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Portrait of Recep Tayyip Erdogan - President of the Republic of Turkey

BLOG - 8 November 2018

After Russia’s Putin and Central Europe’s Orban, here comes Erdogan, the master of Turkey, i.e. a country that lies at the crossroads between the European, the Slavic and the Eastern worlds. His rise to power too results from elections, yet he governs in absolute terms. How can one explain this "authoritarian drift", according to the traditional expression used to characterize the evolution of his style of government for several years now? We asked a high-ranking French civil servant familiar with Turkey to enlighten us, under a pseudonym.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.


June 2018: Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE), who had been leading Turkey for 15 years, was re-elected President of the Republic from the first round. His party, the AKP, won the parliamentary elections. He will be able, thanks to his alliance with the ultranationalists, to dominate Parliament.

These results will enable the so-called "new Sultan" to implement the Constitution he had passed by referendum in April 2017, which concentrates all powers in the hands of the President. Is Mr Erdogan at the peak of his career? Yes, of course, and at the same time he is a lonely man, retreated in his palaces, with only a few loyal servants in both the party and the government who are not inclined to tell him things as they are. At the international level, his only friend is Mr Putin, whom a reasonable statesman can only trust with measure.

For several years now, RTE has chosen to rely on a handful of advisors, including his son-in-law and his brother, to manage the country's affairs. "Mr Son-in-law” has in fact just been appointed Minister of Finance. In corridors, people secretly speak of the temptation of a dynasty. The campaign weeks preceding the June elections were tough for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The polls remained uncertain until the end. This time, the opposition had credible candidates to oppose him, including Muharrem Ince. Above all, the rallies he multiplied did not arouse the usual enthusiasm, as if his charisma and his rhetoric were beginning to wear out.

And yet Mr Erdogan won once again. He is now able to pursue his dream of a completely remodelled Turkey, which he dominates with almost no countervailing power. In this regard, he is similar to Kemal Atatürk, whose legacy he is beginning to claim. The country's prisons are full of opponents, the media are muzzled, the business community has had to comply with the government, the army, the judiciary and administrations have been purged. The war against the Kurds of the PKK is relaunched.

How has Mr Erdogan, who just a few years ago was the herald of a moderate political Islam, respectful of the rules of democracy and human rights, become a traditional "strong man", practicing a fully personal exercise of power?

In his teenage years, he adhered to the ethos of the Islamist movement of the time, which was anti-secular, anti-Western, proud of the Ottoman empire’s past grandeur, nationalist, and hostile to the elites of the Kemalist establishment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born in 1953 in Kasimpasa, a popular district of Istanbul, located below Pera, which is the Istanbul equivalent of the Parisian district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The inhabitants of Kasimpasa are religious conservatives, while Pera is home to a cosmopolitan elite. The family of the young Recep Tayyip comes from a town near the Black Sea (Rize), with which the Erdogans maintain a close relationship. They are a pious family, neither very well-off (the father is captain of a ship on the Bosporus) nor very poor either, despite what the President of Turkey’s hagiographers tend to suggest.

As a child, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE) attended a Imam Hatip, a school that trains imams and preachers, which wasn’t so common in the 1960s and 1970s. Like his brothers and sisters, he suffered from his father’s violent behavior. He was a semi-professional football player for several years, but interrupted his career, probably for political reasons, but perhaps also because his father compelled him to.

In his teenage years, he adhered to the ethos of the Islamist movement of the time, which was anti-secular, anti-Western, proud of the Ottoman empire’s past grandeur, nationalist, and hostile to the elites of the Kemalist establishment. The latter imposed the republic by repressing part of the population’s religious convictions, in particular in the lower classes and in rural Turkey’s provinces. This is undoubtedly a key element that structured Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political personality. He is a man of power, able to show a great deal of pragmatism. Yet his vision of the world will never completely deviate from that of the boy from Kasimpasa, for whom the essential struggle remains, in the name of a nationalist Islam, the fight against the arrogance of the Kemalist establishment strutting around Pera.

He became involved very early on in the Milli Gorus, an Islamist organization led by Necmettin Erbakan, who at the time was the great leader of Turkish political Islam, and who himself was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. The young Erdogan, thanks to his undeniable charisma, quickly held positions of responsibility within the Islamist organizations. His militancy - and luck - led him to Istanbul’s municipality in 1994: he was elected with 24% of the votes thanks to the absurd divides that weakened his opponents from the Kemalist establishment. An event that could well have led him to believe that he was chosen by fate.

The young Erdogan, thanks to his undeniable charisma, quickly held positions of responsibility within the Islamist organizations.

In 1977, Mr Erbakan was forced out of government by the army. RTE himself was sent to prison for a few months for having read during a rally a classic poem deemed intolerable by the military, given the context. The municipality of Istanbul earned him national notoriety. Prison will be an opportunity for him to reflect in depth on the need to renew the message of political Islam.

