billion to build the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, as well as a deferment on payment for natural gas supplied to Turkey in 2022 (also in the amount of $20 billion). The interaction between Ankara and Moscow has long been built on personal relationships between Erdogan and Putin, notes expert on Russian-Turkish relations Hakan Aksay. They are constantly in touch – they last spoke in late April, and in general, they like to talk for a long time face-to-face.
At the same time, Ankara has been unconditionally supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including the Ukrainian ownership of Crimea, since 2014 (and especially after February 24, 2022). In addition, Turkey has provided Ukraine with the Bayraktar TB2 drones, which helped stop the advancement of Putin’s army in the spring of 2022. Furthermore, the Turkish company Baykar is building a factory in Ukraine to produce drones in the country itself. Perhaps that is why Zelensky has never spoken out sharply against Erdogan – although he regularly criticizes Western leaders.
All of this allows Ankara to act as a mediator between Moscow and Kiev against the backdrop of Russian aggression in Ukraine. According to Erdogan, today Turkey is “the only country that can maintain close relations with both sides of the war and ensure specific progress”. By this, he probably means good personal relations with both presidents.
And Erdogan does have some success. In July 2022, with Ankara’s mediation, the parties concluded the so-called grain deal, which regulates the mechanism for exporting agricultural products and fertilizers from Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Moreover, in all future negotiations, the Kremlin relies exclusively on Erdogan and his party, without considering any possibility of contacts with the current opposition, which has a chance to come to power.
It is also noteworthy that foreign policy is a weak point of the oppositional “National Coalition”. In its pre-election program, it focused on returning to a parliamentary republic and getting the country out of the economic crisis – there is no mention of Crimea annexation or the “grain deal.”
Opposition statements sometimes contradict each other. For example, last August Akshener described Ankara and Moscow’s relationship as asymmetric and called for a revision, including nationalizing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant (although the agreement on its construction does not provide for such an option). Kylıçdaroğlu later emphasized that he saw no reason to revise the relationship.
In general, it is too early to talk about any clear position of the coalition on Russia and the war in Ukraine. It can only be cautiously assumed that in case of his victory, Kılıçdaroğlu will continue Erdogan’s foreign policy course: despite the desire to actively develop ties with the West, he has already expressed hope for “healthy and dignified development of Turkish-Russian relations”.
Turkey stands at a crossroads on the eve of the elections. If Erdogan wins, the country will increasingly slide towards dictatorship: the incumbent president has already announced plans to adopt a new constitution. If the opposition wins, the country is likely to return to a parliamentary form of government – this point is agreed upon by all coalition participants.
As for relations with Russia, there seems to be no fork in the road. If Erdogan leaves after the elections and there is tension between Moscow and Ankara, it is unlikely to be prolonged – after all, the countries are too accustomed to seeing each other as indispensable partners.
Regardless of the election results, little is likely to change for Russians living in Turkey – tens of thousands of Russian citizens left there after the start of full-scale war. At the moment, they feel comfortable and rarely encounter serious problems, says coordinator of the “Ark” project to help immigrants in Istanbul, Andrei Davydov. Of course, he is talking about those who managed to legalize themselves before Russians started being denied residency permits en masse.
“Tourism is one of the key industries in Turkey, and the outcome of the elections is unlikely to radically change the situation for Russians. In the event of opposition victory, the program for obtaining citizenship for investment in real estate may be discontinued, but it cannot be said that this is the most popular method of legalization,” he summarizes.