Erdogan The bread seller who changed Turkey faces a choice

Erdogan: The bread seller who changed Turkey faces a choice G1

1 of 4 presidential elections in Turkey this Sunday will test Erdogan’s more than 20year leadership Photo: GETTY IMAGES via BBC Turkey’s presidential election this Sunday will test Erdogan’s more than 20year leadership Photo: GETTY PICTURES via BBC

From humble beginnings, Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew into a political giant, leading Turkey for 20 years and transforming the country more than any leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is considered the “father” of the modern Turkish republic.

However, his chances of extending his rule for a third decade are at stake as the country recovers from its most devastating earthquake since 1999.

The opposition accuses him of failing to prepare for the disaster, given Turkey’s location in a region prone to strong earthquakes, and of mismanaging the economy.

rise to power

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born in February 1954 and grew up as the son of a Black Sea Coast Guard in northern Turkey.

When he was 13, his father decided to move to Istanbul hoping to give his five children a better education.

Young Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame bagels known as “simit,” a type of bread popular in Turkey, to supplement his income. He attended an Islamic school before earning a degree in business administration from Marmara University in Istanbul.

His degree has always been a contentious issue, with the opposition claiming he does not have a full university degree but has an equivalent degree a claim Erdogan has consistently denied.

Young Erdogan was also interested in football and played in semiprofessional teams until the 1980s.

But his greatest passion was politics. He was active in Islamist circles in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually joining Necmettin Erbakan’s proIslamic Welfare Party.

As the party grew in popularity in the 1990s, Erdogan ran for mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and ruled the city for the next four years.

Erbakan, Turkey’s pioneering Islamic prime minister, held office for just a year before being forced to resign by the military in 1997. And Erdogan has also run afoul of the country’s steadfast secular authorities.

That same year he was convicted of inciting racial hatred for publicly reciting a nationalist poem containing the following lines: “Mosques are our barracks, domes are our helmets, minarets are our bayonets, and the faithful are our soldiers.”

After four months in prison, Erdogan returned to politics. But in 1998 his party was banned for violating the secular principles of the modern Turkish state.

In August 2001, he founded a new party with Islamic roots, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), with his ally Abdullah Gul.

Erdogan’s popularity grew, particularly among two groups: first, among Turkey’s pious majority, who felt marginalized by the country’s secular elites, and second, among those suffering from the economic crisis of the late 1990s.

In 2002, the AKP won the majority of votes in parliamentary elections, and the following year Erdogan was appointed prime minister. He is still the leader of the party today.

2 of 4 As a young man, Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame bagels known as ‘simit’, a type of bread very popular in Turkey, to supplement his income Photo: EPA via BBC As a young man, Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame bagels which are very popular in Turkey as “Simit”, a type of bread very popular in Turkey, as an income supplement Photo: EPA via BBC

Three terms as Prime Minister

Beginning in 2003, Erdogan served three terms as prime minister, enjoying a period of steady economic growth and earning international acclaim as a reformer.

The country’s middle class grew and millions were lifted out of poverty by prioritizing massive infrastructure projects to modernize Turkey.

Even in his early years in power, Erdogan managed to reach out to voters from Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

The rights of this population improved and after three decades of conflict, a new peace process was launched in March 2013, prompting the militant group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to declare a ceasefire. But the deal only lasted two years, and the protracted cycle of violence returned.

In 2013, critics also began to warn that Erdogan was becoming increasingly autocratic.

In the summer of 2013, protesters took to the streets, partly over his government’s plans to convert a popular park in central Istanbul into a mosque and shopping mall, but also to challenge the more authoritarian regime.

Erdogan ordered the eviction of protesters from Gezi Park and the excessive use of police force sparked an unprecedented wave of mass demonstrations.

This marked a turning point in government. To his critics, he behaved more like a sultan of the Ottoman Empire than a democrat.

