The making of Turkey's prime minister
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 10/31/2010 12:00:00 AM | MUSTAFA AKYOL
The story of one of the most significant political leaders in Turkey's history began in February 1954, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was born in a poor Istanbul neighborhood.
Even the most dedicated opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admit he is charismatic, determined and successful – and perhaps quite lucky as well. Likely the most popular Turkish political leader since Adnan Menderes, the prime minister from 1950 to 1960 before he was executed by a military junta, Erdoğan also has millions of fans who see him as their ultimate hero.
The story of one of the most significant political leaders in the 87-year history of the Turkish Republic began in February 1954, when Erdoğan was born in Kasımpaşa, a tough, poor neighborhood in Istanbul. His family was originally from Rize, a conservative town on the northeastern coast of the Black Sea and returned there when Tayyip was still a baby, but came back to Istanbul again when he was 13. The future prime minister spent those years attending Istanbul Religious Vocational (Imam-Hatip) High School and selling lemonade and simit (sesame rings) on the city’s streets to make extra money – a background that instilled in him both an Islamic piety and a business-minded pragmatism.
While studying business administration at what is today Marmara University’s Faculty of Economics and playing semi-professional football, Erdoğan also engaged in politics by joining the National Turkish Student Union, an anti-communist action group. In 1976, he became the head of a local youth branch of the Islamist National Salvation Party, or MSP, led by Necmettin Erbakan, who would later go on to found the Saadet (Felicity) Party. This was the beginning of Erdoğan’s long career in Islamic politics.
[HH] A rising star
After the 1980 coup, Erbakan’s movement regrouped under the Welfare Party, or RP, and Erdoğan gradually became one of its stars. In 1991, he became a candidate for Parliament on the party’s ticket and won a seat. But the higher election board cancelled his election due to a technicality, initiating a long chain of events that would convince Erdoğan that he has been wronged by the establishment.
The big year for Erdoğan, however, was 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul to the shock of the city’s more secular citizens, who thought he would ban alcohol and impose Islamic law. Instead he emerged over the next four years as a pragmatic and successful mayor who tackled many chronic problems in the city, including pollution, water shortages and traffic.
Meanwhile, politics was growing tense in Turkey, as the Welfare Party came to power in June 1996 in a coalition government with the center-right True Path Party, or DYP. RP head Erbakan, who became Turkey’s first defiantly Islamist prime minister, infuriated the secular camp with his radical rhetoric. Six months later, in February 1997, the military initiated what was later dubbed the “post-modern coup.” Soon, Erbakan was ousted from power and many Islamic groups were the subject of a crackdown as part of a series of court cases opened by prosecutors who were openly “briefed” by the generals.
Erdoğan was caught up in this crackdown in 1997, when he made a public speech in the southeastern province of Siirt denouncing the closure of his party and recited these lines of a poem from the Turkish War of Liberation: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
The judges considered this speech an attack on the regime and sentenced Erdoğan in September 1998 to a 10-month prison term, of which he served four months. “Erdoğan’s political career is over,” some mainstream newspapers wrote at the time. “From now on, he can’t even be a local governor.”
[HH] Winds of change
Scorning such speculation, Erdoğan became convinced that there was an alliance between the military, the judiciary and the country’s secularist media against him, his party and his values. He believed the press was showing disrespect toward him by insistently referring to him solely by his first name, something it did not do with other politicians.
In the aftermath of the post-modern coup, Erdoğan also came to believe that a new political line, different from Erbakan’s age-old anti-Western demagoguery, was needed. This was something he even hinted at in the Siirt speech that netted him a prison term. As part of that speech, Erdoğan also said: “The Western man has freedom of belief; in Europe, there is respect for worship, for the headscarf. Why is there not in Turkey?”
This Western-oriented line would be the new vision of Erdoğan and the more open-minded members of the Erbakan movement, such as now-President Abdullah Gül, who would soon join forces to found a new party. In their vision, authoritarian secularism in Turkey should not be considered an extension of the West, as religious conservatives had done for decades. The West should rather be seen as a way to create a more liberal Turkey that would respect religious liberty as well. Erdoğan had personal reasons to make that choice: He could thus send his veiled daughters, Esra and Sümeyye, not to Turkish universities, where there is a headscarf ban, but to American ones, where the coverings can be worn.
Erdoğan and his colleagues thus put European Union membership, and EU-promoted political reforms, at the top of their agenda – at the expense of being accused of “treason” by their old comrades who stayed loyal to Erbakan.
[HH] The birth of the AKP
In 2001, Erdoğan and Gül established the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which had many visible differences from its Islamist predecessors. The party chose as its emblem not the Islamic-looking crescent but a modern light bulb, and Erdoğan asserted that the AKP was “not a political party with a religious axis,” but rather one that could be defined as “conservative.” Its message concentrated on political liberalization and economic growth gave the party a sweeping victory in the general elections of November 2002.
Even though his party won the elections, Erdoğan could not became prime minister right away, as he was still banned from politics by the judiciary for his speech in Siirt, and Gül thus became the prime minister instead. In December 2002 the Supreme Election Board canceled the general election results from Siirt due to voting irregularities and scheduled a new election for Feb. 9, 2003. By this time, party leader Erdoğan was able to run for Parliament thanks to a legal change made possible by the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and its former leader, Deniz Baykal. The AKP duly listed Erdoğan as a candidate for the rescheduled Siirt election, and he won, becoming prime minister after Gül subsequently handed over the post.
Only four years had passed since newspapers declared Erdoğan could not “even be a local governor.” Instead, he was destined to become one of the strongest Turkish prime ministers ever.