By Zeliha Ersin, Political Analyst
Born in 1954, Erdogan has now entered the fourth, authoritarian phase of his political career for more than a decade. He always adapted to the respective framework conditions. At first, the young Erdogan was a staunch Islamist, he wanted to introduce Sharia law and an Islamic order. When he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he became a pragmatic doer for whom urban development plans were more important than Sharia law. When he was serving a four-month prison sentence for political reasons in 1999, he realized that Turkey no longer needs Islam, but more freedom. In his third phase as Prime Minister from 2003 onwards, he became a reformer who brought the country closer to the EU than any other Turkish politician.
The fourth, authoritarian phase began in 2007. When the military threatened him with a coup if Abdullah Gül was elected president, Erdogan went into defense mode. Erdogan now built a fortress around himself and his AKP. The task was to secure the endangered power at all costs. In 2018, only one vote was missing in the constitutional court to ban the AKP, which ruled with an absolute majority. In the same year, the Ergenekon trial began against officers who allegedly planned a coup. In the minds of the Turkish leadership, the obsession that opposition to Erdogan is tantamount to an attempted coup has become firmly established. Then in 2010 Erdogan recorded two important victories. First he defeated colon cancer, which made him see the transience of life, so he had to make good use of his time. Then a referendum ended the independence of the judiciary, which no longer stood in the way of his politics.
The couple of last days were good days for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Brussels he conferred face-to-face with the heads of global power: With French President Emmanuel Macron, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to top it off with US President Joe Biden. At home, the Turkish media conveyed images of a man who helped shape the world. Erdogan was feeling relaxed in Brussels, not only because he was in the club room with equals, but also because it was uncomfortable for him at home in Turkey. Two tremors shake the country: an economic crisis that threatens to wipe out the Turkish economic miracle during the first years of the AKP’s government, and scandals that hit more frequently and whose amplitudes are growing.
Erdogan has been in this circle since George W. Bush welcomed him as freshly elected Turkish Prime Minister on December 10, 2002 in the White House. His newly founded AKP had run for the first time in an election and had triumphed. The newcomer was now surrounded by a different aura: he was sitting next to the most powerful man in the world and could hardly believe his luck.
The AKP was elected to power in 2002 after the implosion of the old party system because it promised to eradicate the three “Ys” of the old system: Yolsuzluk (lawlessness), Yoksulluk (poverty) and Yasaklar (prohibitions). After progress in the first decade of AKP rule, everything is back today, and in some cases it has been tightened. Of the 84 founding members of the AKP from 2001, only eight remain loyal to Erdogan. Long-time companions turn against him, above all the former President Abdullah Gül and the former Minister of Economic Affairs and Foreign Affairs Ali Babacan.
In a democracy, the current allegations around Erdogan and his entourage would lead to half of the cabinet resigning. Those eruptions in the system were caused by a Turkish mafioso, who has so far directed his revenge campaign against Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in nine videos. Two out of three Turks saw these videos, and three out of four believe, the criminal Peker is telling the truth. According to him, a corrupt group of oligarchs rules the country, nepotism is deeply anchored, the state works together with organized crime and does not shy away from violence against civilians.
In the momentous year 2013, during the Gezi protests, for the first time many Turks revolted against the increasingly arrogant Erdogan. He saw the protests as an insult to majesty and instructed the police to brutally beat them down. When the Egyptian military overthrew Erdogan’s friend Muhammad Morsi, Erdogan told himself that nothing like this would happen to him.
The year wasn’t over when he took another blow. On December 25, prosecutors belonging to the movement of the preacher Fethullah Gülen launched a campaign of corruption against Erdogan’s immediate surroundings. The investigation was carried out against a son of Erdogan and against a minister. The warning was directed at Erdogan himself. His personal fortune is estimated at more than ten billion euros. It had grown year after year in return for the fact that Erdogan had procured lucrative contracts and cheap loans for a small group of loyal entrepreneurs. This crowd in turn financed the AKP election campaign machine.
The fight between Erdogan and Gülen was decided with the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, for which Erdogan Gülen was responsible. The night of the coup was the hour of birth of Erdogan’s “new Turkey”. From now on, Erdogan equated himself with the “will of the people”: Anyone who criticizes him is neither a good Turk nor a good Muslim, but an enemy of the nation and therefore not entitled to democratic participation. Erdogan turned from the West and turned to Russia, because Vladimir Putin was the first and for a long time the only foreign politician to congratulate him on the victory over the putschists.
The darkest years of the Erdogan era began. He did not use the coup to unite society, but rather divided it even more with his personality cult. The judiciary opened more than a million cases for membership in a terrorist organization, as if all of these people were involved in the coup attempt. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants, judges, prosecutors and employees of state companies lost their jobs. Many only had the choice between social death and fleeing across the Aegean Sea.
For his security apparatus, Erdogan now needed police officers, judges and prosecutors whom he could rely on. The hour of the nationalist MHP and its Gray Wolves had come. Their cadres have been filling the gaps ever since. Under the power-conscious and unscrupulous Interior Minister Soylu, they are taking action against Erdogan’s enemies, far from any rule of law, and are transforming the republic in the direction of a repressive, nationalist state.
Erdogan’s calculation initially worked. His followers continue to admire the fact that he is not afraid of any arguments and that he always seems to win. They worship him because Turkey became an industrial nation under his rule and Anatolian poverty seems to be a thing of the past.
The local elections of 2019 showed that Erdogan is no longer invincible. It is too early to write it off, however. Today he would lose an election, but the next one won’t take place for two years. What if the economy recovers or if the opposition falls out over a common candidate? Erdogan knows the street, he is a master of propaganda and knows how to mobilize. Far and wide, no politician can compete with the charismatic tribune of the people.
Many Turks are very concerned about what will happen if Erdogan is threatened with defeat in a second round of the presidential election. Erdogan would enjoy immunity even as the elected president, but not the corrupt network around him. This is where Interior Minister Soylu comes in, who is at the center of the allegations made by mafioso Peker. Erdogan has been arming the police with weapons as a counterweight to the army for years. In an emergency, Erdogan could be dependent on Soylu. And Soylu, so much is known, has no scruples. A dark scenario that the Turks prefer not to imagine today.