Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Presidential candidate of Türkiye's People’s Alliance

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Presidential candidate of Türkiye's People’s Alliance

Erdogan has not lost an election since 1994. Here is what has made him politically invincible.
Recep Erdogan became the country’s prime minister in 2007 and 2011 and two presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 to serve as Türkiye’s president. / Photo: AA

Türkiye is heading towards an election cycle in mid-May when the political acumen of 69-year-old Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be challenged by the joint-opposition alliance's presidential candidate.

Since being elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Erdogan has not lost a single election against any opponent and has, throughout his career, only lost twice — during his first two campaigns — in the 1980s.

On May 14, when both presidential and parliamentary elections will be held, Erdogan — who won the previous two presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 — seeks to be elected as the 13th president of the Republic of Türkiye, backed by the People's Alliance, a political coalition of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), Nationalist Movement Party (NMP), BBP, Yeniden Refah Party and HUDA PAR.

Erdogan and his supporters founded the AK Party based on a conservative democratic position in 2001, and the following year, the party claimed a parliamentary majority in an unexpected sweeping victory against Türkiye's traditional centre-right and centre-left parties, paving the way for a new political model under Erdogan’s leadership.

In 2002, few analysts imagined that Erdogan and his AK Party would claim back-to-back victories, let alone gain enough political strength to change the country's parliamentary system to a presidential model in a critical referendum in April 2017. However, Erdogan has, from day one, relentlessly pursued his political objectives, creating a country that can invest across the African continent and play a high-stakes role in different conflicts from Ukraine to Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria significantly improving Türkiye's defence and energy sectors.

Unlike many Western political leaders who owe their rise in ranks to elite-centric democratic political structures, Erdogan comes from humble origins. He belonged to Türkiye's periphery, where frustrations over the suppression of religiosity and conservatism under the Kemalist establishment's strict secularist practices have long been pervasive.

In 2002, Erdogan came to power, defeating the country’s traditional parties with big margins. (AA)

Erdogan’s political origins

Erdogan's father hailed from Guneysu, a mountainous district in the Black Sea province of Rize, where he served as a captain in the Turkish Coast Guard. Erdogan was born and raised in Istanbul's working-class Kasimpasa district.

Located in Istanbul’s Golden Horn (Halic), Kasimpasa has long been a colourful district. Erdogan sold lemonade and simits on the street, gaining a deep understanding of the quotidian experience of the ordinary Turkish citizen and engaging in suburban life, where conservative and nationalist sentiments mixed with a nostalgia for the country’s illustrious Ottoman past.

At a young age, Erdogan became interested in both football and politics. He came close to playing for Fenerbahce, a leading Istanbul-based football club, but his father opposed his son’s sporting ambitions; as a result, Erdogan chose a career in politics.

Erdogan graduated in 1981 from Business Administration at the Istanbul Academy of Economics and Commercial Science, which was later named Marmara University's Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences.

Erdogan joined the Milli Gorus (National Vision) movement, which had, for the most part, been established by Necmettin Erbakan, a successful Turkish engineer with strong religious convictions. Erbakan and his friends founded the National Salvation Party (MSP) in 1972 as the political wing of Milli Gorus.

The Milli Gorus movement’s political agenda was based on the belief that, as a Muslim-majority country, Türkiye could, through an economic development strategy founded upon the conservative spirit of Anatolian entrepreneurship, become a major power without compromising its core Islamic values.

In 1976, Erdogan became the National Salvation Party’s youth branch leader of the Beyoglu district, which, at the time, included his own Kasimpasa neighbourhood. Not long after, he became the head of the party’s Istanbul youth branch.

Following the brutal 1980 military coup that seized Türkiye, Erdogan continued to follow Erbakan’s path, becoming chair of the Istanbul branch of the newly established Welfare Party in 1985. After two unsuccessful attempts at becoming the mayor of Beyoglu and a Welfare Party MP for Istanbul, he finally reached a critical point in his political career in 1994.

Mayor of Istanbul

When Erdogan ran for office in local Istanbul metropolitan municipality elections against high-profile centre-right and centre-left candidates, most candidates discounted his bid as a lost cause, deeming that there was no way a Welfare Party candidate could win. He was even neglected by a number of top talk-show hosts, who declined to invite him onto their programmes, believing that he had no chance.

