HE Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the Prime Minister of Turkey for 11 years, winning three consecutive elections with a majority (2002, 2007 and 2011), before becoming Turkey’s first popularly-elected president in August 2014 and then securing a second term in the 2018 election. During his terms, Turkey has seen unprecedented economic growth, constitutional reform, and a re-emergence as a major global power. All this, combined with his unapologetic voice on the world stage and support of Muslim issues, have won over Muslims world-wide.
President: Erdoğan secured 52.5% of the vote in the 2018 presidential election (electoral turnout was 86%), and thereby avoided a second-round runoff. This was a continuation of his remarkable popularity and success at the ballot box over the past two decades. During his time as president he has pushed for more powers for his post, a move not welcomed by all, and criticised by many as signs of wanting excessive power. He has lost support from key members of his own party and been criticised for cracking down on the media.
Taste of Defeat: When President Erdoğan returned to the leadership of the AKP in 2017 he expected to continue his amazing streak of victories in the 2019 local elections. This time, the AKP lost not only Istanbul, for the first time in 25 years, but also five of Turkey’s six largest cities. The Turkish government ordered a re-election in Istanbul, but the AKP fared even worse in the re-run elections in June. The state of the economy, mental fatigue with AKP rule as well as a well-organised and united opposition were all factors in this defeat. With stories of corruption within the AKP circulating widely on social media and poor Presidential appointments of key political and academic posts, there may be more defeats to come.
Failed Coup Ramifications: The failed coup of 15 July 2017, which led to about 200 deaths, has led to huge ramifications as Erdoğan looks to root out all those involved. He has squarely laid the blame of orchestrating the coup on Fethullah Gülen, and has led an all-out attack on Gülen’s organisations and supporters. There has been a major crackdown on many sectors with about 160,000 civil servants being dismissed in various state institutions, with over half from the education sector. Also, 50,000 people remain in detention with this number continually rising as authorities press ahead with regular raids.
Between the US and Russia: Ties with the US have strained considerably since Turkey decided to purchase the Russian S-400 defence system instead of the Patriot surface-to-air missile system. The US responded by suspending Turkey from the F-35 jet programme and holding up other arms deals.
Hagia Sophia: Hagia Sophia, built in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, was converted into the Fatih Mosque after Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city in 1453. In 1935 and in line with his effort to erase Turkey’s Islamic identity, Atatürk converted Hagia Sophia into a museum. In July 2020, Erdoğan reversed Atatürk’s decision and reclassified Hagia Sophia as a mosque, a decision celebrated by most Muslims.
Soft Power: The soft power of the Turkish film industry has played a large part in growing Turkey’s influence throughout the Muslim world. Historical dramas about Sulayman the Magnificent and Sultan Abdul-Hamid II were hugely popular in the Arab world, but the drama about Ertuğrul, (‘Diriliş: Ertuğrul’) the legendary father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire has intensified and broadened this influence. Leaders of other Muslim countries have not only urged their citizens to watch it, but have also taken it as a model with which to develop their own indigenous dramas.
Challenges: Turkey’s response to COVID-19 was swift and decisive. Travel restrictions, curfews and mandatory mask wearing were supported by economic stimulus packages and now a strong vaccination rollout. Climate challenges in the form of devastating fires and floods were also dealt with efficiently. But political, social and economic challenges loom large.