Erdogan, Tayyip (1954–)

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Erdogan, Tayyip

Tayyip Erdogan is a Turkish politician who has been engaged in the Turkish Islamic political movement since the mid-1970s, and from the late 1990s he has become one of the principal politicians on the national scene. Under his leadership since the early twenty-first century, the Turkish Islamist movement carried out a transition from a relatively narrow, religiously oriented base, to a conservative movement as the Justice and Development Party that is more similar to European Christian Democratic parties. This political reorientation helped to secure, for the first time in 2002, enough votes for this movement to form a government by itself. As a result, Erdogan became the prime minister of Turkey in 2003.


Erdogan was born 26 February 1954 in the Kasimpasa district, a lower-middle-class neighborhood situated at the heart of Istanbul, Turkey. His father, Ahmet Erdogan, was employed at the Turkish Maritime Lines as a coastal captain, and his mother, Tenzile Erdogan, was a housewife. He attended to Piyale Pasa primary school in Kasimpasa, and after primary school he continued his education at the Istanbul Imam Hatip middle and high school, from which he graduated in 1973. Erdogan then attended Marmara University's faculty of economics and trade and received his degree in 1981. He was married in 1978 and has four children. Between 1969 and 1982 he played soccer at various levels, and after 1980 he started working in the private sector. Subsequently, he worked for several different private corporations in various managerial positions.

His political career started as early as 1969 during his high school and university years where he was an active member of the National Turkish Students Association (Milli Türk Talebe Birligi) which, at that time, was in the process of transitioning from a conservative to an Islamist organization. In 1976 he became the chair of the National Salvation Party's (Milli Selamet Partisi) Beyoglu (a district in Istanbul) youth branch, and that same year was promoted to the position of chair for the Istanbul youth branch of the party.

The National Salvation Party was the second political party formed under the auspices of the National Outlook Movement (Milli Gorus Hareketi), which promoted an Islamist ideology and was led by Necmettin Erbakan. This movement brought about Turkey's first Islamist political party in 1970, organized under the name of the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi). However, with the 1971 military memorandum, the party was banned and was subsequently reorganized under the name of National Salvation Party. The party remained as a relatively small religious party, albeit playing key roles during the coalition governments of the 1970s, reaching its highest vote percentage of 11.8 in the 1973 national assembly elections. The military authorities that came into power after the military coup of 12 September 1980 banned the party again. The successor party of the National Outlook Movement was reinitiated in 1983 under the name of the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). It was with this new party that Erdogan restarted his political life. He became the party's Beyoglu district chair in 1984, and in 1985 he became the chair of the Istanbul city branch. He was Welfare Party's mayoral candidate for the Beyoglu district in 1989, and the national assembly candidate for 1986 and 1991; in all three cases, he failed to get elected.

Erdogan's fortunes began to change with the rise of the Welfare Party in Turkish politics. In the 1994 mayoral elections across Turkey, the Welfare Party experienced a surge in their national standings, and in Istanbul—Turkey's social and economic capital—Erdogan won the mayoral election with 25 percent of the total city votes. From 1994 to 2002 Erdogan's party (the Welfare Party) went through tumultuous times, and along with it so did Erdogan's political career. However, through it all Erdogan managed to become the strongest political leader of the nation. The Welfare Party continued to grow after 1994, and in the 1995 national parliamentary elections it received the most votes nationally of any party (21.3%), securing 158 of the 550 parliamentary seats.

In 1996, after the breakup of the coalition government run by the two central-right parties of Turkey, the Welfare Party formed a coalition government with one of the central-right parties. As a result, Erbakan, the founder of the National Outlook Movement and its leader for close to thirty years, became Turkey's first Islamist prime minister, albeit of a coalition government. However, on 28 February 1997, the Turkish military intervened in the democratic political process with an implicit coup, arguing that laicism (a Turkish version of secularism that prescribes a level of state control over religion) was under threat. This intervention culminated into the political developments that led to the fall of the Welfare Party's coalition government and to the formation of another coalition government between central-right and left parties.

During the period known as the 28th of February process, the Welfare Party was shut down by the Constitutional Court (January 1998) and Erdogan was sentenced to jail for four months. His conviction was not directly related to the ban on the Welfare Party, but it was definitely associated with the heightened secularist sentiments of the times. He was convicted for reading a poem in Siirt in December 1997, which, under article 312/2 of the Turkish penal code, was connected to inciting religious and racial hatred among people as well as trying to establish a religious state. With the conviction, Erdogan was forced to give up his mayoral position. The conviction also stipulated a political ban, which prevented him from participating in parliamentary elections. He completed his sentence on 24 July 1999. In the meantime, anticipating the closure of the Welfare Party and attempting to circumvent potential legal problems, the followers of the National Outlook ideology yet again reorganized, this time under the name of the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi). The Virtue Party participated in the 1999 general assembly elections, but its vote decreased to 15.4 percent, which placed it as the number three-ranked party in the nation.

