Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Şevket Süreyya Aydemir is one of the most important names in Turkish literature. Those who read his Enver Paşa, Tek Adam and İkinci Adam, each book a work of three volumes, not only get to know Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu better, but acquire a higher understanding of the past one hundred fifty years of the country.

These are not works of history; Mr. Aydemir tells events from his own perspective, in a quite a subjective manner at times. But he also makes a number of highly convincing points.

Şevket Süreyya Aydemir called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk , the commander of Turkey’s Independence War and the founder of the Turkish Republic, ‘The Lone Man.’ Ismet Inonu, on the other hand, was the commander of the western front, the negotiator of the Armistice of Mudanya, the signatory of the Lausanne Treaty, the founding document of the Turkish state. He was the ‘Second Man.’

One wonder what Aydemir’s judgement on Tayyip Erdogan would be, had he seen the forty years after Ismat Inonu and lived through the AK Party years.

The verdict for politicians and statesmen of course comes from history itself. That verdict comes from the politician’s attitude during historically important events, his significant decisions that impact the nation’s livelihood, his power to influence, to transform society. Hence, the verdict is never given while that person is alive, much less while he is still in power.

Tayyip Erdogan’s power spanned a period in which regimes came crashing down in the Middle East, countries were partitioned and the region was being shaped again after a century. Domestically, it was a period of a previously unheard of struggle against military tutelage over civilian politics, political will resisting military memorandums and coup attempts, and unprecedented -if inconclusive- steps towards a solution to the Kurdish conflict.

Perhaps this period could be summed up as such: A severe geopolitical competition with global and regional players on the foreign front, and the struggle against the powers that resisted the dissolution of the oligarchy on the domestic one...

The events that took place during this process turned Tayyip Erdogan into an object of ‘absolute loyalty and admiration’ for a certain segment of society, and an object of ‘absolute hatred’ for another. That he is simultaneously loved and hated so ferociously is a testament to the weight of his role in politics and society.

What helped Erdogan stand out in politics and overcome every obstacle in his way was the organic relationship he forged between himself and those segments of society that he represented. A little before the 2002 elections, I remember a cab driver telling us, “Just look at that guy, he walks just like me.” He was the first Prime Minister or President to kneel down in funeral homes and read the Quran from memory, and do this naturally, without any affect. It is impossible for scenes like this to not leave deep imprints in the souls of the masses in Anatolia.

Chief among politicians who won the hearts of conservative masses after Turkey switched to a multi-party system is Adnan Menderes, who represented relief from the tyranny of the one party period.

Adnan Menderes was a rich man who owned of a huge farm and had studied in private schools. But he was also a politician who won over people through his policies put into actions. No matter what anyone says, the mere fact that he returned to the call to prayer being recited in Arabic, as it had been done for almost a thousand years prior, was and has been enough to make him into a hero. “As a leader who shaped the mental and discursive world of every other important leader from the right, Menderes has morphed into a father of the nation figure.[1] His execution ten years later caused real pain amongst the public and raised him to legendary status.

Tayyip Erdogan has managed to surpass a man like Menderes.

This, despite the fact that consdering the historical period, Adnan Menderes’ job when he took over the government was easier compared to Erdogan. For masses that were sick and tired of the oppression of the one-party regime for the last 27 years, the multi-party system was a major sigh of relief. In their eyes, Menderes was the doctor to cure all illnesses of the one party period. And finally, Menderes represented the people, not the state, and thus his mere existence in politics was sufficient. Despite all this, after winning the 1950 and 1954 elections, Menderes suffered a major loss at the 1957 elections, and even though he had won those too, the night of the results he said, “May God never allow me to see a night like this again.”[2] Many political scientist agree that had he not been toppled by a military coup, his chances of winning the next elections were very slim.

Erdogan had a much harder job compared to Menderes, since it is impossible to compare Turkey in the 2000s to the country in the 1950s. To be able to affect the masses to such an extent in this age, never going below 40 percent in any election after the first one, staying in power for four consecutive terms and all the while transforming the country in colossal ways is not that easy.

