Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Turkey's bruised battler

  • 1 November 2015
  • From the section Europe
Recep Tayyip Erdogan (June 2015) Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Erdogan has repeatedly lashed out at negative media coverage

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has bounced back with a convincing election victory for his Justice and Development (AK) Party, which will command a majority in the new parliament.

Going for a snap election was a big gamble, so soon after the Islamist-rooted AKP lost its majority in the June election.

But it paid off. The AKP will have significantly more seats than the 276 it needed to rule on its own.

Now Mr Erdogan's plan to turn Turkey into a presidential state and concentrate more power in his hands will be back on the agenda.

Security was a big issue in the 1 November election, after an escalation of clashes with the Kurdish rebel PKK and Turkey's worst ever suicide bombing, which killed 102 people in Ankara.

The election took place because the AKP had failed to reach a coalition deal after the June election.

But up until then it had enjoyed a majority in parliament since 2002.

Ideological battles

After 11 years as prime minister, in August 2014 Mr Erdogan became Turkey's first directly-elected president, in what remains a largely ceremonial role.

But critics have increasingly accused the 61-year-old leader of polarising the country - by brooking no dissent and harbouring a secret agenda to turn Turkey into a fundamentally conservative Muslim society.

He has picked high-profile fights with some powerful vested interests - the staunchly secularist military establishment and a US-based Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen, who runs a huge network of supporters.

Erdogan's rise to power

Image copyright EPA

1970s-1980s - Active in Islamist circles, member of Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party

1994-1998 - Mayor of Istanbul, until military officers made power grab

1998 - Welfare Party banned, Erdogan jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred

Aug 2001 - Founds Islamist-rooted AKP with ally Abdullah Gul

2002-2003 - AKP wins solid majority in parliamentary election, Erdogan appointed prime minister

Aug 2014 - Becomes president after first-ever direct elections for head of state

Challenging the military

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ergenekon trial, April 2013: Police clashed with protesters outside the courthouse

In the decades before the AKP's rise to power, the military had intervened in politics four times to curb Islamist influence.

In 2013 Mr Erdogan triumphed over the military elite when senior officers were among 17 people jailed for life, convicted of plotting to overthrow the AKP in what was known as the "Ergenekon" case.

Hundreds of other officers were also put on trial, along with journalists and secularist politicians, in that investigation and a similar one called the "Operation Sledgehammer" case.

When more than 200 officers were detained in the Sledgehammer investigation in 2011 the heads of Turkey's army, navy and air force resigned in protest.

Critics accused Mr Erdogan of using the judiciary to silence political opponents, and there were many allegations of trumped-up charges.

But his supporters applauded him for taking on previously untouchable establishment figures, who saw themselves as guardians of the state created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Gezi Park protests

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption In June 2013 Mr Erdogan survived a challenge from opposition demonstrators in Istanbul

Mr Erdogan also unleashed the power of the state to crush mass protests in Istanbul in June 2013, focused on Gezi Park, a green area earmarked for a huge building project.

The protests spread to other cities, swelled by many secularist Turks suspicious of the AKP's Islamist leanings.

A major corruption scandal battered his government in December 2013, involving numerous arrests, including the sons of three cabinet ministers.

He raged against "plotters" based outside Turkey, condemning supporters of Fethullah Gulen. He also lashed out against social media, vowing to "wipe out" Twitter.

He has a combative charisma that many Turks in the teeming cities and small Anatolian towns love.

But his reputation took a hit in May 2014, when he reacted coldly to a mine disaster in Soma, western Turkey, which killed 301 people.

Muslim revival

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some secularist critics bristle at the sight of Mr Erdogan's wife in a headscarf

Mr Erdogan has denied wanting to impose Islamic values, saying he is committed to secularism. But he supports Turks' right to express their religious beliefs more openly.

That message goes down particularly well in rural and small-town Anatolia - the AKP's traditional heartland. Some supporters nicknamed him "Sultan" - harking back to the Ottoman Empire.

In October 2013 Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country's state institutions - with the exception of the judiciary, military and police - ending a decades-old restriction.

Mr Erdogan's wife Emine wears a headscarf to official functions, as does the wife of his long-standing AKP ally Abdullah Gul, who was president before him.

Critics also pointed to Mr Erdogan's failed bid to criminalise adultery, and his attempts to introduce "alcohol-free zones", as evidence of his alleged Islamist intentions.

Palatial ambitions

Mr Erdogan's political opponents saw a lavish new presidential palace as a symbol of his alleged authoritarian tendencies.

Perched on a hill on the outskirts of Ankara, the 1,000-room Ak Saray (White Palace) is bigger than the White House or the Kremlin and ended up costing even more than the original £385m ($615m) price tag.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The sprawling palace in Ankara has been highly controversial for Mr Erdogan

Mr Erdogan owes much of his political success in the past decade to economic stability, with an average annual growth rate of 4.5%.

Turkey has developed into a manufacturing and export powerhouse. The AKP government kept inflation under control - no mean feat, as there were years in the 1990s when it soared above 100%.

But in 2014 the economy began flagging - growth fell to 2.9% and unemployment rose above 10%.

On the international stage he has bitterly condemned Israel - previously a strong ally of Turkey - over its treatment of the Palestinians. The policy not only galvanised his Islamic base, but also made him a hugely popular leader across the Middle East.

He has backed Syria's opposition in its fight against Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus.

But his tentative peace overtures to the Kurds in south-eastern Turkey soured when he refused to help Syrian Kurds battling Islamic State militants just across the border.

Islamic education

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Erdogan became prime minister after elections in 2002

Born in 1954, Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up, the son of a coastguard, on Turkey's Black Sea coast.

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

As a teenager, he sold lemonade and sesame buns on the streets of Istanbul's rougher districts to earn extra cash.

He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul's Marmara University - and playing professional football.

While at university, he met Necmettin Erbakan - who went on to become the country's first Islamist prime minister - and entered Turkey's Islamist movement.

In 1994, Mr Erdogan became the mayor of Istanbul. Even his critics admit that he did a good job, making Istanbul cleaner and greener.

But in 1999 he spent four months in jail after a conviction for religious incitement.

He had publicly read a nationalist poem including the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."

In 2001 Mr Erdogan launched the AKP with allies, having broken away from the Virtue Party, which had been banned.

His rise to power was complete when the AKP won a landslide election victory in 2002 and he became prime minister.

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