Turkey's Erdogan still fighting for power after 20 years

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President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures during the opening ceremony of Osmangazi Bridge in Kocaeli, Turkey on June 30, 2016Image source, Getty Images
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President Erdogan has spearheaded numerous major infrastructure projects as part of a programme to modernise Turkey

From humble beginnings, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown into a political giant, leading Turkey for 20 years and reshaping his country more than any leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered father of the modern republic.

But rampant inflation and a cost-of-living crisis have cast doubt on his chances of extending his rule into a third decade. Falling poll numbers and a strong opposition challenge could prevent him winning elections in May.

For a pugnacious leader who built a proud record of solid growth and a boom in development and modernisation, Turkey's economic decline presents a serious risk.

First as prime minister from 2003 and then as directly elected president since 2014, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has flexed Turkey's muscles as a regional power, championed Islamist causes and been quick to outmanoeuvre domestic opposition.

Although he is the head of a Nato country, he has positioned himself as a broker in Russia's war in Ukraine and kept Sweden and Finland waiting in their bids to join the Western defensive alliance. His muscular diplomacy has riled allies in Europe and beyond.

While many Turks are looking for a future without him, President Erdogan is a proven election winner and will not give up power lightly. He has already sought to prevent a leading rival, the mayor of Istanbul, from running.

He, more than anyone, knows the risk of defeat at the hands of a popular Istanbul mayor, because that was the role in which he built his powerbase in the 1990s.

Rise to power

Born in February 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.

The young Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame buns to earn extra cash. He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul's Marmara University - and playing professional football.

Image source, AFP
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Erdogan supporters like his tough language and defence of traditional Muslim values

In the 1970s and 80s, he was active in Islamist circles, joining Necmettin Erbakan's pro-Islamic Welfare Party. As the party grew in popularity in the 1990s, Mr Erdogan was elected as its candidate for mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and ran the city for the next four years.

But his term came to an end when he was convicted of inciting racial hatred for publicly reading a nationalist poem that included the lines: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."

After serving four months in jail, he returned to politics. But his party had been banned for violating the strict secular principles of the modern Turkish state.

In August 2001, he founded an new, Islamist-rooted party with ally Abdullah Gul. In 2002, the AKP won a majority in parliamentary elections and the following year, Mr Erdogan was appointed prime minister. He remains chairman of the AKP or Justice and Development Party to this day.

First decade in power

From 2003, he spent three terms as prime minister, presiding over a period of steady economic growth and winning praise internationally as a reformer. The country's middle class expanded and millions were taken out of poverty, as Mr Erdogan prioritised giant infrastructure projects to modernise Turkey.

But critics warned he was becoming increasingly autocratic.

By 2013, protesters took to the streets, partly because of his government's plans to transform a much-loved park in the centre of Istanbul, but also in a challenge to more authoritarian rule. The prime minister condemned the protesters as "capulcu" (riff-raff), and neighbourhoods would clang pots and pans at nine o'clock every night in a spirit of defiance. Allegations of corruption ensnared the sons of three cabinet allies.

The Gezi Park protests marked a turning point in his rule. To his detractors, he was acting more like a sultan from the Ottoman Empire than a democrat.

Mr Erdogan also fell out with a US-based Islamic scholar called Fethullah Gulen, whose social and cultural movement had helped him to victory in three consecutive elections and had been active in removing the military from politics. It was a feud that would have dramatic repercussions for Turkish society.

Muslim revival

After a decade of his rule, Mr Erdogan's party also moved to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves in public services that was introduced after a military coup in 1980. The ban was eventually lifted for women in the police, military and judiciary.

Critics complained he had chipped away at the pillars of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secular republic. While religious himself, Mr Erdogan always denied wanting to impose Islamic values, insisting he supported the rights of Turks to express their religion more openly.