Never since the switch to the multi-party system has politics had this much power to transform and reshape society.

In the years since 2000, voter turnout in European democracies cannot go above 60 percent. In such a world, turnout in both elections and referendums in Turkey is astonishingly high. The most significant explanation of this picture is the ‘Erdogan factor.’

Though not as much as Menderes himself, the next name to leave a lasting mark in popular memory was Turgut Ozal. He was the man to open up Turkish economy to the world after the 1980 coup and to take the first big steps in a communications revolution through a significant infrastructure overhaul. The deliverables of the Ozal period were important and striking, but it was Ozal’s ‘conservative’ identity, and specifically him bringing that identity with him to the presidential palace that secured a distinctive spot for him in the eyes of the masses. It was during his administration that a presidential car was first seen in front of the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara during Friday prayers. Hence the huge crowds attending his funaral in 1993 who parted with him as a ‘Muslim president.’

Adnan Menderes was a politician who understood the emotional world of the people and who could address those emotions. Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel came from the people. Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, is the people. In other words, Tayyip Erdogan is not simply a man who ‘measures the pulse of the street,’ but the pulse beats in him. Thathas to be the deep-seated reason he could surpass both Menderes and Ozal.

In his discussion about the ‘elitist’ order in Turkish politics, Dr. Ergun Yildirim points at the concepts of shahzades, son in laws and devshirmes in emerging leaders. He stresses that these three identities were decisive factors in the sharing of Turkish political hegemony. According to Yildirim, Tayyip Erdogan managed to emerge as such a charismatic figure because he is far removed to all three:

“When we look at Erdogan’s biography, we see that he is sociologically removed from the traditional power elite. He has no experience working in state bureaucracy. He does not come from the devshirme tradition. He is not the son or the son in law of a ruler. Sociologically, Erdogan rose up from the middle class. His familial relations, beliefs, political ideology and standard of living all point at this class. Add to that his rough Kasimpasha attitude and you get the political representation of the search of political dissenters. That’s why Erdogan is neither devshirme, nor a prince or son in law…”[3]

The center-periphery model to this day proves useful when analyzing the political structure in Turkey. Tayyip Erdogan is a political figure who managed to bring the ‘periphery’ that was formerly left in the outskirts of the Turkish society to the ‘center,’ and vowed to rebuild the center with these new elements. This process had been going on during the Menderes, Demirel and Ozal administrations, but Erdogan has been the politician to speed it up tremendously and finalize it irrevocably.

The large masses carried from the periphery to the center are the main explanation to how Erdogan has managed to stay in power for this long. The fear of these large masses of losing the rights and opportunities returned or given to them during Erdogan’s rule is the main reason they support him every time they are faced with the ballot.

Was Erdogan as successful in fusing the periphery with the center as he was in carrying the former to the latter? If you ask the opposition their answer would be an unequivocal ‘no,’ moreover they would add that he never even tried. If he had shown more care when it came to merit in state matters, these criticisms might have a more hallow ring. However, the omittance of merit as requirement in recent years is something anyone with a conscience sees and points out.

The large conservative masses that were only able to breathe with Menderes after the 27-year-long one-party period felt a sense of grateful obligation towards him. The main incentive that brought Menderes to power over and over again was this gratitude. Astounded by the reception Menderes received from the public during a tour stop in Manisa, journalist Dogan Nadi said, “They say ‘man of the people,’ but according to what we are seeing here it would be more accurate to say ‘the people of the man.”[4]

The scene that had the journalist make those remarks reemerged half a century later with Erdogan. He could gather together exuberant crowds of over a million. When Menderes had his own crowd that day, he was only in the second year of his first term, and thus perhaps those scenes were not as surprising given the very recent emergence from the one-party system. Had he managed to stay in power -and alive- would we get to see the same scenes after 1960? Erdogan, however, managed to gather the same crowds even in the sixteenth year of his rule.

