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Erdogan’s Way

The Rise and Rule of Turkey’s Islamist Shapeshifter

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Credit: Heads of State

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the most baffling politician to emerge in the 96-year history of Turkey. He is polarizing and popular, autocratic and fatherly, calculating and listless. Erdogan’s ideology shifts every few years, and he appears to make up his road map as he goes along. He is short-tempered: he grabs cigarette packs from citizens to try to force them into quitting, scolds reporters who ask tough questions, and once walked off the stage after an angry exchange with the Israeli president at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But he can also be extremely patient. It has taken him 16 years to forge what he calls “the new Turkey,” an economically self-reliant country with a marginalized opposition and a subservient press.

This mix of anger and calm has made Erdogan increasingly successful at the ballot box. He became prime minister in 2003 after his party won 34 percent of the vote, and by 2011, its share had risen to just shy of 50 percent. In 2014, when he ran for president in order to centralize his authority, more than half of Turks who cast a ballot voted for him. They did so again in 2018, by which time they had also voted to do away with the post of prime minister altogether. 

Erdogan has converted his popular mandate into power and used that power to remake Turkey’s relations with the rest of the world. He has expanded Turkish influence in Syria and northern Iraq and tilted Turkey—a NATO member—toward China, Iran, and Russia. His use of power has also generated dissent among feminists, leftists, and the secular middle class. Under Erdogan’s watch, Turkey has become the world’s largest prison for journalists. Filmmakers, novelists, photographers, and scholars are also among the imprisoned. Turkey has banned gay and transgender pride marches since 2015; Wikipedia has been blocked since 2017.

In the wake of a financial crisis earlier this year, candidates who were aligned with Erdogan lost support in local elections. But even as his party’

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