TURKEY’S PAST represents prosperity and pride for the Turkish people. The vast Ottoman Empire which spread across the European, Asian and African continents fell just before the end of World War I. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, former Turkish president, led Turkish people against invaders during WWI and, in 1923, implemented a secularist and independent republic. Turkey joined NATO in 1952 under the Democratic Party, which many saw as the “saviour of Islam”. Due to its closeness to religion, the party was overthrown in 1960 following a coup by the armed forces. In recent decades, Turkey has long been entangled in internal divisions between leftists and rightists, the latter often associated with nationalist islamists.
Already from a young age, Erdogan was known for his oratory skills defending the Islamist cause. During his studies at Marmara University’s Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, from where he graduated in 1981, Erdogan embodied the cause of nationalist students’ movements. He was part of the islamist Welfare Party, which was later banned following accusations of religious meddling in government affairs. His Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he co-founded in 2001 and persists to this day, was also imposed financial penalties for anti-secularist behaviour in 2008.
Erdogan was first elected for a political office in 1994, as mayor of Istanbul. He was elected then prime-minister in 2003 and later, in 2014, rather than being chosen by the parliament, he was elected president of Turkey by universal suffrage, for the first time in the country’s history.
In 1998, Erdogan was convicted for inciting religious hatred after reciting a poem that compared mosques to barracks, minarets to bayonets, and the faithful to an army. In fact, he progressively started promoting authoritarian and islamist initiatives. He prohibited alcoholic beverages in the city’s cafes as mayor of Istanbul and later lifted the headscarves ban in public institutional places. He also unsuccessfully attempted to criminalize adultery.
Erdogan frequently expressed pronatalist views, against reproductive rights, birth control, and abortion. The government has thus promoted financial incentives to encourage family growth, such as a severance payment to newly married women who leave their job within a year after their wedding.
Furthermore, Erdogan’s control of religion in society largely passes through his policies on education. Under the AKP, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) plays a central role, and the Imam Hatip Okulları (IHLs), which used to be religious courses, are now equivalent to secondary schools. In 2011, the AKP decreased university entry barriers to IHL students. In 2018, those constituted 12% of the total secondary school population, an increase of about 3.4 percentage points since 1997.
In 2013, a large-scale US$100 billion corruption scandal, involving two of Erdogan`s sons, culminated in the arrests of Erdogan’s closest allies, with some political figures being dismissed from office.
In that same year, the Gezi Park protests erupted in Istanbul and later spread across the country. This represented an anti-government uprise against growing authoritarian and islamist initiatives. In fact, a law penalizing insults towards the head of state, in practice since 1926, had rarely been used before Erdogan. Until 2016, more than 1500 people have allegedly been investigated, kept in custody or imprisoned under this law. Critics accuse the party of significant control of the media and public opinion, oppression of political opponents, and an overall violation of freedom of speech.
In 2016, the military orchestrated an unsuccessful coup to strip the president off his title. In response, Erdogan ordered mass arrests and show trials. In 2017, he won a referendum, backed by 51% of voters, which strengthened his constitutional competence. This granted him the power to directly appoint top public officials, including ministers and vice-presidents, to intervene in the legal system, and possibly remain in office until 2029, in addition to abolishing Turkey’s parliamentary system.
As mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan strived to overcome the city’s main problems: setting up new recycling facilities, developing natural gas projects to clean the air, and introducing hundreds of kilometers of new pipeline to ensure water supply. Macroeconomic reforms attracted more foreign investors, which allowed for more infrastructure projects such as the construction of bridges, passageways, and freeways. Concerning Erdogan’s early years as prime-minister, Zafer Caglayan, the former Economic Affairs Minister, described them as the «Turkish Miracle». In fact, for most of the 2000s, Turkey was Europe’s fastest growing economy, reaching an annual growth rate of 7%. Between 2002 and 2012, the country’s Real GDP increased 64%, while GDP per capita increased 43%. Additionally, as prime-minister, Erdogan implemented reforms and increased investment in infrastructure such as roads, airports, and a high-speed train network.
However, since 2013, the «Turkish Miracle» has been fading as Turkey has been witnessing the abandonment of soft power. In 2014, growth fell to 2.9% and unemployment rose above 10%.
Turkey’s intervention in several international conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian and the Turkish-Kurdish, also contributed to its economy flagging. Between 2016 and 2017, several rating agencies downgraded Turkey’s sovereign credit ratings, expressing their concern about rule of law and the pace of economic reforms. With investors’ confidence declining since 2016, US sanctions imposed against Turkey in 2018, and staggering inflation, the economy reached a recession at the end of the year, urging the government to implement measures to alleviate pressure on the population. The lira dropped by 40% against the dollar, while industrial production slowed and housing sales dropped. Since then, the party has been increasingly losing control over the economy, with significant consequences during the 2019 local elections, losing both the capital Ankara and Istanbul.
III. Foreign Policy
Regarding foreign policy, Erdogan has focused on defending the Islamist cause worldwide, intervening in several international conflicts, which he perceives as beneficial for national security. He sees himself not only as the savior of Muslims but also as of «all the aggrieved people in our region, all the oppressed in the world», as he stated in his victory speech in 2018.
The conflict with the Kurds has led Turkey to occupy north-eastern Syria. Firstly, Erdogan’s aim was to stabilize the regions in the country controlled by rebels who wanted to end Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a strategy to stop floods of refugees to cross the border. But since Kurdish forces have controlled Syria’s northern region, taking advantage of the withdrawal of US troops, Erdogan pushed them out.
Simultaneously, a war of words between Greece and Turkey has been escalating over Mediterranean waters. Erdogan signed a deal with Libya’s unbacked government, allegedly granting Turkey´s access to Greek waters and gas reserves. In August this year, Turkey sent a ship to exploit hydrocarbon offshore, deepening the tensions. The EU, although having abandoned negotiations with Turkey in 2016, accusing it of basic human rights violations, has appealed for dialogue. To this day tensions between Turkey and the block still persist, notably regarding the refugee crisis.
Concerning the east, Turkey has seen its ties with China strengthen, signing bilateral agreements on health and nuclear energy, while ignoring the Muslim Uighurs’ modern concentration camps. On top of that, Erdogan has shown support for repressive regimes, such as Nicolas Maduro’s.
Since his rise to power, Erdogan’s grip of Turkey has been increasingly marked by authoritarian policies. Initially praised for turning around the country’s economy, Erdogan’s disregard of the rule of law and human rights have put him under fire in the international scene.
But his focus on social values is two-sided: they both reflect his personal views as well as the source of where he harnesses support. In July of this year, the Turkish President ruled that the 1,500-year-old Byzantine Hagia Sophia, a former cathedral turned mosque which until recently served as a museum established by Ataturk, would once again become a mosque. The move, which sparked international outcry, served as a strategy for Erdogan to ensure his popularity, as he avidly relies on his conservative supporters. In fact, the government has been criticized for mishandling the Coronavirus pandemic as the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two largest cities, accused it of covering up the real numbers. This precarious and uncertain situation, alongside a frail economy, raises questions on the future of Erdogan’s controversial leadership.