On February 28, 1997, Turkey’s powerful military gave an ultimatum to Necmettin Erbakan, the Prime Minister and leader of the Islamist Welfare Party, to “restore the secular character” of the state. Erbakan, who came to power through a coalition the previous year, upset the country’s secular establishment with his Islamist policies. The military, which saw itself as the guardian of the secular order established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, was alarmed by Erbakan’s open Islamism. Erbakan was forced to resign in June 1997 and his Welfare Party was outlawed, in what was called “a postmodern coup”— no bullets were fired, no soldiers came out of the barracks, but still the regime fell.
Many of Erbakan’s followers watched helplessly as the military started systematically undoing everything they built and carrying out a purge of the Islamists. One of them was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 43-year-old Mayor of Istanbul, Turkey’s most populous city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Later in the year, while attending a public rally in Siirt in the southeast, Mr. Erdogan, then Turkey’s most powerful local leader and a speck in the eye of the military establishment, read out a poem written by Ziya Gokalp in 1912.
“The mosques are our barracks
The domes our helmets
The minarets our bayonets
And the faithful our soldiers
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.”
The establishment struck back. Mr. Erdogan was charged with “incitement of religious hatred”, sentenced to 10 months in jail (of which he served four) and banned from standing in elections. He had to resign as the Mayor of Istanbul. While going to the Pınarhisar prison in Kırklareli, he told a sea of supporters who gathered to bid him farewell, “This song won’t finish here.” It didn’t. Twenty four years later, Mr. Erdogan, who has been in power for the past 20 years, is facing an electoral run-off on Sunday. If he wins, that would extend his uninterrupted hold over Turkey for five more years. Quite a feat for an Islamist who was once seen as an enemy of the establishment by the country’s powerful elite.
Rise to power
Born on February 26, 1954 in a pious Muslim family, Tayyip Erdogan grew up in Rize, a Black Sea town. Later, his father, a seaman, migrated to Istanbul, where Mr. Erdogan spent his youth, did his religious schooling, played football and laid the foundations of his world view. In the 1970s, he joined the National Turkish Students Union, an anti-communist outfit. Later, he joined the Islamist National Salvation Party. When Erbakan, whom Mr. Erdogan found as an inspiration and a pathbreaking leader, founded the Welfare Party, he became one of the party’s district chairs. It was on the Welfare Party’s ticket, Mr. Erdogan was elected as the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. After the Welfare Party was banned, the Islamists formed the Virtue Party. When the Virtue Party was also shut down, they formed the Felicity Party.
For Mr. Erdogan and his allies, the political developments of the late 1990s was both a catalyst and an eye-opener. The coup of 1997, his own imprisonment and the subsequent banning of the Islamist parties all convinced Mr. Erdogan that they should play the long game. At this point, those who called themselves “reformers” in the Islamist political camp, including Mr. Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, broke away with Erbakan and formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish initials). They were conservative, but did not openly challenge the secular consensus. Instead, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gul focused on resolving Turkey’s economic problems. Banks were in trouble, inflation was raging and the economy was in a bad shape. The AKP promised a new beginning and the voters overwhelmingly supported them in the 2002 general elections. There was still a ban on Mr. Erdogan. Mr. Gul became the Prime Minister and his government quickly annulled the ban. In 2003, Mr. Erdogan became Turkey’s 25th Prime Minister. He never had to turn back.
Once in power, Mr. Erdogan knew that sitting on a throne is harder than winning one. The biggest challenge he faced in consolidating power was the old secular elite, who had the backing of the “White Turks”, the liberal, urbane populace. Mr. Erdogan presented himself as an outsider and not as an antagonist. The AKP did not openly challenge the secular order, nor the powers of the military, immediately. Instead, the government stayed focused on economic reforms and governance, winning over the people. But the détente would not last long. Towards the end of his first term, there was speculation that the Prime Minister was considering Mr. Gul, his long-time comrade, for the post of the country’s President. The military high command issued a memo, expressing concerns about the Islamic activities taking place under the AKP government. “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are a side in this debate and are a staunch defender of secularism.They will display their attitude and act openly and clearly whenever necessary,” it read, in an open warning to the AKP.
For Mr. Erdogan, who saw the military forcing out his former boss Erbakan exactly 10 years ago, it was a critical moment. He should either fight back the military, which had orchestrated four coups since Turkey became a republic, or cave in. He chose the former. The next day, Mr. Erdogan’s office issued a statement reminding the Generals that the military was “an institution under the Prime Minister”. Later that year, the AKP swept the general elections. Mr. Erdogan returned as the Prime Minister with a stronger mandate. He got Mr. Gul elected President. The military did not make a move.
But a section within the military would try to oust Mr. Erdogan in 2016, who by that time became the President after his two terms as Prime Minister, in a coup attempt. The coup would fail. A resurgent Mr. Erdogan would seize the moment to unleash one of the largest purges in Turkey’s history. The military has never managed to stand up to him ever since. He turned the old Kemalist order into a museum and built a parallel one with a centralised authority, Islamist roots, and Ottoman nostalgia. He later got the Constitution amended and turned Turkey into an executive Presidency. The military has been tamed; Parliament has been maimed and the post of the Prime Minister abolished. Now there is only one power centre. In 2018, Mr. Erdogan won the presidential election under the new Constitution in the first round. He is now the republican monarch, a modern ‘Sultan’, as many call him.
Faith as an ally
Throughout his journey from an Islamist outsider in a Kemalist order to the embodiment of a new Islamic Turkey, religion has been Mr. Erdogan’s most consistent ally. He knew the old guard were powerful and that he needed something that is more powerful than the military as an ally. He found it in faith. When he was the Mayor of Istanbul, he said he was the city’s Imam. While in power, he refashioned the whole of Turkey. In a country where religious symbols were banned in public places, religious nationalism has become the foundation of politics. In June 2020, Mr. Erdogan turned Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine cathedral which was made into a mosque by the Ottomans and then into a museum by Ataturk, again into a mosque. He praised the Ottoman conquests in public rallies. He claimed that “Jerusalem is ours”.
When Mr. Erdogan consolidated more powers, he also turned against his critics. Journalists were jailed, opposition politicians were disqualified and Kurdish local governments were dismissed. He allowed the military, now subservient to him, to resume the war against the Kurdish rebels and make incursions into Syria. He was, as Noam Chomsky pointed out, “basically trying to create something like the Ottoman Caliphate, with him as Caliph, Supreme Leader, throwing his weight around all over the place, and destroying the remnants of democracy in Turkey at the same time”.
But this consolidation of power has also triggered collective resistance. In the May 14 presidential election, Mr. Erdogan faced Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the united opposition candidate. The AKP’s coalition won a majority in Parliament, but Mr. Erdogan failed to win the presidential election in the first round. Like in early 2000s, when an economic crisis helped the fledgling AKP score a victory, Turkey’s economy is today struggling with inflation hovering around 40%. There’s growing resentment, particularly among urban centres, against Mr. Erdogan’s 20-year rule. His Islamist nationalism has started showing signs of ageing, but still keeps him in the lead ahead of Sunday’s run-off. The economy may be in trouble and the opposition united, but the Sultan’s supporters keep chanting, ‘Inshallah Erdogan”.