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Erdogan’s political path from mayor to one-man rule of Turkey

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at a rally on May 7 in Istanbul. (Burak Kara/Getty Images)
8 min

Sunday’s election in Turkey could decide the political future of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a leader whose decades in power have reshaped Turkey’s politics and its role in global affairs.

First as prime minister and then as president, Erdogan has faced moments of uncertainty (he survived a coup attempt in 2016). Over time, though, he has moved toward one-man rule, consolidating power and leveraging Turkey’s international sway.

A polarizing figure, on Sunday he will face perhaps the most competitive election of his career. He has presided over soaring inflation, and in recent months his government has come under intense criticism for its response to earthquakes that left more than 50,000 people dead in Turkey earlier this year.

While in office, he has deepened restrictions on speech and expression, and under his government, the judiciary has jailed or brought charges against opponents. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, his most prominent challenger, has promised an alternative: “Nothing will never, ever happen to you because you criticize me.”

Here are some of the key points in Erdogan’s career as a public servant and player on the world stage, tracing his path from popular Istanbul mayor to entrenched one-man rule.

1994: Erdogan, already involved in local politics, runs for mayor of Istanbul, winning with approximately 25 percent of the vote as a member of the Welfare Party. As mayor, Erdogan focuses on modernizing public goods and services — including through privatization. Among his constituency: rural-to-urban migrants seeking an alternative to the entrenched secular establishment.

1997: Erdogan is accused of inciting religious hatred after he recites a passage from a poem — which includes militant religious imagery: “the minarets are our bayonets” — that runs afoul of Turkey’s laws enforcing secularism. As a social conservative from an Islamist political tradition, he seeks to gain more political representation for religious Muslims.

1998: Forced to resign as mayor, Erdogan serves a four-month prison sentence in early 1999, over the recitation. His imprisonment only raises his profile.

2001: Erdogan founds the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. He and his allies make the calculation that a straightforward Islamist party would not win power in Turkey in the early 2000s. The AKP positions itself as conservative and respectful of Islamic tradition. “I am a Muslim,” Erdogan told TIME Magazine in 2002. “But I believe in a secularist state.”

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2003: Erdogan becomes prime minister after his party wins power in parliament, and some legal changes to allow him to serve despite his past imprisonment. In that role, and in the context of Turkey’s pursuit of E.U. membership, Erdogan’s government pursues reforms, including sweeping changes to the penal code, more money allocated to education spending, as well as laws expanding freedom of expression and religion. These come alongside a more conservative agenda, including attempts to restrict the sale of alcohol, which Erdogan also pursued as mayor of Istanbul.

2009: President Barack Obama chooses Turkey as the destination for his first overseas bilateral diplomatic trip. His visit affirms a vision of Turkey charting a path for a form of Islamism acceptable in the West and seemingly bound for E.U. membership. “I came here out of my respect to Turkey’s democracy and culture and my belief that Turkey plays a critically important role in the region and in the world,” Obama says in remarks to a student roundtable during that visit, during which he mentioned having “productive” conversations with Erdogan.

200os: E.U. accession talks, which begin in 2005, stall in the late aughts, with multiple world leaders expressing frustration over the pace of negotiations.

2010s: Regionally, Erdogan receives praise for his leadership of Turkey throughout the Arab Spring, when uprisings rocked the Arab world, according to the Brookings Institution’s 2011 Arab public opinion poll. Among the poll’s 3,000 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, “Turkey is seen to have played the ‘most constructive’ role in the Arab events,” reads a Brookings write-up of the poll’s results. Among respondents, the write-up says, “those who envision a new president for Egypt want the new president to look most like Erdogan.”

Around that same time, in late 2010, Erdogan and the AKP win a constitutional referendum that curbs the power of the military and changes presidential elections into a national, rather than parliamentary, vote.

2013: Massive anti-government protests, sparked by public opposition to an Erdogan-backed construction project in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, mark a turn in Erdogan’s political trajectory. Activists launch a sit-in, and the ensuing police response spawns a wider movement, and in turn, a more sprawling crackdown.

That same year, a sweeping corruption scandal implicates members of the AKP in cases of bribery, money laundering and fraud, resulting in the resignations of numerous politicians, including members of Erdogan’s cabinet. Audio recordings leaked via social media also appear to capture Erdogan discussing bribes with his son. Erdogan dismisses the recordings as fabrications, part of an international conspiracy to force him out of power.

2014: Erdogan attains the presidency, winning Turkey’s first presidential election based on a national vote.

2016: In March, Erdogan comes to a deal with the E.U., amid a regional migration crisis, allowing people fleeing west to be returned to Turkey. The accord “turns Turkey into the region’s refugee camp and leaves untold thousands stranded in a country with a deteriorating record on human rights,” The Washington Post reports at the time.

After a failed military coup attempt on July 15, which plunges the country into brief but violent chaos, Erdogan consolidates power. He oversees a strict clampdown on independent and critical press. (The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has named Turkey one of the top jailers of journalists.) Erdogan begins a series of purges, ousting thousands, including former allies, from politics, academia, the judiciary and the military, along with the expulsion of foreign NGOs from the country. The purges target many followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan’s.

2017: Voters approve a slate of constitutional reforms put forward by Erdogan, which change Turkey’s form of government, abolishing the prime minister position and vesting power in an executive president. The following year, Erdogan is reelected president, with the role offering considerably more power than in 2014.

After becoming president, Erdogan enacts restrictions on social media platforms and websites including Twitter, YouTube and Wikipedia, and significantly curtails independent media through arrests and purges, while propping up tightly controlled pro-government outlets. With respect to Turkey’s moves toward E.U. membership, European Council President Charles Michel goes on to say that the country’s government often takes “one step in the right direction and then two in the wrong direction.”

2018: Following the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, of which Turkish officials obtain audio recordings, Erdogan appears to push for more distant ties between Riyadh and Washington. “Where is Khashoggi’s body? … Who gave the order to kill this kind soul? Unfortunately, the Saudi authorities have refused to answer those questions,” Erdogan writes in an op-ed for The Post.

2019: For the first time since the party’s formation, the AKP candidate loses the Istanbul mayoral elections. The post is filled by Ekrem Imamoglu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party. Imamoglu, a popular mayor with presidential prospects, is sentenced to prison on the charge of “insulting public figures” in 2022, dashing his chances of standing against Erdogan in the 2023 presidential election and casting doubt on Erdogan’s willingness to allow a fair election.

In October, Turkey launches an offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria. The move places the NATO powers at odds over the fight against the Islamic State.

2021-2022: Amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, Erdogan leverages Turkey’s status as a NATO member with ties to Russia to position himself as a mediator. In 2022, Turkey and the United Nations facilitate an agreement between Russia and Ukraine to restore commercial shipments of grain blockaded by Russia in the Black Sea, in exchange for loosened restrictions on certain Russian exports. He holds up Sweden’s bid for NATO membership, saying that the country harbors “terrorists” hostile to Turkey’s national security.