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From breadseller to prime minister: The rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Once a poster-boy for successful Middle Eastern democracy, the Turkish premier has recently attacked judicial power and civil liberties in the country. But to the residents of his teenage neighborhood, he can do no wrong.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives to deliver a speech to parliament in Ankara this week. He said his government is ready to withdraw a contentious bill curbing the power of judges "if the opposition agrees to constitutional changes governing this issue." (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Packing grocery bags at a store in this city's central Kasimpasa district, Dilek echoes the reverence for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that runs high here.

"If Erdogan asked," she says, "I would die for him."

That may not be surprising for this neighborhood, where Erdogan spent his teenage years. Elsewhere, however, others are beginning to question the motives of a leader who's becoming increasingly divisive.

For the past month, the government has been embroiled in a scandal over illicit property deals that's claimed three government ministers and dozens of parliament members. The unprecedented charges against officials from Erdogan's AK Party and their families have set off a power struggle between the government and the informal movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who's believed to have millions of  followers. The scandal has also raised fears that Erdogan may not be the democratic role-model Western governments and investors had held him to be.

Since news of the police investigation broke on December 17, Erdogan and others in the ruling Islamist-leaning AK Party have accused Gulen's supporters  — who dominate the country’s police and judiciary — of orchestrating the affair for political reasons. The AK Party has also retaliated by firing hundreds of police officers and reassigning police chiefs and judicial prosecutors, while Erdogan has sped up plans to transfer judicial power from the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors to the Justice Minister. This week, President Abdullah Gul, who's seen as a more moderate force in the AK Party, signaled he may veto the move.

In Kasimpasa, however, admiration for Erdogan continues unabated. Twenty-eight-year-old Ismail, a security guard at a soccer stadium named after the prime minister, downplayed the political crisis.

“It’s similar to what’s been happening in Egypt," he says. "But Turkey’s not going to turn out like that because all people here love Erdogan and are behind him.”

“What Erdogan is doing is telling the world that the Ottomans are back," he adds. "Not in a violent or negative way, but that Turkey will become a global power."

Turkish "simit" (-Patxl Ikue-/Flickr)

Erdogan’s rise to power

It was here that Erdogan spent his teenage years during the 1960s selling lemonade and simit, the popular ring-shaped bread, a background that instilled in him "both an Islamic piety and a business-minded pragmatism,” according to the Turkish newspaper, Hurriyet.

At Istanbul’s Marmara University in the 1970s, Erdogan fed his interest in politics by joining the National Turkish Student Union and later, an Islamist party led by conservative politician Necmettin Erbakan, who would become prime minister in 1996 and often clashed both with Turkey’s powerful military and secular-minded Turks.

Kemal Kirişci, a Turkey expert at the Brookings Institution, said that the 1970s was a time when Turkish politics became diversified.

“One person who led to the opening of political space was Erbakan. He had an important electoral base then,” he said. “And that’s what was happening in Turkey when Erdogan began taking an interest in politics.”

Erdogan swiftly climbed the political ladder, serving as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998 until he was jailed for four months for giving a speech in public that was considered an attack against the ruling military. But by 2003, he was elected prime minister as head of the newly formed AK Party, and has remained in the post ever since.

Calls by GlobalPost to aides of Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s European Union Minister until his resignation in late December, were not returned. Attempts on Thursday to contact the AK Party spokesman Huseyin Celik also went unanswered.

With the government facing its biggest crisis for over 10 years, local elections in March — including for the post of mayor of Istanbul — are set to be hotly contested. Altough banners and buntings have yet to appear on the streets and avenues of Istanbul, the battle for the city’s top post is well underway.

Seizing on the negative publicity that surrounds the AK Party’s graft scandal, the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has re-embraced rising political star Mustafa Sarigul, choosing him last month to run for Istanbul mayor against the AK Party incumbent, Kadir Topbas.

Analysts see the city as a microcosm of the wider country, making Istanbul’s mayorship rich in political promise. Five years after Erdogan left the post, his newly-formed AK Party cruised to election victory.

“The Istanbul mayoral election may be more about the prime minister himself. I suspect many voters will cast their vote with national politics in mind rather than Istanbul issues,” said Kirişci of Brookings.

