Tall and slim, still with a full head of hair at 61, President Recep Erdogan has survived 12 torrid years at the apex of Turkish politics with little obvious damage. His chin is smooth, his uniform the same sombre suit and tie he has always worn; nothing about his appearance would cause one to doubt that this was a modern, secular politician, playing by the same rule book as the men in Brussels, who in recent memory were eager to install his nation among the EU’s stars.
His look is unchanged from the great occasion three years ago when President Barack Obama, paying his first presidential visit to a Muslim country, described him as one of his five closest international allies and hailed him as an example of how a leader could be Islamic, democratic and tolerant all at once.
But today this smooth and solemn man has a different message. On a platform in his native Istanbul last Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of Turks watched fighter jets paint the national flag with coloured smoke in the sky, he celebrated the anniversary of the overthrow of Christian Byzantium by Muslim armies and the creation of the Ottoman Empire, 562 years ago.
For his millions of adoring supporters, Erdogan’s achievement is to have reunited Turkey with the Islamic heritage that Kemal Ataturk ditched in the name of modernisation. Quoting from the Koran, he shouted defiance at those who resent his assault on Turkey’s secular tradition. “We will not give way to those who speak against our call to prayer!” he vowed. “Allahu Akbar!” the crowd responded.
The storming of Constantinople was a conquest, he said – one to which his own achievement as modern Turkey’s long-serving leader was comparable. “To reverse this nation’s ill fate for 12 years is a conquest. To successfully pass this turning point on the way to a new Turkey is a conquest,” he told the crowd. “Inshallah, 7 June will be a conquest.”
The “conquest” in question tomorrow will be the winning of enough parliamentary seats by the party he founded, the Justice and Development Party or AKP, to change the constitution, allowing him to transform the ornamental presidency he has occupied since last August into an executive one. This, in turn, will allow him to rule – with far fewer constraints – for another 1o years. It is an ambition that is profoundly polarising.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has never made any bones about his Islamic piety. He was raised in an observant family in Istanbul and his faith was reinforced at religious high school, and he brought it into his first experiment in politics, as a prominent young member of the Islamist National Salvation Party. But back in the 1970s, the secularist rules imposed 50 years before by Ataturk, designed to drag Turkey into the modern world, were still all-powerful; challenging them seemed the guarantee of a career on the lonely and powerless margins.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most controversial quotes
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most controversial quotes
1/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Just a week before he was elected President, he called Erdogan Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for 'The Economist', a "shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist" after she had asked an opposition leader whether "Muslim society is able to question" the authorities. "Know your place," Erdoğan said. "They gave you a pen and you are writing a column in a newspaper. "And then they invite you to a TV channel owned by Doğan media group and you insult at a society of 99 per cent Muslims," he said he said according to Today's Zaman newspaper.
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2/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Turkish people are pictured chanting slogans during an anti-government protest on Taksim square in Istanbul, on 29 June, 2013. The protests were sparked by brutal police action against a local conservation battle to save Istanbul's Gezi Park, and soon turned into nationwide demonstrations against the government. Amid the protests - the worst in Turkey for years - Erdogan accused demonstrators of being "arm-in-arm with terrorism," according to Reuters. "This is a protest organized by extremist elements. We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism," he said.
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3/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
During last year’s protests, activists used social media to organise and disseminate information. Several dozen tweeters were arrested following the protests, according to local media reports. Erdogan responded by calling the technology a "menace". "There is now a menace which is called Twitter," Erdogan said. "The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society," BBC New reported.
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4/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Not helping to allay accusations of authoritarianism, after Turkish police detained 49 people, including well-known business people and those close to the ruling party, Erdeogan ominously told reporter that Turkey "is not a banana republic" that can be affected by unnamed "operations", according to Today's Zaman newspaper. “People who are backed by the media and certain funders cannot change this country," he said. "People backed by certain dark gangs both inside and outside Turkey cannot mess with the country's path. They cannot change conditions in Turkey. Turkey is not a country that anyone can launch an operation into. The [Turkish] nation will not allow that. The AK Party, which is governing this nation, will not allow this."
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5/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Friends and relatives of the miners who died in an explosion at the Soma mine are pictured praying following the burial in Soma cemetery of the last body to be recovered from the mine in May 2014. At the time, the then-Prime Minister badly misjudged the Soma mining disaster, in which 301 workers died. He told the relatives of dead and dying miners that "these types of incidents are ordinary things", following allegations that the government had ignored safety concerns about the privately owned mine, the Guardian reported. In his defence, Erdogan recounted in a separate speech a list of mining disasters which occurred abroad, including a British disaster in 1862, and one in America "which has every kind of technology".
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6/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Palestinians pictured attending Friday noon prayers in a destroyed mosque that was hit by Israeli strikes, in Gaza City. As Prime Minister, Erdogan has condemned Israel, accusing it of deliberately killing Palestinian mothers and warned that the it would "drown in the blood it sheds." Speaking to thousands of supporters during a rally in Istanbul ahead of the 10 August election, Reuters reported him as saying: "Just like Hitler, who sought to establish a race free of all faults, Israel is chasing after the same target." "They kill women so that they will not give birth to Palestinians; they kill babies so that they won't grow up; they kill men so they can't defend their country ... They will drown in the blood they shed," he said.
