Erdogan: Turkey's reformer or dictator?
Updated: Jul 21
When Erdogan first rose to power as the mayor of Istanbul, he continued efforts to modernize the country by reducing pollution, improving infrastructure, and investing in the economy. After a brief stint in prison for reciting a religious poem, he returned to politics and became prime minister of the country on behalf of the AKP, or the Justice and Development Party. In 2008, he removed a long-time ban that barred women from wearing headscarves in public schools or while working. Turkey’s population is 95% Muslim, and this ban (made in an effort to promote secularity) clashed heavily with an overwhelming majority of the population who adhered to Islam—Erdogan’s own daughters were schooled in The United States so that they would not be forced to remove their headscarves.
The Washington Post writes that, “The idea that Erdogan is nothing more than a power-seeking megalomaniac is hard to reconcile with his first term as prime minister. After he assumed office in March 2003, he oversaw three rounds of political reforms which included diminishing the military’s role in politics, strengthening the freedom of the press, doing away with state security courts, and changing the penal code.” The EU responded to these progressive changes through an invitation for Turkey to apply as a prospective member.
Erdogan increasingly became known as an authoritarian leader when he slowly began to increase the breadth of his power and stifle any opposition towards him or the AKP. In 2014, he was elected as Turkey’s President. That same year he threw several dissenting military officials and journalists in prison for life, and temporarily blocked the country’s access to Twitter and YouTube.
In July of 2016 a section of the military staged a coup in an attempt to remove Erdogan and the AKP from power. It looked like it would be a success, but, as Al Jazeera states, “As news of the coup attempt spread via social media, thousands of ordinary citizens, armed with nothing more than kitchen utensils, gathered in streets and squares around Anatolia to oppose the coup. The crowds resisted tank fire and air bombardments and, with the help of loyalist soldiers and police forces, they defeated the coup attempt in a matter of hours.” Erdogan’s response to the coup effectively ruined Turkey’s chances of joining the EU and isolated the country from its Western allies. Erdogan arrested and imprisoned thousands of military officials, academics, politicians, and police officers for their alleged involvement in the coup. He also shut down multiple news outlets: more than 100,000 people have been suspended from their jobs and 50,000 have been arrested. Many have criticized Erdogan for using the coup (even potentially having planned it) in order to completely wipe any opposition.
Though he was revered at first, it is clear that Erdogan’s grip on the country is starting to fade. His economic reforms are no longer working, and the lira (Turkish currency) is suffering for it. Further, the corruption and control of the AKP is beginning to be more well known. This year, for the first time, Istanbul elected a non-AKP member as its mayor. The secular and liberal Ekrem Imamoglu won an overwhelming victory (a historic win because of how big the margin was) despite Erdogan forcing a reelection after unfavorable results, proving that the Turkish people were done.
This article was written by Mina Basmaci.
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Special thanks to Professor Juergensmeyer for the insight.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org