Once freed, he and other "reformers" distanced themselves from Erbakan. He became one of the founders of the Adaletet ve Kalinma Partisi (AKP), which advocated for a modernized version of political Islam, and emphasized the fight against corruption as well as its commitment to democracy. In an interview held in 1996, RTE stated that "democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off". In 2000, on the contrary, he disqualified those who support the establishment of Sharia law and declared that he would never "instrumentalize" democracy.

Yet how far does this conversion to democracy go?

He also very quickly cultivated a direct link with the Turkish people, to whom he spoke from rally to rally with the language of a leader who represents the working class against the plutocrats.

During the AKP’s first term, from 2002 to 2007, the government led by Mr Erdogan gave pledges, which at the time were perceived as considerable. His first concern was to respond favorably to the European Union’s requirements in the context of the accession process. The Turkish Parliament hastily passed a whole series of laws designed to adapt the country's legislation to European norms, particularly with regard to the army’s role or the penal code.

This enthusiasm lost momentum a few years later, because a number of measures adopted by Turkey proved to be insufficient, (e.g. torture), and because, on the European side, conservative leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel dampened the Turks’ hopes. RTE was hurt by the attitudes of some of his European partners. 

But above all, in retrospect, it appears that the AKP had instrumentalized its relationship with the European Union in order to protect itself from the Kemalist "deep state", and to reduce the latter’s influence in state affairs. Erdogan was the one leading this operation and, behind his unsophisticated looks, confirmed his qualities as a political strategist. At that time, some members of the government drank alcohol in public. They came from parties other than the AKP, or were recruited because they were technocrats who reassured the Kemalist establishment. Within the party itself, Mr Gül, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and other leaders, made their voice, which was different from the Prime Minister’s, heard. The latter is however ruthless with his rivals. 

He also very quickly cultivated a direct link with the Turkish people, to whom he spoke from rally to rally with the language of a leader who represents the working class against the plutocrats. His talent as an orator magnified the Manichean language that gave him an unrivalled influence on certain segments of the population, in rural areas and small towns. He tirelessly promoted a caricatured patriarchal model of the couple, the one he in fact applies to himself and his wife Emine. In the security services and other administrations, he evicted traditional managers to the benefit of Islamists, in cooperation with his allies in the Gülenist movement, this powerful political-religious nebula led by its spiritual leader from the United States.

Perhaps because of the country's remarkable growth, Erdogan's party won a second general election in 2007, and improved its previous score. At that time, the AKP embodied a political Islam compatible with democracy, a "democratic conservatism", similar to the European "Christian Democrat" movement.

The year 2007, however, marked a first turning point, with the resumption of hostilities between the Kemalist establishment and Islamists

The year 2007, however, marked a first turning point, with the resumption of hostilities between the Kemalist establishment and Islamists. At the end of President Sezer's term, the military staff announced its opposition to the election of a President from the AKP. Mr Erdogan held on, managed to have Mr Gül elected by Parliament and organized a referendum to have the President elected by universal suffrage. A little later, a tremendous trial was launched, certainly initiated by the Gülenists, who had infiltrated the judicial system and the police. It stretched over the years, and accused senior army officials of conspiracy. 

The Supreme Court also tried to destabilize Mr Erdogan's power. It failed, with only one vote missing, to dissolve the AKP. The party then retaliated and its governing method became much less consensual. Arrests of journalists were increasingly frequent. 2007 was also the year when Mr Erdogan and his family’s personal enrichment started being questioned - with the triggering of legal proceeding by the German justice.

The AKP’s second term was marked by developments in favor of the religious conservatives - such as the authorization of the veil in universities -, by the party’s takeover of entire sections of the media and by what has been called the Kurdish Opening. Mr Erdogan is the Turkish statesman who chose to tackle the Kurdish question, which he distinguished, in a famous speech in Diyarbakir, from the PKK question. Important new rights for the Kurds were recognized. Negotiations with the PKK leadership, which were initially held secretly, went very far. In retrospect, many wonder whether such a move was not just a way for RTE to further isolate the Kemalist establishment.

In any case, at least half of Turkey’s Kurdish population supports the AKP for religious motives and out of hatred for the PKK.

Turkey's popularity abroad has never been as high as it was in the early 2000s. Once marginal, it had become a courted country with vast ambitions. RTE willingly traveled to other countries, and although he speaks no language other than Turkish, he made a strong impression with his high stature and energy. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Davutoglu, believes in a sort of flexible and peaceful neo-Ottomanism. Mr Erdogan placed his bet on the Syria of Bashar al-Assad, with whom he became friends, or on Qatar. He interfered jointly with Brazil in the Iranian nuclear affair. He got spectacularly mad with Israel, which complicated his relationship with the United States, but earned him an increased popularity in the Muslim world and domestically.

This is when the dream a Sunni territory inspired by the Turkish model, which would occupy a vast area from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, collapsed. The result was a major shift in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political orientation.

