Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a leading political figure in Turkey. He is the chairman of the Justice and Development Party that won 34% of the general votes in the 2002 elections and came to power.
Turkish political life witnessed the rise of Islamist parties in the late 1960s at a time when Erdoğan’s political career also began. He took active positions in the National Salvation Party and its successors, the Welfare Party and the Virtue Party, all of which were later shut down by the Constitutional Court on the grounds of threatening the secular nature of the state.
Erdoğan was elected as mayor of Istanbul in 1994 by the Welfare Party. Reading a famous poem with religious imagery in a public speech, Erdoğan was imprisoned for 4½ months and was banned from active politics in 1998.
Following his release, Erdoğan adopted a political discourse with a more secularized accent. He formed the Justice and Development Party in 2001. Despite its founders’ lifelong political career in Islamist parties, the Justice and Development Party immediately began to set a distinctive tone: It was “new” and untested, having never competed in Turkish national elections. The party is identified with its leader and represented as a potential agent of change. Erdoğan chose to describe his “new” political identity as “conservative democrat” by assigning the party a mission of bridging a gap between traditional and modern Turkey. This mission is visible in Erdoğan’s private and political life: On the one hand, he is still a practicing Muslim valuing a traditional way of life. On the other hand, in his political discourses he accentuates his commitment to Turkey’s admission to the European Union as well as his attachment to the principles of the secular Republic.
As a leader, Erdoğan’s personality is often described as “decisive,” “frank,” “charismatic,” and “trustful.” The fact that he was not corrupt was a major theme of the electoral campaign in 2002. A shining lightbulb was chosen as the party emblem instead of the variations of the crescent moon logo that was common to former Islamist parties. The slogan “continual light” was chosen, and an abbreviation for the party’s name connoting “purity” in its religious sense and “cleanness” of the party figures in being untainted by the corruption of the past was preferred.
Because he is from Kas mpaşa, a lower middle class district, Erdoğan has the feeling of belonging to the Turkish cultural periphery. He often describes himself as “your brother Tayyip.” During his election campaign, he also benefited from the legal ban on his taking part in a new government and had success with his appeal as an underdog. Erdoğan’s personality, together with the grassroots organizational capacity of the party (the party organization was modeled after the organizational successes of the Welfare Party with a focus on neighborhoods), allowed the party to receive substantial support at the grassroots level.
Erdoğan and his party’s electoral success are mostly interpreted by the mainstream media as related to the electorate’s reaction to the former parties and leaders. After the elections, Erdoğan had generally uneasy relations with the liberal press. He moved to sue and filed for damages in compensation from cartoonists and humor magazines for depicting him as an entangled cat and for publishing drawings showing his head attached to various animals. He also blamed journalists and the media patrons that published news and comments criticizing his government and his personality, of not supporting Turkey’s supreme interests and of violating media ethics. He has been the prime minister filing the greatest number of lawsuits against journalists in Turkey. Intolerant with critics he doesn’t hesitate to use vulgar, even slangy, insulting language against opposition parties, the president of the Republic, the president of the Higher Education Council, as well as a farmer protesting his government’s policies.