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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

President Erdoğan: The rags-to-riches champion that Europe hoped would steady Turkey

The rags-to-riches Turkish leader, once backed by the EU and US to bring stability to the region, has been given greater power than any of his predecessors.

Turkey Referendum Kayhan Ozer / AP Kayhan Ozer / AP / AP

TURKISH VOTERS SEEM to have backed their President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the way forward for the country, despite the leader’s iron-fisted approach with the EU and questionable handling of a failed coup attempt.

After a controversial result last Sunday (there were reports of voting irregularities), 51% of voters backed a motion expanding the powers of Turkey’s first democratically elected leader – a mirror image of the 52% who voted for him in the 2014 elections, equal to 21 million people.

But Erdoğan’s political career had a very different beginning – he began as an activist fighting for the freedom of religious expression, thrown into prison for reading an Islamic poem in public, and backed by the EU as their preferred election candidate when he got out.

Western leaders saw Erdoğan as Turkey’s best chance at peace and unity. But years later, the country seems more and more divided.

Turkey Referendum Yasin Bulbul / PA Images Yasin Bulbul / PA Images / PA Images


Erdoğan grew up in the north-eastern town of Guneysu – a tiny, ultra-conservative town located five miles from the Black Sea.

Every summer he returns to the village and is worshipped by the locals (much like any world leader returning to the place they grew up).

Here are some things locals told the Sunday Times Magazine in their piece The Iron Man of Turkey:

He’s the kindest and strongest man in Turkey. But he’s also one of us. He played with my son in my garden as a child and now he is our president. Nothing makes me more proud.

“When he last visited he saw my husband was ill.

He’s a wonderful leader for our country. He’s said he’ll come over for breakfast next time he’s here. I know he will. I trust him.

Turkey Referendum Lefteris Pitarakis / PA Images Lefteris Pitarakis / PA Images / PA Images

Erdoğan is described as religious and smart. When young, he dreamed of wanting to become a football player. But ‘discouraged’ by his father, he decided to pursue politics instead (which his father wasn’t too pleased about either).

A champion of Islam

Between the fall of the Ottoman empire at the end of the first World War and Erdoğan’s election, Turkey was a secular state torn between the Middle Eastern culture and liberal progression in Europe.

Erdoğan sympathised with the cast-off Muslims in Turkey and looked to push back against extreme religious oppression.

President Erdogan Addresses Supporters - Ankara Depo Photos / ABACA Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

By the time he was 40, he had become mayor of Istanbul. “A lot of people feared that he would be Islamist,” said a former diplomat.

He just wasn’t. He was extremely efficient. He cleared up rubbish, the water shortage and traffic congestion in no time.

After being given a 10-month prison sentence for reading an Islamic poem at a gathering in Turkey’s southeast (forbidden under the Turkish constitution) Erdoğan emerged as one of the country’s most promising and modern figures.

In the country’s first democratic election in 2003, Erdoğan was elected to power as Prime Minister, with the backing of the European Union.

President Erdogan Addresses Supporters - Ankara Depo Photos / ABACA Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

He was elected President in 2014 in a role that he tailored for himself, and took on a far more active role in politics than his predecessors: ruling behind the scenes, and using his democratic mandate as a defence.

With new powers at his helm, Erdoğan has the power to appoint government ministers and senior officials, appoint half of the members in the country’s highest judicial body, declare states of emergency and issue decrees.

Following last weekend’s election, the 63-year-old can now stay in power until 2029.


The promising politician’s relationship with the EU all started to go wrong when Erdoğan began extending religious freedoms as he promised – but the EU disagreed on.

For example, shortly after coming to power, the new leader lifted a ban on students wearing hijabs to university, a move the EU criticised, but that young Muslim women said allowed them to go to university.

That same disagreement cropped up again this year, when Erdoğan compared EU leaders to ‘Nazis’ that were regressing back to ‘World War II’.

Erdogan Welcomes Merkel - Ankara Depo Photos / ABACA Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel meets at the Presidential Palace, Ankara, Turkey on February 2017. Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

It was in response to an EU court’s landmark ruling granting businesses permission to ban employees from wearing hijabs or other religious symbols if it’s against their dress-code.

“The European Union’s court, The European Court of Justice, my esteemed brothers, have started a crusade struggle against the (Muslim) crescent,” Erdoğan said in a televised speech in response.

“Where is freedom of religion?” he said.

Shame on your European Union acquis! Shame on your values. Shame on your law and justice!
Europe is swiftly rolling back to the days before World War II.

Needless to say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her colleagues weren’t too pleased.

The July coup

Turkish President Erdogan Depo Photos / ABACA Erdogan addresses local administrators after the government sacked thousands of state employees, including academicians, as part of a Soviet-like purge. Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

In July 2016, renegade soldiers tried to oust the Turkish President with guns, tanks and F16s, leading to massive riots in the streets and hundreds of people being killed in the crossfire.

Erdoğan survived the ousting however, but hit back with force: threatening to reintroduce the death penalty, shutting down media organisations, and sacking civil servants. Amnesty also reported incidents of human rights abuses on those who were detained.

The EU continuously criticised Turkey’s response to the failed coup, which further inflamed Erdoğan, who was increasingly unsure of who his allies were after the incident.

Soldiers Involved In The Failed Coup At Court - Turkey Depo Photos / ABACA Some of the almost 50 people, mainly Turkish soldiers, accused of trying to assassinate the Turkish President during the July coup attempt, are escorted by security forces towards the courthouse in Mugla, western Turkey. Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

A widespread government crackdown continued, and eventually led to the targetting of the followers of US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen – whom Erdoğan blames for the failed coup – and other government opponents.

Some 100,000 people – including judges and teachers – have been dismissed, and more than 40,000 people, including journalists and opposition pro-Kurdish legislators, have been arrested.

Turkey Protest - Ankara Depo Photos / ABACA Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against the dismissal of academics from universities following a post-coup emergency decree (February 2017). Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

Hundreds of news outlets and non-governmental organisations have been shut down in what’s increasingly looking like a progression towards dictatorship.

What now?

But Erdoğan remains popular in Turkey’s conservative and religious heartlands, where he is seen as a strong leader who stands up against Europe, terror threats and coup-plotters.

President Erdogan Addresses Supporters - Ankara Depo Photos / ABACA Supporters gather to celebrate President Erdogan's win last weekend. Depo Photos / ABACA / ABACA

Many believe he has improved services and health care, and given a voice to pious Muslims who felt marginalised by more secular governments.

He has crisscrossed the country to hold mass rallies and led an often abrasive and divisive campaign, accusing his opponents of siding with “terrorists”.

On top of increased terror-threats and political instability, the country is also dealing with the war in neighboring Syria, which led to an influx of 2.7 million refugees.

Although European leaders want to distance themselves from Turkey, they’re also trying to keep relations healthy because of those refugees who would otherwise travel to Europe.

With reporting from the Associated Press

Read: ‘Believe me, it’s not over’: Protesters dispute vote that tightens Erdogan’s grip on power

Read: ‘You’ve lost Turkey as a friend’: Erdoğan goes on tirade against Merkel, Hollande, and the EU

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