Erdogan’s government had a rough ride last year – the roughest since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was first elected to power 12 years ago. Several crises seem to show growing opposition to the prime minister:
- Gezi Park protests: A sit-in sparked by plans to build a shopping centre on one of Istanbul’s few green spaces ballooned into marches of millions across the country, as protesters on the city’s Taksim Square faced police water cannons and teargas.
Although the AKP was able to mobilise millions to march in its support, the protests illustrated the disenchantment of a large section of the population, notably young people, and the government’s response attracted negative coverage in the world’s media and international criticism.
- Corruption scandal: Then financial police swooped on the environment and urban planning ministry and a district council in Istanbul, rounding up AKP-linked officials on corruption charges that implicated several ministers and their families.
The scandal went on to implicate Erdogan’s own sons and led to the resignation of Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, who suggested that the prime minister might like to follow his example.
In December Erdogan was obliged to reshuffle his cabinet but that didn’t put an end to the government’s troubles - sex tapes and videos of alleged pressure on police to abuse detainees have been leaked online, as have allegedly damning phone intercepts of the prime minister speaking to his son Bilal and other allies.
- Breach with Gulenists: That the corruption scandal came to light at all was the result of a split between Erdogan and a man who played a key role in bringing him to power – Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim preacher who lives in the US but who leads a large and secretive movement in Turkey itself.
Gulen criticises secularism as materialist but, like the AKP, argues that Islam and democracy are compatible.
Gulen’s network of supporters in the police, judiciary and military enabled the AKP to face down Kemalists, who see themselves as defending the secular nationalism of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – through conspiracies and coup d’états if necessary.
But as early as 2004 Erdogan reportedly started to look into ways to break free from an over-powerful ally, setting the secret service to track its members and discussing measures against it in the National Security Council.
In December 2013 the government decided to shut down many of the movement’s Islamic schools and both Erdogan and most political commentators agree that the corruption clampdown was Gulen’s response.
- Mine disaster: In May 2014 an explosion in a mine in Soma, western Turkey, killed 301 miners – 340, according to some politicians. Miners had protested at dangerous conditions the previous year and the opposition Republican people’s Party (CHP) had demanded an investigation into the mine’s security.
The mine had been privatised in 2005 and unions blamed the government’s privatisation policy for a decline in safety standards in the industry and Erdogan was heckled when he visited the scene and went on to tell a press conference that such accidents are quite commonplace.
When the families protested, the prime minister grabbed a man, calling him “spawn of Israel”, while one of his aides, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking another who was lying on the ground.
Protests and a one-day strike followed and police arrested four people, including mine manager Akin Celik.
- Authoritarianism: Erdogan’s response to the growing criticism was to blame “dark powers”, “conspirators” and “lobbies” and clamp down on social media. The government moved to block Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in Turkey, while the corruption scandal led to a purge of Gulen supporters in the police and judiciary.
These moves were among several that have led to accusations of growing authoritarianism and aroused suspicions about his plans for the presidency, until now a largely ceremonial post.
The move to direct elections obviously invests more authority in the president and the term has been shortened from seven to five years.
Erdogan was forced to quit the premiership because of an AKP rule that members must not hold the same office for more than three terms and, although the constitution obliges him to resign his party membership, but nobody believes he wishes to relinquish his political influence.
He can be expected to use existing presidential powers – sending bills back to parliament, vetoing constitutional changes and convening the National Security Council - to the full and may try to extend them.
Despite all these problems, opinion polls show Erdogan winning the presidential election … and all but one show him winning the more than 50 per cent needed to avoid a second round.
In local council elections in March the AKP won 43 per cent of votes, leaving its nearest rival, the CHP, in the dust with 26 per cent, and keeping control of Ankara and Istanbul, where the opposition believed it had a mayoral candidate capable of mounting a serious challenge.
It’s the economy, of course, that has kept voters on the AKP’s side, despite protests, scandals and purges.
Turkey experienced an average 5.2 per cent growth per year between 2002 and 2011, falling slightly to 4.0 per cent in 2012, and the government has pumped up the economy with dozens of infrastructure projects.
AKP is a coalition of Islamists, right-wingers and entrepreneurs and its voters are socially conservative and have, for the most part, profited from that growth, particularly the new wave of businesses in provincial cities, like Kayseri and Konya.
With efforts to join the European Union stalling and the party becoming increasingly used to power, the AKP has moved away from the religious moderation of its earlier years in office and extended the influence of Islam in education, leading secularists like the CHP to claim that it always had a hidden Islamist agenda.
The large Alevi minority was also alarmed that a proposed third bridge over the Bosphorus is to be named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, a 16th-century Ottoman sultan who slaughtered an estimated 40,000 of their coreligionists.
But that does not worry the AKP’s support base, which looks likely to rally to Erdogan again when he faces up to just two other candidates - Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an independent who is backed by the CHP and the right-wing but secular Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Selahattin Dermitas of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (BDP), who is supported by the hard left and pro-Kurdish rights groups.