Malik Nasir Mahmood Aslam analyses the tough times for Erdogan
Tough times for Erdogan has hogged the center stage for an awkwardly long time and in the process has manipulated the top executive positions so many times that he has made a mockery of democratic governance system. He took great advantage of Turkey’s often divided opposition parties in the past that have allowed him to stay at top more irrespective of his chameleon like conduct. In this backdrop the unity achieved by the Turkish opposition has caused serious jitters within the ranks of Erdogan’s party as they are put in a quandary. The opposition has decided to choose a single candidate to face President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in May’s election.
Over the period of time Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown into a political giant, leading Turkey for 20 years and reshaping his country more than any leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Now he faces one of the biggest tests of his political career as Turkey reels from its most devastating earthquake since 1999. He survived a coup attempt in 2016 but his chances of extending his rule into a third decade may now hinge on his handling of the quake that has hit 10 provinces in the south-east. Rampant inflation and a cost-of-living crisis has already hit his poll ratings and, as May elections approach, an emboldened opposition has accused him of failing to prepare for the disaster in a country prone to powerful earthquakes. For a pugnacious leader who built a proud record on modernising and developing Turkey, the loss of so many lives in the rubble of thousands of buildings represents a real threat. On top of that opposition leaders were quick to visit the region well before the president arrived.
Erdogan has fully exploited the governance provisions to stay in power with the result that first as prime minister from 2003 and then as directly elected president since 2014, he has flexed Turkey’s muscles as a regional power, championed Islamist causes and been quick to out-manoeuvre domestic opposition. Although he is the head of a NATO country, he has positioned himself as a broker in Russia’s war in Ukraine and kept Sweden and Finland waiting in their bids to join the Western defensive alliance. His muscular diplomacy has riled allies in Europe and beyond. While many Turks are looking for a future without him, President Erdogan is a proven election winner and will not give up power lightly. He has already sought to prevent a leading rival, the mayor of Istanbul, from running. He, more than anyone, knew the risk of defeat at the hands of a popular Istanbul mayor, because that was the role in which he built his powerbase in the 1990s.
Erdogan supporters like his tough language and defence of traditional Muslim values. His AKP or Justice and Development Party came to power after spending few years in wilderness. From 2003, he spent three terms as prime minister, presiding over a period of steady economic growth and winning praise internationally as a reformer. The country’s middle class expanded and millions were taken out of poverty, as Erdogan prioritised giant infrastructure projects to modernise but critics warned he was becoming increasingly autocratic. By 2013, protesters took to the streets, partly because of his government’s plans to transform a much-loved park in the centre of Istanbul, but also in a challenge to more authoritarian rule. Allegations of corruption ensnared the sons of three cabinet allies.
These public protestations marked a turning point in his rule and to his detractors, he was acting more like a sultan from the Ottoman Empire than a democrat. He also fell out with a US-based Islamic scholar called Fethullah Gulen, whose social and cultural movement had helped him to victory in three consecutive elections and had been active in removing the military from politics. It was a feud that would have dramatic repercussions for Turkish society. However, after a decade of his rule, Erdogan’s party also moved to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves in public services that was introduced after a military coup in 1980. The ban was eventually lifted for women in the police, military and judiciary. However, his critics complained he had chipped away at the pillars of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secular republic. While religious himself Erdogan always denied wanting to impose Islamic values, insisting he supported the rights of Turks to express their religion more openly. Erdogan has long championed Islamist causes and in 2020, he oversaw the conversion of Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, angering many Christians.
Erdogan affected a twist when barred from running again for prime minister in 2014 he stood for the largely ceremonial role of president in unprecedented direct elections. He had big plans for reforming the post, creating a new constitution that would benefit all Turks and place their country among the world’s top 10 economies. But early in his presidency, he faced two jolts to his power. His party lost its majority in parliament for several months in a 2015 vote and then months later, in 2016, Turkey witnessed its first violent attempted coup for decades. However, the coup petered out and he emerged triumphant to the cheers of supporters though almost 300 civilians were killed as they blocked the advance of the coup plotters. He appeared on national television declaring himself chief commander but the tough crackdown on opposition ranks involving sacking of more than 150,000 public servants and detention of more than 50,000 people including soldiers, journalists, lawyers, police officers, academics and Kurdish politicians. This crackdown on critics caused alarm abroad, contributing to frosty relations with the EU.
To many observers Erdogan looked safe and secure in his gleaming, 1,000-room Ak Saray palace overlooking Ankara though controversy has surrounded this costly and sprawling presidential palace in Ankara. He narrowly won a 2017 referendum granting him sweeping presidential powers, including the right to impose a state of emergency and appoint top public officials as well as intervene in the legal system. However, in 2019, his party lost in the three biggest cities – Istanbul; the capital, Ankara; and Izmir. Losing the Istanbul mayorship narrowly to Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was a bitter blow to Erdogan, who was the city’s mayor in the 1990s and quite naturally he never accepted the result.
The things have gone difficult for Erdogan as in the coming elections he will face Kemal Kilicdaroglu who now leads the main secular opposition party, the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP). Polls suggest a tight race in a country highly polarised after two decades of Mr Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. A huge crowd of supporters cheered Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant, as he was chosen by a six-party opposition alliance. He promised to govern Turkey through consensus and consultation. He also said he would return the country to a parliamentary system. Interestingly, the CHP was created by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and is the country’s oldest political party, though it has been out of power centrally since the 1990s.
Moreover, Kilicdaroglu has broadened its appeal by embracing minority groups and has formed alliances with right-wing parties in direct contrast to Erdogan who has become increasingly intolerant of criticism. TW