Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with people affected by the February 6 earthquake. Image Credit: AFP

ISTANBUL: Transforming society in his image over two tumultuous decades, Recep Tayyip Erdogan enters the fight of his political life in a May election overshadowed by the pain and suffering of Turkey’s deadliest earthquake in centuries.

A gifted orator and strategic thinker, Erdogan, 69, has overcome jail, protests and even a bloody coup attempt to emerge as Turkey’s most important leader in generations, first as prime minister and then as president since 2014.

Supporters revere him for unshackling religious restrictions in the officially secular but mostly Muslim state, overseeing ambitious infrastructure projects and turning Turkey into a geopolitical powerhouse.

The May 14 vote will determine whether one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders can extend his stay in office until 2028.

Rewriting the rules

Known to his inner circle as “beyefendi” (sir) and to admirers as “reis” (the chief), Erdogan prides himself on being able to woo doubters through tireless campaigning.

This passion has helped him and his party win more than a dozen local and national elections, giving Erdogan a chance to claim a people’s mandate.

A risk-taker whose popularity began to waver in the second decade of his rule, Erdogan bet it all on a 2017 referendum on abolishing the office of prime minister and handing added powers to the president.

Erdogan, accompanied by Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, and Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), visits Antakya in Hatay province, Turkey February 20, 2023.  Image Credit: Reuters

Erdogan eked out a narrow win, enfeebling parliament and enabling him to effectively rule by decree.

It also gave him the constitutional loophole needed to run for two more terms in office.

But this year’s presidential election campaign will be like no other of the Erdogan era, starting after a month of national mourning for the quake on February 6.

Many have criticised government’s sluggish response to Turkey’s biggest disaster of its modern era made some allies urge Erdogan to postpone the vote.

Unbowed, Erdogan decided to push ahead. But he also banned music from his campaign stops, setting a sombre tone to the most difficult election test of his career.

Signature early achievements

Born in a working-class harbour district of Istanbul, Erdogan made his name in nascent Islamic movements that were challenging secular domination, becoming the city’s mayor in 1994.

His term in office was cut short when he was convicted and jailed for four months for inciting religious hatred.

Among supporters, this only seemed to magnify his appeal.

Founding the Justice and Development Party (AKP) after an earlier Islamic party was banned, Erdogan spearheaded its 2002 landslide election victory and became premier less than six months later.

The six opposition parties, which have pledged to roll back the erosion of rights and freedoms, united behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP. Image Credit: AFP

Erdogan’s signature early achievements included a series of reforms that gladdened the European Union, including abolishing the death penalty and beginning a peace process with Kurdish militants.

Mass protests in 2013 over plans to turn an Istanbul park into a shopping mall marked the start of a more divisive era that included corruption allegations levelled against his inner circle.

Turkey’s bid to join the EU faltered and peace talks with the Kurds imploded in 2015, when a Kurdish opposition party helped to wrest control of parliament from Erdogan for the first time.

A series of Turkish military operations against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq soon followed, creating new tensions with the West.

Abandoned by allies

In its early days the AKP, lacking allies and experience, forged an alliance with Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who moved to permanent US exile in 1999 but retained strong influence in Turkish society and government.

Erdogan blamed Gulen for masterminding a bloody July 15, 2016, coup bid by a renegade army faction, charges he denies.

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The president, on holiday in the Aegean, appeared on the FaceTime app on live TV to urge supporters out onto the streets.

It became the defining moment of his subsequent rule.

Erdogan fought back with sweeping purges that led to 80,000 arrests, brought most media under government influence and created a sense of looming peril among those opposed to his rule.

Washington and the EU’s hesitation to openly support Erdogan in the first hours of the coup bid eroded his trust in the West and created diplomatic frictions that linger to this day.

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Erdogan and the head of the nationalist MHP party Devlet Bahceli with rescue team members at Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) coordination centre in Adiyaman following the February 6 earthquake. Image Credit: AFP

Abandoned by many of his former allies, who joined opposition ranks, Erdogan began to rely on his family for guidance.

One of his sons-in-law, Berat Albayrak, oversaw swathes of the economy until 2020, while another, Selcuk Bayraktar, built the Baykar drone company.

The drones helped swing the outcomes of wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Libya, enabled Ukraine to defend Kyiv against Russian invaders, and allowed Turkey to pursue a more punishing campaign against Kurdish forces.

Earlier this week, Turkey’s disparate opposition parties, including nationalists, Islamists and conservatives, ended month of uncertainty that had frustrated supporters of the anti-Erdogan bloc and nominated a joint candidate to run against Erdogan.

The six opposition parties, which have pledged to roll back the erosion of rights and freedoms, united behind Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the center-left, secularist Republican People’s Party, or CHP.

Erdogan meets with people in the aftermath of an earthquake in Kahramanmaras. Image Credit: Reuters

Focus on healing the wounds caused by earthquake

“May our decision to renew the elections be beneficial for our country, our nation, the Turkish Grand National Assembly and our political parties,” Erdogan said after putting his signature on a decision confirming the election date, which was then published in the Official Gazette.

The Supreme Electoral Council will now determine the electoral calendar. A runoff presidential election would be held on May 28 if none of the candidates secure more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held on June 18, but the government moved them forward to avoid coinciding with the Hajj pilgrimage, a university entrance exam and the start of the summer vacation season.

Erdogan has signalled that he will base his electoral campaign on the reconstruction of the earthquake-devastated provinces, trying to convince voters that only his government — which was behind a construction boom that helped drive economic growth — can rebuild lives.

“We are starting the election calendar even as we are focusing all of our attention on healing the wounds caused by the earthquake, rebuilding and restoring our cities and ensuring that our people obtain homes as soon as possible,” Erdogan said.

“We need to implement a program that will heal the wounds of an unprecedented destruction in an unprecedented speed,” he said. “The only way to overcome the direct and indirect effects of the earthquake and normalize the situation in the region and our country as soon as possible is through the implementation of decisions by a strong political will.”