The AK Party years in Turkey became a time when politics of attrition lost currency and the term ‘hegemon party’ showed up in political dictionaries.

The events on the night of July 15 were the magnificent manifestation of the relationship Erdogan has forged with those he represents. The response to his call to ‘go on the streets’ took both him and Turkey off the noose.

Amongst the people who went out on the streets to resist the coup on the night of July 15, an old man said this: “They said ‘they are hanging Menderes,’ so we came out immediately.” These words attest to both the continuity in collective memory and collective trauma. Social psychologist Kemal Sayar says that those who could not resist Menderes’ execution, could not go out on the streets wanted to avoid re-experiencing that trauma almost sixty years.

The electorate in Turkey has never voted for the same party four times in a row.

The AK Party that he founded was the leading party of the November 2002, July 2007, June 2011, June 2015 and November 2015 general elections. For sixteen consecutive years, Turkey’s prime ministers have been from the AK Party.

Tayyip Erdogan has emerged victorious from every election he participated in, and has achieved the result he desired in every referendum. He is indeed the first president in the history of the Turkish Republic to be elected by direct referendum.

No other political figure of the multi-party period managed to hold on to power as long or uninterrupted as him. From November 3 2002 to March 2018, when these words are being written, he has ruled Turkey almost by himself. Since the 2016 coup attempt, this situation has taken an ‘absolute’ turn. As this book is being written, Erdogan is undisputably Turkey’s sole power center. There have been no decisions taken despite his open objection, no important appointments made, no initiatives started that did not necessitate his willingness.

In the past, even if governments came to power on their own, they would be surrounded by an ‘invisible power’ in Ankara. Both Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul experienced this ‘siege’ following the November 2002 elections.

The height of the siege was the April 27 military memorandum and the closure case against the party the following year, just a few months after it secured 47 percent of the vote. That fact that Erdogan and his friends did not stomach the memorandum and instead stood up to it was a hitherto unprecedented situation. Their win by 47 percent in the July 22 elections that followed this stand out showed whose side the public was on. Journalist Hasan Cemal’s headline for that election night was “The people’s memorandum.”

Abdullah Gul becoming president in spite of the e-memorandum was the clearest sign that the siege was breaking. Erdogan’s becaming the first president to be elected by direct vote in 2014 is another important level in the struggle against ‘military tutelege.’

Tayyip Erdogan is the first political figure in the history of the Turkish Republic to rule as first prime minister and then president. What makes him a ruler is his ability to come out of this struggle successfully.

Erdogan emerged out of all of these periods as a ‘king maker.’ Between 2007 and 2014, one president and two prime ministers took up those posts thanks to his direct involvement. As of the writing of these words in early 2018, two people that he brought to the presidency and prime ministership no longer occupy those seats due to his decision. Erdogan himself maintains his role as the king maker. 

When the party told him in 2007, as the question of presidential candidacy came up, ‘either you or Abdullah Gul,’ he could have said ‘me.’ The ability to say, ‘our candidate is my brother Abdullah Gul’ was a case of sacrifice unseen in Turkish politics until that day. After all, there was no guarantee at the time that he could reach that position himself after seven years.

The Erdogan period saw the harshest battle against the oligarchic structure of the Turkish state. It is hard to claim that this process is over.

As Erdogan worked to break the siege of the oligarchy on the state, he either failed to see, or see in all its dimensions, that a new siege was being laid by the Gulen movement. After all, the fight against military power was carried out with support from the Gulenist cadres, and the government was in an alliance with them. Erdogan once defined the extent of this alliance by asking, “What did they ever ask for that we haven’t given them?”

The members of the Fethullah Gulen movement took the most critical steps of their mission to take over the state during Erdogan’s rule, by either using or manipulating his political power.

