By Alex Bregman
Is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan running a dictatorship or a democracy? That’s the question many are asking after a referendum in Turkey gave him unprecedented power.
So who is Erdogan, and how did he rise to power?
He was born in Istanbul in 1954 and grew up on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, where his father was in the coast guard.
The family moved back to Istanbul when Erdogan was 13 years old. He attended an Islamic high school before studying business in college.
Erdogan also had a knack for soccer; he was even approached by recruiters from semiprofessional teams. But he was sidelined by his father, who preferred that he finish his studies.
Politics would soon pique his interest. Erdogan aligned himself with an Islamist political party, which for decades would put him at odds with a secular government run by the powerful Turkish military.
His first real position of power came in 1994, when he was elected the first Islamist mayor of Istanbul.
A controversial leader, he ultimately had to step down after he was arrested on charges of violating secular law and inciting religious hatred for publicly reading an Islamic poem. He’d serve four months in prison in 1999. He was also banned from ever holding public office again … but that would soon change.
In 2003, he returned to power as prime minister, with his new party in power lifting that ban.
Erdogan served three controversial terms as prime minister. While Turkey’s economy improved, free speech deteriorated, with the government cracking down on any sort of opposition and protests, most notably in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013.
In 2014, Erdogan won Turkey’s first-ever direct presidential election. But cracks began to show in his popularity, especially after he built himself a 1,000-room, $650 million palace 30 times the size of the White house, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
Erdogan continued his crackdown on a free press, and the powerful Turkish military — seen as a real deep state in Turkey — even attempted to oust Erdogan in a military coup in 2016 while he was vacationing with his family.
Erdogan, however, escaped his hotel and used FaceTime to talk directly to the Turkish people. The coup was quelled within hours, and Erdogan blamed it on the followers of a Turkish cleric, a one-time ally turned enemy, exiled in Pennsylvania, by the name of Fethullah Gülen.
Since then, Erdogan has consolidated his power, arresting tens of thousands in the military and suspending or arresting thousands of others in the civil service … all culminating in the power-grab referendum that could keep Erdogan in power until 2029.
Voting monitors cried foul, stating that the referendum did not meet democratic standards, and experts warn that Erdogan’s actions will inhibit Turkey’s admittance into the EU. Erdogan, however, denies that he’s bringing Turkey closer to a dictatorship. He told CNN following the referendum: “This is not a system belonging to Tayyip Erdogan. I am a mortal really — I could die at any time.”
Despite the concerns surrounding Erdogan, Turkey remains a U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad … with President Trump even making a controversial call to congratulate Erdogan after the referendum. He’s set to visit the White House next month.
Given that Erdogan doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, when it comes to who he is and how he got to power, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”
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