Muslim Renaissance

3 out of 4 Headscarves were previously banned at universities and certain public institutions Photo: EPA via BBC Headscarves were previously banned at universities and certain public institutions Photo: EPA via BBC

Erdogan’s party also asked for the lifting of a ban on women wearing headscarves in universities and in public service, which had been introduced after a military coup in 1980. The ban was eventually lifted for women in the police, military and judiciary.

Critics complained that he had destroyed the pillars of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular republic. Though religious, Erdogan has always denied promoting Islamic values, insisting he is merely supporting Turks’ right to express their religion more openly.

However, he repeatedly said that a woman’s primary role in society should be “to fulfill traditional gender roles,” which primarily consists of “being an ideal mother and an ideal wife.”

He condemned feminists and said that men and women cannot be treated equally.

Erdogan has long championed Islamic causes and political Islam groups ideologically close to Egypt’s oppressed Muslim Brotherhood. Sometimes he even uses his fourfingered salute the Raba.

In July 2020, he oversaw the conversion of Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which angered many Christians and secular Muslim Turks.

The building was built as a cathedral 1,500 years ago and converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks, but Ataturk turned it into a museum a symbol of Turkey’s new secular state.

way to the presidency

After reaching his maximum of three terms in 2014, he was barred from running for prime minister again and ran for the largely ceremonial role of president in unprecedented direct elections.

Erdogan planned to reform the office under a new constitution that critics believed would challenge the country’s secularist establishment.

However, at the beginning of his presidency he faced two major challenges.

His party lost its majority in parliament for several months in 2015, and the following year, on July 15, 2016, Turkey saw its first attempted coup in decades.

Almost 300 civilians were killed while blocking the advance of the putschists.

The conspiracy has been blamed on the Gülen movement, led by a USbased Islamic scholar named Fethullah Gülen.

His social and cultural movement helped Erdogan win three consecutive elections, but when the two allies fell out, it had a dramatic impact on Turkish society.

After an attempted coup in 2016, around 150,000 officials were sacked and more than 50,000 people arrested, including Kurdish soldiers, journalists, lawyers, police officers, academics and politicians.

This repression of critics sparked concern abroad and contributed to the freezing of relations with the European Union (EU): Turkey’s attempt to join the economic grouping had stalled for years.

Discussions about the influx of migrants into Greece exacerbated the malaise.

Erdogan narrowly won a referendum in 2017 that gave him sweeping powers as president, including the right to declare a state of emergency, appoint senior officials and intervene in the judicial system.

international actor

In the course of his tenure, Erdogan has also gained importance in international politics.

He has turned Turkey into a regional power and his powerful diplomacy has angered allies, particularly in Europe.

Although Erdogan was the head of a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Western military alliance) state, he had close ties to the Russian Vladimir Putin and positioned himself as a mediator in the Russian war in Ukraine.

He helped negotiate an agreement, opening a safe corridor for grain exports across the Black Sea and preventing its collapse when Russia decided to end its support.

It also made Sweden and Finland wait for its proposals to join the western alliance.

He eventually agreed to Finland’s accession but kept Sweden out, claiming the country was harboring Kurdish separatists and other dissidents whom he viewed as “terrorists”.

election setbacks

4 of 4 “Free jailed journalists”: Over 100 journalists jailed since failed coup Photo: AFP via BBC “Free jailed journalists”: Over 100 journalists jailed since failed coup Photo: AFP via BBC

Many critics see the 2019 local elections as the “first blow” to Erdogan’s long rule, as his party held elections in the three largest cities Istanbul; the capital Ankara; and Izmir.

A narrow defeat in Istanbul by Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was a major blow to Erdogan, who had been the city’s mayor in the 1990s.

Now Imamoglu wants to expand that success nationally by fighting alongside the antiErdogan united opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Criticism of the government’s lack of preparation and slow response to a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey and left millions homeless is one of the many challenges Erdogan faces. Another reason is the bad economic situation in which millions of people are suffering from the cost of living crisis.

This Sunday, May 14, Erdogan will see his legacy of two decades at stake in a historic election against a powerful opposition coalition.