Most of these steps were taken by “tricking” Erdogan, according to his own statement. Once he became aware, Erdogan would ask for “forgiveness from both Allah and my people,” but at that point it was too late. Perhaps this is the reason Erdogan’s trauma has turned him into the fiercest fighter in the fight against this betrayal. At the same time, Erdogan is the state’s biggest weapon in its current fight against this gang. The Gulen movement was never as strong and effective as it was during Erdogan’s rule, but they also suffered the biggest blows in their history in this period, losing a big portion of the cadres installed in the bureaucracy in the past four decades.

In foreign policy, especially after 2011-2012, Erdogan’s severe and uncompromising rhetoric against the West played a key role in making his charisma more pronounced. Turkey’s foreign policy was principally formulated in his discourse. When a journalist asked the minister of foreign affairs about the ‘reactive’ language used by Erdogan, the minister said, “We sometimes express out reaction in diplomatic style, but sometimes we do it in our Prime Minister’s style.”

Even though this uncompromising language he uses against Europe and the US draws criticism from some, it is appreciated by a significant part of the public. We could even say that for a public that has years of accumulated inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West is aided in self-confidence, and in fact rehabilitated by a prime minister/president who is not a Western lackey.

Whether this uncompromising language against the West costs Turkey is another matter, but it definitely adds points to Erdogan’s scoreboard in domestic politics. 

A semi-joke by a former bureaucrat would illustrate this point. In the days after Erdogan spoke in unprecedented harshness against both Israel and the US after the former’s attack on Palestine, this bureaucrat said, “It looks like he is doing this for the next life, not this one. He is trying to score point for the other world.”

As iterated above, Erdogan has attained the kind of political power that no one else has ever experienced during the multi-party period.

For a political actor holding a magnificent amount of political power in its hands, it is imperative to be able to use it without breaking the frames drawn up by the law. It’s hard to say Erdogan has always cared about this thin line. For instance, ahead of the June 2015 elections, he led an active campaign to ask the voters for a constitutional change that would enable the transition to a presidential system. He asked for this for a particular party - an unusual look for a president who has vowed to remain objective.

Has Erdogan attained all this political power and strength thanks to his own political genius?

The answer to that question is a clear “No.”

Multiple mistakes made by domestic and foreign opponents have helped Erdogan grow. In fact, their role in his power might have been even bigger. A simple count will suffice to see the picture: The oppositional CHP and its leader at the time, Deniz Baykal, who took the first leg of the presidential election to court only so that a man with a covered wife would not be president; the soldiers who tried to issue the government an e-referendum in 2007 and then attempted to either topple or wear down Erdogan through secularist demonstrations; the PKK leadership in Qandil that sabotaged the Turkish-Kurdish peace talks and the HDP that succumbed to them; the US, which after 2014 went so far as to supply the PKK with arms and thus strengthened the sense of resistance and solidarity in Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership, and of course the Fethullah Gulen organization, which conspires against Turkey with foreign intelligence organizations, CIA chief among them, tries to corner Turkey at every opportunity and finally attempted a US-supported military coup.

These actors have left Erdogan without any competition in politics.

Erdogan’s political journey continues; these words were written looking at the years he has left behind, as well as the present, while he is still in power. If the 2018 Erdogan is not the same as the 2002 Erdogan -which is not the case- we are fated to see a slightly different Erdogan in the future, as well.

What we can say for certain at this point is that his political exploits up to this day alone are sufficient to place him on a completely different spot than every other politician that has come through the political arena since our country’s transition to the multi-party system.

Whether you are his admirer or sympathizer, or you stand in the opposite corner, this is the fact.


[1] H.Bahadır Türk, The Turkish Right in Power and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan- İletişim,  1st Edition, 2014, pp.21

[2] Metin Toker, The Ismet Pasha Years of Democracy- 1954-1957, Bilgi Yayınevi, pp. 268

[3] Ergün Yıldırım, AK Party and the Gulen Organization, HayatGüncel, Seventh Edition,

[4] Bedii Faik, Matbuat Basın Derken Medya, Vol 3, Doğan Kitap, 1st Edition, May 2002, pp. 98