President Erdogan and Turkey's potent political mix

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News

image source, AFP

The reduced vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AKP in the recent parliamentary elections in Turkey has thrown the country's politics into a period of deep uncertainty.

Mr Erdogan may not have been a candidate, but many see the vote as a rejection of his plans to bolster the powers of the Turkish presidency.

"He was not officially running for office, but everyone knows this election was about him," Sevgi Akarcesme, a columnist with the opposition paper Zaman Daily, told BBC World Service's Newshour Extra.

"The election was almost a referendum on Erdogan's plans to create a presidential system."

In last year's presidential elections Mr Erdogan won 52% of the popular vote. This time his AKP secured 41%.

image source, EPA
image captionOfficials counting votes in Istanbul after the election

The result was a blow to a man with a hitherto remarkably consistent track record of election victories.

Mr Erdogan has already changed his country's political landscape beyond recognition.

He has taken ideas that used to divide Turkish people such as religion, imperial nostalgia and nationalism and forged them into a cohesive ideological base.

He has also overseen a period of steady economic development, creating millions of grateful, conservative, middle-class voters.

'Compatible with democracy'

Mr Erdogan is controversial. Supporters say that he should be credited with having broken the back of military power and entrenched democracy in Turkey.

There is no more talk of military coups overthrowing elected governments.

media captionYoung people in Turkey give their views on President Erdogan

And some argue that Mr Erdogan's quick acceptance of the recent election result shows that Islamism is, after all, compatible with democracy.

The oft-repeated warning that any Islamist who won power would stop any future elections taking place turns out to have been incorrect.

"Our nation's opinion is above everything else," he said after the result was announced last week.

'More domineering'

But opponents say that Mr Erdogan, isolated in his thousand-room presidential palace and surrounded by sycophants, has become increasingly autocratic.

Street protests have been met with water cannon and critical journalists live in fear of losing their jobs.

"Today in Turkey there is no independent state institutions other than the AKP itself," said former brigadier and independent political commentator Haldun Solmazturk.

"When you ask which democratic institutions he built, there is no answer."

Much of the considerable international attention Mr Erdogan has attracted has focused on his so-called political Islamist project.

image source, AP
image captionGeorge W Bush with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2004

Back in 2004, US President George W Bush said in Ankara: "I appreciate very much the example that your country has set on how to be a Muslim country which. . . embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom."

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Western leaders have made similarly hopeful remarks about Mr Erdogan establishing an Islamic democracy.

But while Western politicians and journalists tend to see Turkish politics as an argument between Islamists and secularists, there are, in fact, many other fault lines in Turkish society.

Not just religion

For many Turks issues such as class, inequality, economic development, corruption, civil liberties and ethnicity are just as important as the role of religion in politics.

"Moderate Islam, Islamism, political Islam mean something to Westerners," Haldun Solmazturk told Newshour Extra. "In Turkey we seldom, if ever, use these terms."

While some Westerners hanker after the creation of a model of political Islam that they could live with, it's far from clear that Mr Erdogan ever had such a project in mind.

Rather, his ascent can be seen as a case of a highly capable politician using his political base and some powerful ideas to win and hold on to power.

And he has not relied exclusively on questions of faith.

image source, EPA

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rise to power

  • 1970s-1980s - Active in Islamist circles, member of Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party
  • 1994-1998 - Mayor of Istanbul, until military officers made power grab
  • 1998 - Welfare Party banned, Erdogan jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred
  • Aug 2001 - Founds Islamist-rooted AKP with ally Abdullah Gul
  • 2002-2003 - AKP wins solid majority in parliamentary election, Erdogan appointed prime minister
  • Aug 2014 - Becomes president after first-ever direct elections for head of state

Mr Erdogan has been equally willing to evoke symbols of Turkey's Ottoman imperial history to bolster his position.

In both cases he is drawing strength from aspects of Turkish society and history that have previously been suppressed or ignored.

media captionTurkey's president is trying to encourage a coalition but will struggle, reports Mark Lowen from Istanbul

But even then he talks more about the economy than either religion or nationalism.

On this account Mr Erdogan's autocratic tendencies are a sign not of the failure of his form of political Islamism but more as a case of politics as usual in Turkey.

The country's leaders have long used heavy-handed methods to hold on to power and Mr Erdogan is no exception.

"The Turkish state has habits of this kind," said Meryem Atlas of the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah newspaper.

While some see Mr Erdogan's suppression of criticism as inherent to his Islamism, others think that, like politicians all over the world, he just wants to tighten his grip on power.

Sensing his ambitions, the Turkish electorate has sent a message that they don't want one-man rule.

The question now is how Mr Erdogan will react during the four remaining years of his presidential term.

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