The rise and fall of Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan in three acts

Like a figure in a Greek tragedy, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has fallen from a Jefferson-could-be into a Putin-wannabe, all within the swift span of a year.

History tells us that when the rule of law is weak, transparency and accountability nonexistent, electoral success feeds into a sense of invincibility and infallibility. Turkey now is a case study proving the accuracy of the cliche “power corrupts.”


Erdogan came to power after Turkey’s lost decade of the 1990s, a period during which a series of weak, dysfunctional coalition governments ruled the country. The military committed extensive abuses against the nation’s disgruntled Kurdish population, religious freedoms were suppressed, and the economy hit rock bottom.

The 2002 elections gave a powerful mandate to a fresh party, the Justice and Development Party. While rooted in political Islam, the party campaigned on a platform of human rights, democracy and development. Erdogan led the party.

As the new prime minister, he made a promising start: He expanded Kurdish rights, lifted the headscarf ban in universities and sent the military to the barracks for good. The economy also greatly improved. Turkish soap operas captured Arab audiences, and the “Turkish model” for political reform won adherents throughout the region.

In this heady air, it seemed Erdogan and his party had found the magic formula for a “Muslim democracy” destined to change the lot not just of Turks, but also of all Muslims.


But it was not to be. After 12 years of increasing popularity and weakening opposition, Erdogan has become more authoritarian.

This switch toward authoritarianism was visible last summer when the government crushed the largely peaceful protestors in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. In ensuing nationwide protests, the police killed about a dozen unarmed protestors and injured scores more.

Erdogan not only defended the police but shamelessly used Islamic rhetoric to demonize protestors and mobilize his base. He accused protestors of sexually assaulting a pious Muslim woman and desecrating a mosque. Neither turned out to be true, but Erdogan repeated such falsehoods to present himself as the defender of Islam and Muslims to his conservative base.


For Turkish democracy, things went from bad to worse. Acting under the directives of public prosecutors, on Dec. 17 police raided several offices and homes. They arrested three government ministers’ sons and the CEO of a state-owned bank for corruption and money laundering through a gold-for-gas scheme that allowed Iran to evade sanctions. In subsequent weeks, four government ministers resigned.

The Erdogan government has stifled the graft investigation. The government called the investigation a coup attempt designed by a foreign cabal and implemented by sympathizers of the Gulen movement—a moderate Islamic movement inspired by Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania for the past 15 years.

To choke the graft investigation, Erdogan must cripple the Turkish democracy. And he is willing to do that. Government has co-opted or coerced the media and engineered the transfer of media ownership to its allies. The government now can block access to any website without a court order. The justice minister received a controlling power over the judiciary, and the already unaccountable Turkish National Intelligence Agency is about to gain more power.

Meanwhile Erdogan turned his rhetorical weapon on Gulen. Erdogan accused Gulen-sympathizers of being a “parallel state,” akin to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s allegations of communist infiltration. A low even for Erdogan, he called Gulen a false prophet (a serious charge in Islam) and a hashishin (a 12th-century terrorist sect).

This witch-hunt of Gulen-sympathizers removed from their posts 8,000 police and more than 400 public prosecutors, including those who started the graft investigations.

Twelve years ago, Erdogan embodied a Jeffersonian spirit by promising religious freedom, protection of rights and liberties, and the decentralization of power. While he started off well, today he is the threat to Turkish democracy, looking not like a historical figure but rather a power-hungry despot.

In a talk at Harvard in 2003, Erdogan used a Benjamin Franklin quote (he misattributed it to Thomas Jefferson): “Doubt a little of (your) own infallibility.”

Someone needs to remind him of that before it is too late.

Turan Kayaoglu is an associate professor of international relations at University of Washington Tacoma.