President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have dominated political life in Turkey for twenty years. Some segments of society benefited from this, while others lost out in a polarized country. Here are some examples a week before the presidential and legislative elections that will take place on May 14.
The winners from the survival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his “Justice and Development” party
Known as the Diyanet, the Department of Religious Affairs has become a powerful social force under the rule of Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose conservative Islamist party challenged the secular foundations of post-Ottoman Turkey. This administration has its own television channel, which plays a role in political debate, and benefits from a budget similar to that of a medium-sized ministry. Its broad powers have made it a target for the president’s secular opponents, who complain about the rise in mosques, Koran lessons, and the influence of religious fraternities. The former head of Diyanet, Mehmet Gormez, found himself embroiled in a scandal because of his extravagant lifestyle.
Real estate and construction sector
Under Erdogan’s leadership, real estate and major projects have developed across Turkey, spurring growth. However, some groups and businessmen considered close to the government have been awarded controversial public contracts. This boom reshaped the country, giving new homes to millions of people while dramatically altering the image of a city like Istanbul, which was suddenly full of skyscrapers. This development boom was accompanied by the head of state’s appetite for “crazy projects” and ambitious mega-investments worth billions of dollars – bridges, highways, airports… – including the Istanbul Canal, designed to double the size of the Bosphorus but never seen the light of day.
Erdogan has defended the rights of conservative Muslims after decades of staunch secularism. Thus, religious women were gradually allowed to wear the headscarf – previously prohibited – in universities, public offices, the police and parliament. In fact, the head of state made it a personal matter because his two daughters, who wear hijabs like their mother, were “not allowed to wear hijabs” at university.
The Turkish media landscape, which was considered an epitome of pluralism, has gradually contracted under Erdogan. Observers note that 90 percent of the Turkish media is now controlled by the government or its supporters. The outgoing president preferred that newspapers and television channels be owned by businessmen close to the authority who were granted public loans. In parallel, the suppression of dissenting voices began, especially those emanating from the Kurdish media, which was further strengthened after the failed coup in 2016. According to the Turkish association “B24”, 64 journalists are currently in prison.
The Turkish army, secular and accustomed to coups, gradually lost its influence on the political arena. This accelerated after a military faction staged a coup attempt in 2016, attributed to the preacher Fethullah Gulen, who was exiled to the United States. Erdogan responded with purges that led to the imprisonment of thousands of soldiers – hundreds for life. The high-ranking military personnel were also eliminated, which weakened the capabilities of the main force in NATO’s eastern flank. The Air Force, in particular, lost many of its pilots and officers.
After secular governments oppressed the Kurds, like the majority of minorities in Turkey, they helped elect Erdogan and supported him in his early days. The head of state tried to strengthen their cultural and linguistic rights, and initiated negotiations to put an end to the armed activity of part of them and grant them a greater degree of autonomy in the southeast. But after the failure of these talks and the outbreak of violence in 2015-2016, the Kurdish community (15 to 20 million people) found itself under increasing pressure. Dozens of Kurdish leaders have been imprisoned or removed from their elected positions. The main pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, whose leader has been imprisoned, is also at risk of being banned, like many parties before it accused of “terrorism”.
Turkey experienced an economic boom during the first decade of Erdogan’s rule, which led to the formation of a thriving new middle class. But since 2013, the economy has moved from one crisis to another. According to the World Bank, Turkey’s gross domestic product—which is a measure of a country’s wealth—has fallen to the level of Erdogan’s first five years in power. And with the official inflation rate reaching more than 85 percent last year, the savings of millions of families have dissipated, and many families are barely able to secure their sources of spending until the end of the month.