Image source, Reuters
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Mr Erdogan's wife Emine often appeared in public in a headscarf

However, he has repeatedly supported criminalising adultery. And as a father of four, he has said "no Muslim family" should consider birth control or family planning. "We will multiply our descendants," he said in May 2016.

He has extolled motherhood, condemned feminists and said men and women cannot be treated equally.

Mr Erdogan has long championed Islamist causes - groups ideologically close to Egypt's repressed Muslim Brotherhood. He has been known to give the latter's four-finger salute - the "rabaa".

In July 2020, he oversaw the conversion of Istanbul's historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, angering many Christians. It was built 1,500 years ago as a cathedral, and made a mosque by the Ottoman Turks, but Ataturk had turned it into a museum - a symbol of the new secular state.

Cementing his grip

Barred from running again for prime minister, in 2014 he stood for the largely ceremonial role of president in unprecedented direct elections. He had big plans for reforming the post, creating a new constitution that would benefit all Turks and place their country among the world's top 10 economies.

But early in his presidency, he faced two jolts to his power. His party lost its majority in parliament for several months in a 2015 vote, and then months later, in 2016, Turkey witnessed its first violent attempted coup for decades.

Rebel soldiers came close to capturing the president, holidaying at a coastal resort, but he was airlifted to safety. In the early hours of 16 July, he emerged triumphant at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, to the cheers of supporters. Almost 300 civilians were killed as they blocked the advance of the coup plotters.

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Ankara, 16 July 2016: Erdogan supporters thwarted a military coup in a night of drama

The president appeared on national TV and rallied supporters in Istanbul, declaring he was the "chief commander". But the strain was clear when he sobbed openly while giving a speech at the funeral of a close friend, shot with his son by mutinous soldiers.

The plot was blamed on the Gulen movement and led to some 150,000 public servants being sacked and more than 50,000 people being detained, including soldiers, journalists, lawyers, police officers, academics and Kurdish politicians.

This crackdown on critics caused alarm abroad, contributing to frosty relations with the EU: Turkey's bid to join the union has not progressed for years. Arguments over an influx of migrants into Greece exacerbated the ill-feeling.

But from his gleaming, 1,000-room Ak Saray palace overlooking Ankara, President Erdogan's position appeared more secure than ever.

Image source, Getty Images
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Controversy has surrounded Mr Erdogan's costly and sprawling presidential palace in Ankara

He narrowly won a 2017 referendum granting him sweeping presidential powers, including the right to impose a state of emergency and appoint top public officials as well as intervene in the legal system.

A year later, he secured outright victory in the first round of a presidential poll.

His core vote lies in small Anatolian towns and rural, conservative areas. In 2019, his party lost in the three biggest cities - Istanbul; the capital, Ankara; and Izmir.

Losing the Istanbul mayorship narrowly to Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was a bitter blow to Mr Erdogan, who was the city's mayor in the 1990s. He never accepted the result.

Mr Imamoglu was ahead of the president in the opinion polls before he was banned from running in the May elections. The president and his allies have been accused of using the courts to disqualify the popular mayor from the vote.

Turkey's third biggest party, the pro-Kurdish HDP, is also facing the threat of a ban from the parliamentary vote because of alleged links to Kurdish militants.

Like previous Turkish leaders, President Erdogan has cracked down hard on the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Although Turkey has taken in more than three million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, Ankara has also launched operations against Kurdish militias across the borders, alienating Kurds in Turkey.

And it is Kurds in Sweden whom Mr Erdogan is blaming for a hold-up in Stockholm's bid to join Nato. Both Sweden and Finland have sought to join the alliance in response to Russia's war in Ukraine, but the Turkish leader says dozens of Kurds should be extradited before he will agree.

Mr Erdogan has long held close ties with Russia's Vladimir Putin and has sought a pivotal role as a mediator in the conflict. He helped to broker a deal opening a safe corridor for grain exports through the Black Sea, and prevented its collapse when Russia moved to end its support for the agreement.