But on the morning of March 27, he emerged as the victorious candidate to the shock of the country’s military-led establishment, which saw the Welfare Party (RP) as an ideological threat to their radical interpretation of secularism, which even banned headscarves in universities at the time.

He demonstrated his skills during his mayoral tenure, fixing a number of the city’s major problems, including its infamous water cuts, transportation inadequacies, increasing pollution and waste management issue, which had caused a methane explosion in the Umraniye district on the Asian side of Istanbul in 1993 under the previous leftist mayor. He also led a successful project to clean the Golden Horn, whose waters border his beloved Kasimpasa neighbourhood.

But for the radical secularist establishment inspired by French laicism, which advocated for the state’s rule over religious sentiments, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon secularism, which defended a moderate separation of religion and state, Erdogan’s municipality successes did not matter much.

In 1999, Erdogan was sentenced to five months in prison due to his recitation of a poem written by the nationalist writer, Ziya Gokalp, whose ideas were a great inspiration for Türkiye’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The controversial sentence also led to a political ban, forcing Erdogan to leave his mayoral position.

While the sentence came as a great shock both to the conservative masses and to many Istanbulites, who saw their quality of life significantly improved under Erdogan’s leadership, it led to a reawakening of Türkiye's future leader.

In 2013, as the country’s prime minister, he revisited the Pinarhisar prison, located in Kirklareli, a province in Türkiye’s European region of Thrace, where he had been jailed, saying, “For me, Pinarhisar is a symbol of rebirth, where we prepared the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). It was there that we took the first step towards establishing a new and great Türkiye.”

Türkiye’s Leader

Two years after his release from Pinarhisar, Erdogan and his like-minded peers, who were called “reformists” — as opposed to the followers of Erbakan’s faction, who were referred to as “traditionalists” — founded the AK Party after a split in the Virtue Party, the successor of the banned Welfare Party.

With the establishment of the AK Party, Erdogan aimed to appeal to both centre-right and nationalist voters, as well as to moderate leftists moving from Erbakan’s core Milli Gorus stance to the political centre. But he continued to respect Erbakan’s struggle until his death, praising his legacy.

In 2002, his new strategy proved to be a great political invention after his party came to power, defeating the country’s traditional parties — and with big margins. Since then, Erdogan has won two general elections to become the country’s prime minister in 2007 and 2011 and two presidential elections in 2014 and 2018 to serve as Türkiye’s president.

From 2002 until today, his party has won three referendums on constitutional changes which included turning the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential model. Erdogan’s party has also claimed a majority in all local elections since 2002, a feat no political party had been able to reach since Türkiye’s move to a multi-party system in 1950.

Under his tenure, the role of Türkiye’s military establishment within the political system has considerably diminished, empowering the civilian government. Prior to Erdogan’s rule, the military had, in 1960, 1980 and 1997, ousted a number of democratically elected civilian governments. The latest successful military intervention, called the postmodern coup, overthrew the Erbakan-led government in 1997.

On July 15, 2016, a coup attempt led by a rogue faction of the military inspired by Fethullah Gulen, the US-based leader of the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO), was successfully defeated following the Turkish president’s call for pro-democratic citizens to fight coup plotters off on the streets.

The coup attempt killed hundreds of civilians and wounded thousands who fought to resist it. Prior to the failed coup attempt, FETO had used illegal means to infiltrate Turkish state institutions, aiming to take control of the country's political system.

While Erdogan has critics both within and outside of Türkiye, his pragmatic leadership, which is aimed at paving the way for an independent and self-sufficient Türkiye, has proven him adept at shifting alliances and changing political equations across Türkiye and around the globe.

As a result, despite having changed the direction of a number of domestic and foreign policies, his leadership has won him many supporters both within the Turkish political establishment and among many global leaders, from Ukraine and Russia to Africa, Central Asian states and Muslim-majority countries.

In the May 14 elections, Erdogan once again aims to defend both his presidency and his political achievements, as well as the parliamentary majority of his party and the People's Alliance. In the aftermath of February’s devastating earthquakes, which killed tens of thousands of people in Türkiye, it is to be seen whether this task proves to be more difficult than his previous election challenges.

TRT World