Despite the challenges to the government’s domination, supporters of Erdogan appear energized by recent events: Kasimpasa residents interviewed for this story said they believed Topbas would easily be reelected in March.

Yilmaz Nur, dressed all in black, surveys the street before him from a non-descript doorway facing the Recep Tayyip Erdogan soccer stadium. 

“Foreign countries won’t be successful against Turkey,” he says, his words echoing common political rhetoric about foreign powers being behind the local Turkish opposition. “You can’t know what bad people will do in the future. But as a country, we are ready for them.”

Goksel Doganay More than 1 year ago
Why hasn't my post been posted?
Richard More than 1 year ago
This is a strange article. There are a few things I don't think are accurate. ITEM #1: He was jailed for "giving a speech in public that was considered an attack against the ruling military" He was not jailed for attacking the ruling military. This line makes it seem that he was the good guy and the mean, powerful military didn't like him. He actually was jailed and not allowed to serve in government because he had read an Islamic poem in a speech, which is a no-no (rightly so) in Turkey. In Turkey's neighbors to the east, there is instability and/or a lack of freedoms. Turkey avoided a lot of that by being very harsh against mixing church and state while giving women the same rights as women in the West. At the time of his speech, Turkey was corrupt and poor compared to Europe, but it was much more open to women's rights, religious freedom etc. than its neighbors to the east (in some aspects Turkey was more free than some European countries), and as a result it has always been a relatively free, safe country to live and visit. You can't say that about Syria, Iraq, or Iran, 3 countries which border Turkey. This article makes no mention that he has introduced the koran into public schools and the CHP is against him largely for things like that, as well as his obvious corruption and abuse of power. ITEM #2: "by 2003, he was elected prime minister as head of the newly formed AK Party" He was not elected prime minister in 2003. When AKP won elections in 2002, Erdogan had been banned from politics due to the aforementioned Islamic speech. In early 2003, Bush invited Erdogan to the US and treated him like a world leader, which confused and upset many Turks because Erdogan was not allowed to serve in government. Magically, after the trip to the US, Erdogan was no longer banned from government, and an election in Siirt in eastern Turkey was redone due to "voter irregularities". He ran for that seat and won and he then became prime minister on March 14, 2003. Six days later the US invaded Iraq using Turkish bases. ITEM #3: The only everyday resident they interview says "all people here love Erdogan and are behind him" Umm...really? No mention in the article that he tear-gasses protesters and arrests doctors for treating them? No interview of any of the protesters? Nice journalism! Erdogan is corrupt. That's why the US was happy to have him in power. They figured they could buy him so that they could use Turkish bases. Why do other people like him? Partly because he sells Turkish assets for cheap and Americans and Europeans benefit from this. In the short term, the cash windfall helps the Turkish economy, but in the long run it is a disaster. Thus the EU and America don't do anything when Turks point out his corruption and lack of respect for basic rights. The West actually praises him because he is good for the Turkish economy and they have the "numbers" since he took power to prove it. But when he runs out of things to sell, he's not going to have much power. He's going to have to answer why there are more journalists in prison in Turkey than there are in China. He's going to have to answer why hundreds of military men, including generals, are in prison with fake evidence against them. One final question that needs to be asked: How did he become worth hundreds of millions of dollars as a politician? Is that just a tad bit odd?
GATABRAVA75 More than 1 year ago
Absolutely agree Richard. This man become 8th richest politician in the world. How he made all that money. Also his son has a shipping company and recently bought sixty vessel. Erdogan is dangerous man for Turkey and for world politic. In the kast 7 years woman killings in Turkey increased by 1400% in 2012 92 woman killed. But worst year is 2013 843 woman killed. Woman had more freedom before Erdogan. Because of his influence and pressure from society many woman change the way they dress and feel they have to have heve headscarf. People of Turkey are divided. His followers has no access to internet or they have poor education. He uses religion as power to control people. He thinks 50% of people support him and he doesnt care about other 50%. God save Turkey from Erdogan.
Ygon More than 1 year ago
a breadseller and an Union leader, Erdogan and Lula are the leaders of the new century.