From 2011 onwards, however, Mr Erdogan's Turkey was swept away in the whirlwind triggered by the "Arab Spring". The Turkish success soon sank into a disaster. At first, what happened in Tunis or Cairo seemed to confirm the merits of "democratic conservatism", reconciling political Islam with democratic standards. When visiting his emulators in both capitals, RTE dared to advise them to respect secularism. 

Yet Bashar al-Assad did not take his recommendation into account and chose repression at all costs. Erdogan was thus forced to break with him and engage with the opposition. He worryingly watched the Syrian Kurds, dominated by a local branch of the PKK, build a semi-independent enclave in the north-east of Syria. More generally, the "Arab Spring"’s widespread failure had a demoralizing effect on the AKP leadership. Morsi’s fall in Egypt, and his replacement on 3 July 2013 by a general of the former regime (Sisi), was felt in Ankara both as Mr Erdogan’s personal failure and as a betrayal from the West. This is when the dream a Sunni territory inspired by the Turkish model, which would occupy a vast area from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, collapsed. The result was a major shift in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political orientation.

In the weeks preceding the coup against Morsi, the Gezi Square protest movement developed in Istanbul. RTE saw this protest as a destabilization attempt similar to that led against Morsi, inspired by the Kemalists and encouraged from abroad. He responded with great brutality to the Gezi movement. This, of course, led him to be disavowed by the Europeans and the United States.

In 2014, he was elected President of the Republic with a narrow majority in the first Turkish presidential election by universal suffrage. When Daesh entered the Iraqi scene (capture of Mosul), he took some surprising decisions. He indeed chose not to come to the rescue of his Iraqi Kurdish ally, Mr Barzani, and seemed to accept Mr Baghdadi’s organization. Later, he became increasingly exasperated by the partnership the Americans and their allies were forging with the Syrian branch of the PKK to fight Daesh on the banks of Euphrates.

It is perhaps in 2015 that Erdogan’s character definitively completed his metamorphosis. In June, the AKP scored lower than usual in the elections, which deeply irritated the Turkish President. The Russian intervention in Syria revealed the extent of the failure of his policy towards Syria, hitherto very hostile to Assad. The Turkish air force shot a Russian military plane, and Putin reacted with the utmost firmness.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ruling over Turkey for almost two decades, yet the secular, urban, coastal, and economically productive Turkey still stands.

Mr Erdogan became increasingly irascible, authoritarian and "paranoid", to reuse a familiar expression. He engaged Turkey in a new war, first on national territory and then in Syria, against the Kurds of the PKK. Attacks multiplied throughout the country. It was, first and foremost, an attack on the West. Was he a dictator besieged from all sides, whose difficulties blurred his vision? Or had the political strategist decided to take all the necessary risks to launch a counter-offensive?

Thanks to his strategy of tension, he won the new elections he called for in November 2015. In March 2016, he agreed to make a deal on refugees with Europeans, whom he treated with contempt because they needed him. 

He welcomed the attempted military coup on 15 July 2016 as a "gift of God", according to his own words. This episode allowed him to imprison thousands of opponents or simply people who did not support him, to purge the army, to further restrict freedoms, to lead a fierce struggle against the Gülenist circles, presented (and probably rightly so) as the great puppeteers of the failed putsch. Given that it led many memories to resurface, the Turkish population was necessarily very shocked by the attempted coup. Obama, Hollande and other Western leaders did not understand that in a moment of such intense emotion, an opportunity could have been seized to reconnect with the Turkish President. Vladimir Putin did, and the two authoritarian leaders reconciled in the weeks that followed. This led Mr Erdogan to change his strategy in Syria and to cooperate with Russia. 

In April 2017, RTE engaged in a new electoral gamble and yet again narrowly succeeded in having a new Constitution endorsed by universal suffrage. The latter centralizes all powers in the hands of the President. All big cities, including Istanbul, were against him. He nonetheless pursued his high-risk game, sent his army to Syria for the second time, and provoked early elections, which he won in June and which pave the way towards an almost boundaryless presidentialism, this time legitimized by votes.

Although he has achieved his goals, it is highly unlikely that a new Erdogan, both magnanimous and pragmatic, will appear, and take a bet on national reconciliation, thus reversing all his previous choices. On the international level, on the contrary, given the fragility of the Turkish position, Mr Erdogan could adopt a “swing” approach that would bring him closer to NATO. Yet the Court decision’s last week not to release the American pastor Andrew Brunson, detained by the Turkish state, is not too encouraging.

RTE stopped reading books a long time ago. He watches television and tries never to miss the episodes of the famous historical series "Payitaht: Abdülhamid". He admired Abdülhamid, the last leader of the Ottoman Empire who tried to save the empire by ruling with an iron hand. What is left of Turkish democracy? Elections, one would be tempted to respond. They are irregular, they take place in a country very strongly conditioned by the government in power, and yet President Erdogan's democratic credentials are indisputable. His opponents recognized the results of the last election. On the other hand, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been ruling over Turkey for almost two decades, yet the secular, urban, coastal, and economically productive Turkey still stands. Mr Erdogan has not managed to overcome this challenge yet.

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

 

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