How will Erdogan bounce back this time?

The Turkish president faces a perfect storm of crises as his AKP reaches the 20-year mark. But he's been here before

This coming Saturday marks 20 years since a group of Turkey’s most promising conservatives, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, created the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which today ranks among the world’s most successful political parties.

The Islamist-rooted AKP has in its two decades of existence never lost a nationwide vote, winning a total of 10 consecutive national elections and referendums – setting aside local elections – with its leader regularly finding new ways to regain voter support and retain power.

With the next parliamentary vote set for mid-2023, many observers see Mr Erdogan and the AKP on their last legs, due to extended economic troubles and growing discontent with missteps like the government’s widely criticised response to this summer’s wildfires.

But a look back at the career of the longtime Turkish leader suggests this may be just the sort of harrowing moment that has driven his surprising success. It is hard to count the number of times Mr Erdogan faced the type of adversity that would dissuade the less determined.

As a youth in the mid-1970s, he hoped to study political science at Ankara’s prestigious Mekteb-i Mulkiye, where many of Turkey’s top politicians, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, earned their degrees. But Mulkiye does not accept students who, like Mr Erdogan, graduated from a religion-focused Imam Hatip vocational school. He ended up studying economics at a middling university in Istanbul.

As a late-80s candidate for the Islamist Welfare Party, Mr Erdogan ran for Parliament and for mayor of Istanbul’s central Beyoglu district, losing both times. In 1991, he ran again for Parliament and the Welfare party won the seat. But this was the last election in which Turkish voters had to choose both a party and a candidate, and Istanbul voters eschewed Welfare’s preferred candidate, Mr Erdogan, in favour of its second choice, Mustafa Bas. Even when he won, young Mr Erdogan still lost.

Despite this disappointing start to his career, he soldiered on, running for Istanbul mayor in 1994. He was mocked as a conservative novice by opponents and the media, but in a shock result he won. At age 40, Mr Erdogan took up one of the country’s most powerful posts, going in a flash from laughing stock to rising star.

He made a name for himself as a powerful speaker and effective administrator, but the good times did not last. In late 1997, he publicly read a poem that included the line: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets.” He was tried and convicted of inciting religious hatred, barred from public office, and sent to four months in prison in March 1999.

While he was in jail, authorities shuttered his Virtue Party, the successor to the Welfare Party, which had been shuttered three years prior. Out of office and without a party, Mr Erdogan’s once-promising career had fizzled.

Again he found a way to overcome. He and a bevy of up-and-coming politicians – Abdullah Gul, Bulent Arinc, Huseyin Celik, Ali Babacan, Mr Cavusoglu and others – agreed that moving away from a strict Islamism and toward a more moderate form of political Islam would be key to their long-term survival.

Targeting the frustrated conservative masses, they launched the AKP in August 2001 and 15 months later won a parliamentary majority despite getting barely one third of the vote (34.3 per cent). Mr Erdogan’s tale of woe – losing his mayoral post and serving time in prison because he read an Islamic poem – had apparently earned him widespread sympathy.

Mr Gul became prime minister and annulled Mr Erdogan’s ban from public office. The prime minister also had to be in parliament, so Mr Gul called for a by-election for a vacant seat in Siirt province, enabling Mr Erdogan to become an MP, and then prime minister, in March 2003.

He has run Turkey ever since, surviving two alleged coup plots and an AKP closure trial in the late 2000s, a massive nationwide protest movement in mid-2013, a corruption probe that toppled three of his ministers later that year, the loss of his parliamentary majority in 2015, a violent coup attempt in mid-2016, an extended economic downturn and 18 trying months of coronavirus pandemic, to name the most memorable.

Mr Erdogan has not only survived, he has thrived, gaining approval in 2017 for a presidential system that greatly increased his powers. In 2019, despite losing control of key cities to the main opposition Republican People’s Party, he surpassed Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-1938) to become the longest-serving leader in the history of the republic.

He has undoubtedly and increasingly bent the rules: imprisoning dozens of opponents on questionable charges, such as leading Kurdish politician and former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas; calling for a rerun of elections in 2015 and 2019; charging all variety of critics as terrorists and criminals; and dominating a pro-government media landscape.

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Istanbul is probably anti-fragile, like evolution and chicken soup. Is Erdogan as well?

Some observers wonder if Mr Erdogan, at this point, would even accept electoral defeat. Turkey’s elections remain relatively free, though they have certainly not been fair. Still, there is little question that Mr Erdogan is today – 30 years after he first won, then lost, a seat in parliament – as powerful he has ever been and the defining force in Turkish politics.

Now he faces a perfect storm of crises, as I detailed last week, and with his party polling in the low-30s many believe his days are numbered. But it may be precisely this kind of pressure that has made him strong.

In his 2012 bestseller Antifragile, Lebanese-American risk analyst Nassim Taleb explained the concept of the book’s title. “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors,” he wrote. ”The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti-fragile gets better.”

Three-millennia-old Istanbul is probably anti-fragile, like evolution and chicken soup. Is Mr Erdogan as well? Consider that in Turkey’s most recent national election, in 2018, the AKP received 42 per cent of the vote, while Mr Erdogan, running for president, received nearly 53 per cent, a personal best. Much has happened since then, yet the list of those who have erred in predicting an end to this singular political career is long.

Mr Erdogan has not only displayed an uncanny knack for bouncing back from stinging setbacks, he has seemed over the years to gain strength from stressors, to hit on political solutions when under the greatest pressure. He is certainly not unbreakable – his opponents may well be in the process of breaking him right now – but he is certainly not fragile, either.

Published: August 9th 2021, 4:00 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National