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A Brief History of Today’s Turkey, Part 1: The Rise of Erdoğan and his AKP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Photo of President Erdogan, courtesy of Getty Images via New York Times

This piece is the first of two pieces chronicling the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power in Turkey.

The 1994 mayoral election in Istanbul was one of the most competitive the city had seen. There were four candidates who earned more than 15% of the vote, but in the end, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Istanbul’s new mayor with the support of 25% of the electorate.

Erdoğan’s election from the Islamist Welfare Party was widely regarded as a blow to secularists. His, as well as the party’s, Islamic values had been of concern beforehand – many curiously awaited how they would proceed throughout his term.

In his four years in office as the mayor of the largest city in Turkey, Erdoğan largely reeled back in his Islamist policies. His actions making Istanbul greener and cleaner, as well as the installation of an all-important water pipeline around the city were considered evidence for his success as mayor.

However, Erdoğan was sentenced to 10 months in prison in 1998 for inciting religious hatred when he read a poem which said: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…”

The conviction meant that Erdoğan was banned from running for any office in the future.

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On February 19, 2001, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit addressed the press following a meeting with his President Ahmet Necdet Sezer about the condition of the Turkish economy. Facing the press following the meeting, Ecevit said “This is a serious crisis.” After a long term of economic instability and imbalances, the PM’s statement was all that was needed to create panic.

Following the announcement, the Turkish Central Back had to sell $5bn, a very substantial amount at that time, devaluing the Turkish currency more than 40% overnight. The interest rate surged to 6000%. The stock market crashed.

Due to its unstable political stage – Turkey had four different governments in seven years between 1995 and 2002 – Turkey’s economy had been unstable for years before. Governments before Ecevit’s had managed to keep the economy in check by borrowing heavily. But in 2000, the borrowing policy became unsustainable. The increasingly unstable economy prompted divestment from Turkey by foreign investors, burying Turkey deep into its third economic crisis in 4 months.

Unemployment rapidly rose and inflation was off the charts. To take action against the ongoing crisis, the government recruited Kemal Dervis, a Turkish economist who had been working with the World Bank for the past 20 years, as the Minister of Economic Affairs.

Dervis collaborated with the IMF to draw up a strict plan to reform Turkey’s economic policies. But by the time the plan could be implemented, various political divisions within Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (DSP) combined with allegations of corruption and Ecevit’s deteriorating health led to the collapse of the government and brought in early elections on November 3, 2002.

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The Welfare Party was one of the parties that had constructed one of the four governments between 1995 and 2002. The party had grown significantly until 1996 when it became the largest party in the parliament. However, in 1997, the military posted a memorandum that forced Welfare Party leader Necmettin Erbakan to resign from the Prime Ministry. Following this “post-modern coup,” the Welfare Party was closed by the constitutional court in 1998 for violating the separation of religion and state. Following the closure of the Welfare Party, many members joined the newly formed Virtue Party which was closed in 2001 for the exact same reason.

Following the closure of both of these Islamic parties, a core, younger group of ex-Welfare Party members, including Erdoğan and Abdullah Gul, founded the reformist Justice and Development Party (AKP, or AK Parti in Turkish) on August 14, 2001. Unlike the Welfare and Virtue Parties, The AKP portrayed itself not as Islamic but inherently democratic. However, founding members’ backgrounds in Islamic parties caused many to be skeptical towards AKP’s democratic ideology.

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In general elections, Turkish laws require running parties to pass a threshold of 10% of all the votes in the country to be able to elect any member into the parliament. In the 2002 elections, only two parties did so: Erdoğan’s newly established AKP, alongside the Republican People’s Party (CHP in Turkish).

With only two parties passing the threshold, although AKP earned only about a third of the popular vote, it got 363 out of the 550 possible seats – almost a two-thirds majority in the parliament. Parties in the previous coalition government lost all their representatives. The election made AKP the first political party to create a single-party government since the 1980 military coup.

However, due to his conviction barring him from running for any office, Erdoğan could not run for parliament and consequently could not become Prime Minister. Abdullah Gul took the office for the time being. Soon after the newly elected parliament passed a constitutional amendment essentially annulling Erdoğan’s political ban.

Following the election, concerns about some irregularities about the voting process in the province of Siirt came to light. Three broken ballot boxes led to the Supreme Electoral Council ruling the elections in the province null and void, causing the elections in the province to be repeated in March 2003. Erdoğan, whose ban had been annulled, ran for the seat and won easily, becoming the Prime Minister the following week as Abdullah Gul resigned.

Read Part Two of this series here.

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