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Coup, Counter-​coup, Consequences – Part 1: The Remarkable Rise of Recip Erdogan

Against the backdrop of the coup in Turkey, this blog looks at the impressive ascendency of the Turkish President. It is the first in a four-part series.

Turkish President Recip Erdogan has had nothing less than a scintillating political career. From very humble beginnings, this erstwhile semi-professional football player was Mayor of Istanbul (a city of some fifteen million people) from 1994 to 1998, then Prime Minister of Turkey (a country of almost eighty million) for more than a decade as of 2003 before assuming the presidency in 2014. Since then, he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have triumphed in no less than three national contests, in all but one of them obtaining a majority of seats in the Turkish Grand National Assembly.

Erdogan’s rise to the top jobs in Turkey’s political hierarchy was initially characterized by great promise. Under his stewardship, Turkey finally seemed on the way to realizing its role as the Muslim world’s leading democracy. Five elements were at play here.

First, Erdogan presided over an impressive expansion of the Turkish economy. In the decade after 2002, Turkey registered a huge fall in poverty, a vast improvement in the basic services available to the population, and an impressive rate of job creation. Within a decade, Turkey’s economy expanded by a factor of three, making it the world’s 17th largest in 2014.

Second, Erdogan championed an opening to the country’s Kurds, a community comprising up to 30 per cent of the country’s population, whose politico-military organization, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), had been embroiled in a guerilla war with Ankara since the mid-1980s, costing tens of thousands of lives. Under Erdogan, minor but still significant improvements were made to the Kurds’ language and cultural rights.

After a cease-fire was agreed in 2013, a Kurdish party by the name of the People’ s Democratic Party (PDP) was allowed to participate in the electoral process after more than two decades of serial bans of similar entities by Ankara.

The PDP emphasized the need for greater rights for Kurds within Turkey but also reached out to the country as a whole with a modernist socio-cultural agenda. In the process, it managed to establish beachheads amongst elements of the Kurdish community that had hitherto tended to vote for the AKP. In 2014, the PDP won more than 10 percent of the votes, thus giving the Kurdish community their first ever representation in the Turkish Grand Assembly.

Third, the Erdogan government sought to pursue a policy of peace and cooperation with the other states of the region. So, Ankara reached out to Israel. Turkey made overtures to Armenia that held the potential to overcome their bilateral disagreements over the events of 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished as a result of the conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Turkey also worked to keep on even keel relations with its historical rival Iran and most crucially with Russia, a key trading partner and the main source of Turkey’s thriving tourist trade.

The fourth pillar of Erdogan’s approach was to pursue Turkey’s longstanding efforts – initiated in 1963 – to become a member of the EU. In 2002, Turkey abolished the death penalty, thus removing a key obstacle to EU accession. At the same time, it worked to maintain Turkey’s standing as a key member of NATO.

Finally, and most importantly, Erdogan made overtures to the many conservatively-inclined Turks who had moved to central and western Turkey in search of a better life for themselves and their families during the Turkish economic boom. In particular, Erdogan defended the notion that religion had a legitimate place in public life. This was at odds with the approach that had dominated since Ataturk’s founding of modern Turkey in 1923, which saw Turkey with its 99 percent Muslim population as a strictly secular state. Since 1960, the Turkish military has come out of its barracks no less than five times to defend this concept of society.

David Law is a Senior Associate of the Security Governance Group and a Senior Fellow of its sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance. He is a former Head of NATO’s Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit. In this capacity, he also followed Greek-Turkish relations for the Secretary General.

(Image courtesy of the National Review.)

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