Following his prison sentence, Erdogan became active in the Virtue Party. The party, however, had been struggling with conflicts between renewalists (yenilikciler) who tried to reorient the party in a conservative democratic direction, and traditionalists (Gelenekciler), who were more committed to the Islamist National Outlook ideology. Erdogan was instrumental in this struggle, siding with the renewalists as one of its principal agents. On 14 May 2000, the renewalists failed to win the party presidential elections by a small margin, and this loss increased the tensions between the two sides. In the meantime, the party was being tried by the High Court's chief prosecutor in the Constitutional Court for being a continuation to the Welfare Party. On 22 June 2001, the court decided that the Virtue party was unconstitutional. After the closure of the Virtue Party, the renewalists were organized under the leadership of Erdogan into the Justice and Development Party (JDP—Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi), and the traditionalists formed the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi).


Name: Tayyip Erdogan

Birth: 1954, Istanbul, Turkey

Family: Wife, Emine; two sons, Ahmet Burak, Necmettin Bilal; two daughters: Esra, Sumeyye

Nationality: Turkish

Education: Istanbul, Marmara University, Faculty of Economics and Trade, 1981


  • 1970s: Becomes member of the National Turkish Students Association
  • 1976: Chairs the National Salvation Party (MNP) youth branch
  • 1984: Chairs the Welfare Party (WP), Beyoglu district
  • 1985: Chairs the WP, City of Istanbul
  • 1994: Elected mayor of Istanbul
  • 1999: Imprisoned for four months
  • 2003–present: Prime minister and chair of Justice and Development Party

The JDP was formed in August 2002, and under Erdogan's leadership the new party was reoriented from its Islamist past (its National Outlook roots) to a conservative, democratic one. "The political party of which I am the leader, the AK Party [JDP], represents a new political style and understanding in Turkish political life. I believe that this new approach, based on a political identity I call 'conservative democrat', has a significance." (January 2004). Rather quickly, the JDP became the principal party in the nation by receiving the most votes in the November 2002 national elections (34.6%). Also, because only two political parties were able to overcome the national threshold of 10 percent of the votes, the JDP ended up acquiring 363 of the 550 seats in parliament (the secularist Social Democratic RPP received the remainder). Immediately after the elections, the JDP initiated a constitutional change that lifted the political ban on Erdogan, and he was elected to the parliament in March 2003 in a by-election. As a result, he assumed the post of prime minister, a post that, as of 2007, he continues to hold.


Erdogan, during both his tenure as mayor and prime minister, formed his image as a person of Turkey's periphery by emphasizing his authentic and natural values in opposition to the elitist, status-oriented culture of the center that holds the power in the Turkish establishment. Two factors were particularly important in establishing this image: his neighborhood and lower-middle-class family, and his religiosity.

His neighborhood (Kasimpasa) is known to have its own moral codes. When he was growing up, Kasimpasa was a lower-middle-class neighborhood, and its inhabitants faced with a strong communal solidarity the socioeconomic challenges that cosmopolitan Istanbul presented. This solidarity was substantiated by certain codes of behavior that can be described in two ways: on the one hand as a requirement of principled conduct, or having a backbone (delikanlilik), and on the other hand as male bravado and machismo (kabadayilik). Throughout his career, Erdogan's style of politics has reflected both of these features. As an example of the latter, he was reported to have told a citizen who was seeking a job that, "the state is not a place to distribute jobs, the prime minister is speaking here, be respectful" (Radikal, 17 August 2003, author's translation). In his commitment to principled conduct, he describes his ideal politician one who "never lies to the nation, never hesitates, is not at all hypocritical…. You [the politician] should stand behind firmly behind the values that you believe in, you should have a backbone. You should not complain, you should not cheat, you should be a delikanli in its fullest sense" (Zaman, 11 April 2007, author's translation).

Erdogan was a devout Muslim from early on, however, his attendance at the Imam Hatip high school (vocational schools to train imams [prayer leaders]), accentuated his proclivities. He was reported as saying, "I owe everything to the Imam Hatip school that I attended, my life was predestined in that school. There I have learned patriotism, love for fellow human beings, service for the country, the worship of God, environmental sciences, the spirit of solidarity, and wishing for others what I want for myself" (Heper and Toktas, 2003, p. 162). Additionally, his relatively low-income background completes the picture of his political image as an authentic representative of the Turkey's cultural periphery, which also constitutes the majority of Turkish citizens. Notably writing in the plural rather than the singular, he has stated that "everybody should know that like our style of politics, our way of life, is the way of life our nation" (Zaman, 29 May 2007, author's translation).

Describing Erdogan's transformation from an Islamist to a conservative democrat can best summarize his most notable contributions. Erdogan is a politician who comes from the Islamist National Outlook tradition (the leader of which had been Erbakan). Until the formation of JDP in 2001, his entire political career had been within the political parties that were formed under the auspices of the ideology of the National Outlook (in historical order, National Salvation Party, Welfare Party, and Virtue Party). However, since the mid-1990s, Erdogan began to give up many important facets of this ideology. Erdogan, until the mid-1990s, a good student of Erbakan, was anti-market economy, anti-European Union (EU), and anti-laicism (anti-Turkish secularism); he has subsequently transformed his position on each of these issues.