7/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
Amid the worst protests in Turkey for years which had spread across dozens of cities last June, Erdogan accused demonstrators of being "arm-in-arm with terrorism," according to Reuters. A demonstration to halt construction in a park in an Istanbul square grew into mass protests against a heavy-handed police crackdown and what opponents called Erdogan's authoritarian policies. "This is a protest organized by extremist elements," Erdogan said before departing on a trip to North Africa. "We will not give away anything to those who live arm-in-arm with terrorism," he said.
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images
8/8 The Turkish President's craziest quotes
In March 2014, Erdogan accused a 15-year-old boy who died from injuries sustained in last year's anti-government protests of being linked to terrorism. Berkin Elvan, who became a symbol of anti-government protests, had gone to pick up bread when he was hit with a teargas canister - sending him into a nine-month coma before he passed away. In a speech broadcast on state TV, Erdogan said of Berkin: "This kid with steel marbles in his pockets, with a slingshot in his hand, his face covered with a scarf, who had been taken up into terror organisations, was unfortunately subjected to pepper gas. “How could the police determine how old that person was who had a scarf on his face and was hurling steel marbles with a slingshot in his hand?”
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But after the Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran, the mood around Islam and politics began to change. Erdogan was elected to parliament; prevented from taking his seat, he stood instead for mayor of Istanbul and won. Opponents feared he would clamp Sharia on Turkey’s most freewheeling city; instead he disarmed critics by proving a resourceful and energetic executive, taking drastic and effective measures to transform its rubbish collection, public transport and water supply. But his fundamental passion was unchanged.
In 1997, the fundamentalist Welfare Party to which he now belonged was threatened with closure for being unconstitutional, and Erdogan, still the city’s serving mayor, took to the streets to demand that the authorities leave it in peace. “The mosques are our barracks,” he recited at one demonstration, “the domes are our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” For that he was arrested, convicted of incitement to religious violence, and sentenced to 10 months in jail, of which he served four months. With Turkey’s secular establishment under steadily increasing pressure from the rising tide of Islamism, the sentence caused him no lasting damage.
And Erdogan’s twin faces – his sincere and unabashed piety on the one hand, his technocratic flair as a modern administrator on the other – placed him in pole position to lead a country increasingly restless under the old Ataturk rules.
Founding the Justice and Development Party in 2001, Erdogan cruised to a landslide election victory the following year, and after several bruising rounds with a secular establishment desperate to keep him down, became Prime Minister for the first time in 2003.
Coming to national power in the wake of a financial crisis that forced the country into an International Monetary Fund bailout programme, he re-affirmed his skills, transforming Turkey’s economic prospects, turning it into a major exporter with Chinese-style growth rates of up to 8 per cent. He succeeded in forcing the military – secular through and through – out of its hidden but powerful role in politics, and used his position of unrivalled power to do what no Turkish politician had previously dared: to put out olive branches to the 15 million-strong Kurdish minority concentrated in the south-east, initiating peace talks.
But his 12 years at the top have had a disastrously inflationary effect on Mr Erdogan’s ego. The most obvious symptom of this is the presidential palace recently completed in Ankara for a sum in excess of $600m, said to include a laboratory where a team of scientists works day and night ensuring that the President is not poisoned. The palace, 30 times the size of the White House, has more than 1,000 rooms. It may also have gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms – though when a rival politician mentioned it, Mr Erdogan sued for slander.
His pharaonic tendencies have also seen him become increasingly authoritarian, lashing out with threats and law suits at those in the media who attack him, closing down social media, and sending riot police to disperse demonstrations against the building of a shopping mall in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. That provoked far more widespread protests against him. He responded with increased police powers and heavier penalties for illegal demonstrations.
His Islamism, his growing authoritarianism and his ever-increasing sense of his own importance are the reasons why many fear that if AKP wins 60 per cent of the seats in tomorrow’s election, enabling him to push through constitutional reform, Turkey could become “the land of Erdogan”, with its fragile democratic traditions increasingly under threat.
The one bright hope of that not happening is, ironically, the man whose rise to prominence came through Erdogan’s attempt to bring Kurds into the national mainstream. Selahattin Demirtas is the leader of the People’s Democratic Party or HDP. Although its bedrock support is Kurdish, it is hoping to attract mass support from those frightened and alienated by Erdogan’s bid for total power. Rules devised to keep the Kurds on the sidelines mean that HDP must pass a threshold of 10 per cent of support to get into parliament at all. If they succeed, Erdogan’s hopes of rewriting the constitution will be greatly weakened; and the land of Erdogan, for which many yearn but which many dread, will remain a long way off.
A life in brief
Born: 26 February 1954, Istanbul, Turkey.
Family: Father Ahmet Erdogan, was a coastguard. Married to Ermine; they have four children.
Education: Islamic school in Istanbul before graduating from Marmara University with a degree in management.
Career: Mayor of Istanbul, 1994-98. Founder of JDP, Islamic Truth and Development Party, 2001. Prime Minister of Turkey, 2003-14. In 2014, he became the country’s first directly elected President.Reuse content