Erdogan’s Path to Success
By: Shujauddin Amini
There are a variety of opinions regarding Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Some view him as an extreme Islamist who seeks to undermine Turkey’s democracy, while others consider him an “autocrat” who uses the guise of democracy to further his own agenda. Some see him as a subversive figure who takes pleasure in humiliating his opponents, while others view him as a charismatic leader and a moderate Islamist. What is certain is that he is the most renowned statesman in the country after Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. His supporters often refer to him as “Ataturk II”, despite the fact that he has not followed in Atatürk’s footsteps. Erdoğan has held a firm grip on power in Turkey since 2003, serving as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and as President from 2014 to the present.
In 2001, Erdogan and Abdullah Gul founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and Erdogan has been in charge of Turkey’s affairs for the past two decades under the leadership of this party. His rivals have been unable to remove him from power, leading many to view him as a powerful statesman in Turkey. Erdogan has come to power through democratic processes, not a coup. Every major change made in Turkey’s domestic policy has been supported by the vote of the people and the parliament, such as the amendment of some articles of the constitution in 2017, which was put to a referendum.
According to this preface, the question posed is what factors have enabled Erdogan to remain in power for the past few years and become a prominent statesman in Turkey? It appears that the following factors have provided the foundation for his growth:
- 2014 Elections
The 2014 elections were a major factor in Erdogan’s rise to fame. This was the first election in Turkey to select a president through a nationwide vote, as opposed to the 1982 constitution which had previously seen the president elected by parliament for seven years. Amendments to the constitution in 2007 allowed for the president to be elected by direct popular vote for five years, and this election made Erdogan more well-known than before. Following the election, Erdogan sought to increase the powers of the president and reduce those of the prime minister. In 2017, he changed the political system from parliamentary to presidential after launching a referendum, and this consolidation of power in the presidential institution made Erdogan a powerful statesman and increased his chances of staying in power.
- Islamic Identity
Erdogan is widely recognized as an Islamist figure, whose intellectual system is believed to be shaped by the ideas of Necmettin Erbakan and Fethullah Gulen. In 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul on behalf of the Welfare Party, which was led by Erbakan. During this time, he was sentenced to four months in prison for reciting a poem with Islamic connotations: “Mosques are our barracks and domes are our helmets, minarets are our bayonets and believers are our soldiers.”
Erdogan and his party’s focus on Islamic identity has made him renowned. The Islam that Erdogan seeks to incorporate into politics is not extreme, but rather a moderate version that interacts with opposing forces. Erdogan is taking gradual and consistent steps to revive the Islamic identity so that social conflict does not occur. His effort to restore the Islamic identity in Turkish society has been appealing, otherwise it would not have been possible for him to remain in power for 20 years and take control of everything.
It can be said that, despite eighty years of rule by secular forces in Turkey, the social body of this country still has an inclination towards Islam. This is evidenced by a survey conducted in 2012, which showed that the percentage of those who identified themselves as Muslims had increased by 10% in the last twenty years, reaching 85%. Furthermore, the survey revealed that 86% of those surveyed fasted during Ramadan, and 57% of men attended the mosque once a week. This indicates that one out of three people fast and offer prayer five times a day. It is clear that a society with this temperament and nature would be receptive to the AKP’s plan to Islamize the social sphere.
Erdogan has adopted a moderate approach in the face of secular forces, avoiding imposition and coercion as much as possible in the pursuit of what is known as the revival of Islamic identity. He has not altered the constitution and has maintained the secular nature of the Turkish political system. He has sought to embellish Turkey’s social sphere with the ornament of Islam, focusing more on the arrangement of symbols than on fundamental infrastructure work in this field. His most significant action in the direction of Islamization of society was to lift the ban on the hijab and make it optional. This appears to have been the correct and visionary step to take. Secular forces had completely prohibited the hijab, but Erdogan recognized it as a right to be exercised freely. In the Middle East and Islamic countries, the Justice and Development Party’s version of combining religion and politics is seen by many as a successful model. In 2011, former U.S. President Barack Obama referred to Turkey as a “great Islamic democracy,” citing it as an effective model for Arab countries affected by popular uprisings.
3. Keeping the Army Out of Politics
Since Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, was a military man and was able to create modern Turkey through war, the Turkish army has been a powerful presence in the politics of the country. The only criticism that can be made of Turkish democracy is the military‘s dominance over politics. The Turkish army is more devoted to Atatürk‘s ideals than to the Islamists. Whenever the army perceived that the governments had moved away from Atatürk‘s ideals, they would launch a coup d‘état. For instance, between the death of Atatürk and the late 1990s, there were four military coups in Turkey that resulted in the downfall of governments: The coup of May 27, 1960, the coup of March 12, 1971, the coup of September 12, 1980, and the coup of February 28, 1997, which caused the downfall of the government of Necmettin Erbakan, one of the Islamist figures. The failed coup d‘état on January 15, 2016, caused Erdoğan to confront the military. To allay his fears, he began to purify the ranks of the army– a purge that broke the military‘s hegemony over politics.
Erdogan‘s primary focus is on fostering unity among Turkic–speaking countries. He seeks to create a separate pole with a Turkish identity in the region in order to strengthen his influence in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus. To this end, the “Cooperation Council of Turkish States“ was established in 2009, which was later renamed “The Organization of Turkish Governments“. The main objective of this organization is to unite Turkic–speaking countries around a single axis. The countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, in addition to Turkey, are members of this organization. The concept of Pan–Turkism has a long history in Turkish history. This idea was developed by Turks living under the Russian Tsarist Empire in response to the imposition of Russian identity on the Turkish minority in Russia. Ziya Gökalp, one of the Turkish intellectuals, is known as the father of Pan–Turkism. Today, this idea has taken on a political nature, and Erdogan is attempting to bring together the Turks of the Middle East, South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan under the banner of Turkey. In order to make the idea of Pan–Turkism less controversial, it is being blended with Islamic slogans, which are interpreted as “neo–Ottomanist“.