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Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spent two decades in power, serving as Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014, when he was elected president. 

He now faces the enormous challenge of rebuilding swathes of the country that have crumbled to rubble in the most devastating earthquake since 1999.

He is also seeking re-election in May.

Who is Erdogan, how has Turkey changed under his rule and what do his critics and supporters say about him?

The early years

Born in February 1954, Erdogan grew up on Turkey’s Black Sea coast until he was 13, when his family moved to Istanbul.

He went to an Islamic school, and biographers say he sold bread rolls and lemonade to help pay for his schooling.

He later played semi-professional football and earned a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University.

Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, losing his position when he was jailed for reading a controversial poem at a rally.

From prime minister to president

Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, two years after founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP).

He served three terms, presiding first over a period of economic growth fuelled by foreign trade and investment – before the tide started to turn against him.

In 2013, a wave of civil unrest broke out, centred on Istanbul’s Gezi Park. What started as demonstrations over plans to build a shopping mall over the park erupted into protests over a government seen to be becoming increasingly authoritarian.

In 2014, Erdogan became Turkey’s first directly elected president. Before this point, it had been a mostly ceremonial post; Erdogan sought to change that.

His vision of a new presidential system, which abolished the office of the prime minister and concentrated most powers in the hands of the president, was approved by a narrow victory in a 2017 referendum and installed following his successful 2018 presidential election.

An attempted coup

A group within Turkey’s military attempted to overthrow the government in 2016, conducting coordinated operations across several cities and targeting the president where he was holidaying in Marmaris.

Erdogan was flown to safety in a helicopter but about 250 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured after civilians stood up to the coup plotters.

In the crackdown following the coup about 150,000 civil servants were sacked and more than 50,000 people were detained, including journalists, academics, police officers, soldiers and lawyers.

Erdogan and the economy

Inflation in Turkey hit a 24-year high of 85% last October, with economists saying interest rate cuts sought by Erdogan were to blame.

Inflation dipped to just under 58% in January and is expected to sit around 40% when the country heads to the polls in May.

Turkey has been mired in economic crisis since 2018, with the lira plunging in value, slumping to one tenth of its value against the dollar over the last decade.

While high interest rates are normally seen as a way of bringing high inflation under control, Erdogan contends the opposite and vowed to keep cutting interest rates even as inflation hit its peak.

In January, Erdogan announced a raft of public spending, including doubling the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age and increasing pensions.

But his budget could be stretched now the government also faces the cost of a massive rebuild after the earthquakes.

Responding to the earthquakes

Erdogan has faced criticism from families left frustrated by a slow response from rescue teams.

Many Turks have complained of a lack of equipment, expertise and support to help those who are trapped.

During a visit to Hatay province, where more than 3,300 people have died and entire neighbourhoods have been destroyed, Erdogan said: “It is not possible to be prepared for such a disaster. We will not leave any of our citizens uncared for.”

Speaking to reporters, he criticised those spreading “lies and slander” about his government’s actions – and said it was a time for unity and solidarity.

“I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest,” he added.

However, he admitted there were some “shortcomings” in the initial response.

Erdogan and the world

Erdogan has long held close ties with Vladimir Putin and continues to call Russia’s president his “dear friend”.

Turkey’s president has offered to help mediate an end to the conflict in Ukraine and helped broker the deal for a safe export channel for grain in the Black Sea.

In recent months he has repeatedly threatened a ground invasion against Kurdish groups in northern Syria, sparking fears for control of prisons housing thousands of Islamic State fighters.

On the world stage, Erdogan has also been outspoken when it comes to Sweden and Finland joining NATO.

As a NATO member, Turkey has the right to veto any new inductees, and Erdogan has expressed concerns about the Kurdish population in Sweden.

What Erdogan’s critics say

Critics say Erdogan has turned Turkey into an autocracy – in other words, a one-man show – muzzled dissent and eroded people’s rights.

Reporters Without Borders lists Turkey at 149 out of 180 countries on its press freedom index, noting that 90% of its national media is now under government control.

Erdogan’s rolling back of the ban on women wearing headscarves was seen as one example of him reversing the secularity enshrined in the founding of the Turkish Republic a century ago. However, it was welcomed by Muslims who had felt excluded by the old rules.

Erdogan was also criticised for pulling out of an international accord designed to protect women from domestic violence in 2021. Hundreds gathered to protest the move, citing soaring rates of femicide in Turkey.

What Erdogan and his supporters say

Officials deny people’s rights have been curtailed, arguing Erdogan’s protected citizens in the face of unique security threats including the 2016 coup attempt.

Ozer Sencar, chairman of pollster MetroPoll, said that amplifying foreign policy and security issues ahead of elections allows Erdogan to consolidate his voter base – a reference to Erdogan’s remarks about Sweden and NATO.

He “creates a perception of a ‘strong leader’ inside Turkey,” he said. “If you can come up with a security problem, then people rally behind the strong leader.”

Meanwhile, the popularity of Erdogan and his party has hit a two-year high following a huge boost in spending, according to Middle East Eye.

A challenging election

The main challenge to Erdogan comes from an alliance of centre-left and right-wing parties, known as the Table of Six.

However, the parties are yet to nominate an opposition candidate.

Erdogan’s AK Party, now the biggest, is likely to remain a powerful force in parliament after the elections, but opinion polls show Erdogan trailing some potential presidential challengers including CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the popular mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.

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