Twenty years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was serving time in Pınarhisar jail, west of Istanbul, imprisoned as a dangerous radical for publicly reciting a religious poem. Today he is a latter-day sultan, a man who regularly addresses million-strong crowds and commands a personality cult almost as powerful as that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. In the intervening two decades, Turkey’s president has presided over a threefold increase in GDP, curtailed the political power of the army and raised his country’s international influence to unprecedented heights, while at the same time jailing hundreds of thousands of opponents and systematically dismantling free speech. As Hannah Lucinda Smith writes in her fascinating new book, Erdoğan has gone ‘from being a flawed but largely tolerated democrat to a relentless autocratic populist … a hate figure that the whole world [has] heard of’.
Erdoğan is one of the great political survivors of our times, the world’s ‘original postmodern populist’, who, like his contemporary in power Vladimir Putin, has transformed a dysfunctional liberal democracy into an illiberal autocracy. As with Putin, Erdoğan’s march towards authoritarianism has accelerated with time. Over the six years that Smith has been based in Istanbul as The Times’s correspondent there, Turkey has experienced its ‘most turbulent era in decades’, enduring ‘a refugee crisis, a wave of terror attacks, a fresh eruption of violence in its Kurdish region, and a coup attempt’. Yet through all this, Erdoğan has not just clung on to power but cemented it through increasingly strident attacks on foreign enemies, domestic traitors and international capital – in the process polarising society and undermining the infrastructure of freedom by destroying press opposition and any vestiges of judicial independence.
Smith is excellent at explaining the secret of Erdoğan’s success. Former allies and enemies, speechwriters and political veterans all describe his personal warmth and charisma – as well as his bullying, stubbornness, unflinching self-belief and towering rages. But Erdoğan Rising is much more than just a political biography. It’s a beautifully drawn portrait of a country and people that Smith knows and loves deeply. Along with Hugh and Nicole Pope’s 1998 Turkey Unveiled and Alev Scott’s 2014 Turkish Awakening, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Turkey and its future.
Foreign correspondents’ books can be a mixed bag, sometimes too arch, like Edward Behr’s charming but often flippant memoir of 1978 (Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?), or too dry, like Stephen Kinzer’s rigorous but desiccated Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future (2010). Erdoğan Rising is rich in imagery and anecdote without ever straying into mawkishness or superficiality. Smith wittily riffs on how she tries to guess the character of an interviewee or shopkeeper from the inevitable picture of Atatürk they have in their workplace: have they chosen a stern Atatürk, posing in his high-collared uniform, or a suave Atatürk, enjoying a cigarette and a glass of raki or dancing in white tie with his daughter? A Turkish friend – and I can imagine exactly just what sort of worldly, witty Istanbul intellectual could have said this – tells Smith that Turkey ‘is nothing but a country of cults … It’s Jerusalem in the Year Zero.’
Smith is refreshingly fair. Rather than demonising Erdoğan’s supporters as they flock to his rallies and chant about exterminating foreign enemies, she tries to understand the revolutionary appeal of his AK Party to Turkey’s downtrodden. ‘For decades Turkey’s poor, conservative voters found they could participate in democracy, as long as they did not threaten the order,’ she writes. ‘When the politicians they elected looked as though they might actually change things in the way their supporters had been yearning for, the army – self-appointed guardians of Atatürk’s secularity – stepped in to overrule them.’ And she also calls out Turkey’s secularists for their decades-long rule, during which the religious working class was excluded not just from power but from the workplace too. ‘It is easy, now that they are the underdogs, to romanticise Turkey’s secularists,’ observes Smith. ‘But those who remember the secular glory days know they could be as despotic as any religious regime. The dogmatic banning of headscarved women from higher education and from working in the public sector after the coup of 1980 confined millions to a life of child raising and housework.’ To a large extent Erdoğan’s rise is a story of social revolution, the revenge of a silent majority against the class who assumed for decades that they knew better.
Some of the most fascinating sections of the book are those that provide insights into daily life in Erdoğan’s Turkey. A Big Brother-like automated message sent out to every mobile phone in Turkey just before midnight on the first anniversary of the July 2016 coup attempt featured Erdoğan’s unmistakable voice wishing ‘God’s mercy on our martyrs and health for our veterans’. She describes the paranoia that comes with working as a journalist in an authoritarian country and the small acts of self-censorship required too. ‘To write – and to live – under Erdoğan’s tightening authoritarianism is to cohabit with a voice in your head that asks, “Are you sure you want to say that?” every time you press send on an article or crack a joke with a stranger.’ Although so far no foreign correspondents have joined the sixty-plus Turkish journalists in jail, ‘the stress of wondering if your phone is tapped and your flat being watched slows down your brain, becomes a tiring distraction,’ Smith writes. ‘At some point, you realise that all your conversations with friends come back to politics.’ She also writes vividly of reporting from neighbouring Syria, the turmoil in which has done much to push Turkey’s political stability to its limits.
The last chapter of the Erdoğan story, of course, is still unwritten. It’s frustrating that the book went to press before the most significant blow to his power in twenty years of uninterrupted election wins – the AK Party’s loss of Istanbul to the opposition Republican People’s Party in June. It was a rare example of a political miscalculation by the longtime master of populist politics, caused, in part, by the fact that Erdoğan has jettisoned most of his old allies and replaced them with ‘ultra-loyalists, sycophants and yes men’. Erdoğan’s AK Party lost the city’s municipal elections by a margin of 0.2 per cent in March. It then made the fatal mistake of doubling down, securing an order from the Supreme Court to annul the election result and rerun the contest. ‘If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey,’ Erdoğan unwisely told an election rally. He duly lost Istanbul in the second election by 9 per cent. The energetic Ekrem Imamoğlu became mayor of Istanbul, the office in which Erdoğan had built up his power, and a nationwide figurehead for anti-Erdoğan forces. Erdoğan Rising has appeared at the very moment when the president is beginning to falter.
Erdoğan’s recent occupation of chunks of Kurdish-held Syria demonstrated his ruthlessness and political savviness in outmanoeuvring Donald Trump. As Smith points out, his influence remains enormous, not just inside Turkey but across the world. He still holds the EU to ransom by threatening to allow the three million Syrian refugees who have ended up in Turkey to cross into Europe. ‘He knows how important he is and he plays on it, often seeming to push his Western allies’ buttons just to see what will happen,’ writes Smith. ‘He may sometimes look like a man deranged, but he is also a smart political operator who was refining his brand of populism a decade and a half before Donald Trump cottoned on.’ Erdoğan’s long decline promises to be no less dramatic and transformative, both to Turkey and to the region, than his rise.