We also believe that secularism needs to be crowned with democracy in order for fundamental rights and freedoms to be accorded constitutional guarantees. This allows secularism to function like an arbiter institution and provides an environment for compromise. While attaching importance to religion as a social value, we do not think it right to conduct politics through religion, to attempt to transform government ideologically using religion, or to resort to organizational activities based on religious symbols. To make religion an instrument of politics and to adopt exclusive approaches to politics in the name of religion harms not only political pluralism but also religion itself. Religion is a sacred and collective value. This is how we should interpret it, how we should understand it. It should not be made the subject of political partisanship causing divisiveness. Therefore, it is important that conservatism—as a political approach which accords importance to history, social culture, and in this context, religion as well—reestablished itself on a democratic format. This is our opinion.


First, one of the most dramatic changes was in his understanding of economic development. Erbakan's National Outlook was anti-International Monetary Fund (IMF), pro state-regulated economy with relatively controlled borders, and also emphasized the development of heavy industry and the better distribution of income. On the other hand, Erdogan, perhaps more than any other Turkish politician, has become a free-market fundamentalist in the last decade. That is, he believes in self-regulating markets (minimal state intervention into the economy), an open economy, and his emphasis is on making the Turkish economy friendly to foreign investment and anti-inflationist policies. Additionally, throughout his tenure since 2003, he has fully carried out all IMF prescriptions.

Second, the National Outlook ideology believes that the EU (then the European Economic Community) is a plan to dissolve Turkey into Christian Europe. Erbakan believed that the EU was a union of Catholics, as well as a Zionist trick. However, since gaining power, Erdogan's JDP has put forth an unprecedented effort to carry out a range of constitutional and democratic reforms to fulfill Turkey's accession to EU. In fact, during Erdogan's government, the EU accepted the start of negotiations for full membership with Turkey.

Third, the National Outlook tradition and the Erdogan of the past, has always had a tense relationship with laicism. In fact, bans of political parties formed after this tradition stemmed from their violation of this constitutional principle of Turkey. However, in the early twenty-first century, Erdogan appears to have taken a much more prudent attitude toward laicism and has repeatedly emphasized the significance of laicism as a fundamental good for democracy. However, on this issue, Erdogan has not been able to fully convince the Turkish public that he is truly laic (secular). A significant portion of the Turkish population fears that he is engaging in Takiyye (hiding one's true beliefs) on this issue. This fear became apparent during the presidential election quarrels in April and May 2007. When the possibility that Erdogan, or one his closest associates (Abdullah Gül) would become the president presented itself, several times in different cities millions of people protested in order to save laicism. In other words, although Erdogan's transformation on this issue is significant, it is not significant enough for a noteworthy segment of Turkish population.


At the time of his first ascendancy into the Turkish national political arena after winning Istanbul's mayoral elections 1994, Western perceptions of Erdogan were generally cautious, given his party's anti-Western stance and its Islamist roots. However, over time, a significantly more positive outlook has replaced this caution. This shift has been prompted in part by the court's decision to convict him in 1998, which received much Western criticism as being undemocratic. Also, since the beginning of his government, Erdogan's push for democratic reforms in Turkey's bid for EU accession has increased his global appeal. Romano Prodi, the EU commission president in 2004, "commented laudably on Turkey's efforts, and called Erdogan one of the three greatest leaders of Turkey. These leaders are Kemal Atatürk, Turgut Özal, and Tayyip Erdogan" (Duran, 2006, p. 300).

In the United States, Erdogan's image received a blow after the Turkish parliament refused to accept North American troops on Turkish territory for the war in Iraq (1 March 2003). However, Erdogan's economic and political stance on critical issues makes him appealing to the United States. For example, President George W. Bush, "praised Turkey's democracy as 'an important example for the people in the broader Middle East,"' and said that he is grateful to Erdogan because of Erdogan's support for the Broader Middle East Initiative (8 June 2005,


It is too early to elaborate on Tayyip Erdogan's legacy as he is, as of 2007, still the prime minister of Turkey. However, with his leading role in reorienting his party from an Islamist to a conservative democratic program, he may be instrumental in the long run in the creation of less conflictual Turkish democratic development, at least with respect to debates about values. This would be a progressive move toward the consolidation of Turkish democracy. However, for the time being, his party's rule seems to be intensifying value-based political conflicts in Turkey between skeptical secularists and his government.


Cakir, Rusen, and Calmuk, Fehmi. Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Bir Donusumun Oykusu. Istanbul: Metis Yayinlari, 2001.

Cetin, Bilal. Turk Siyasetinde Bir Kasimpasali: Tayyip Erdogan. Istanbul: Gundem Yayinlari, 2003.

Duran, Burhanettin. "JDP and Foreign Policy." In The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Party, edited by Yavuz Hakan. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006.

Gungor, Nasuhi. Yenilikci Hareket: Yeni Dunya Duzeni Ekseninde Bir Degerlendirme. Istanbul: Anka Yayinlari, 2001.

Heper, Metin, and Sule Toktas. "Islam Modernity, and Democracy in Contemporary Turkey: The Case of Recep Tayyip Erdogan." Muslim World 93 (2003): 157-185.

                                               Yunus Sozen