President’s constitutional referendum has been over 17 years in the making
March 26th, 1999, was a turning point in Turkey’s history, though only those in the presence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Friday afternoon knew it.
As the deposed mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan was readying to enter prison.
He had been sentenced to 10-months’ imprisonment and banned from politics for life for a speech which quoted from a poem: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
The speech led to his conviction for “anti-secularism” and “provocation by religion”.
Before he began his sentence, more than 2,000 cars followed Erdogan to the Eyüp mosque on the banks of Istanbul’s Golden Horn.
There, the convoy of supporters, outraged at his sentencing, listened as the son of a Black Sea Coast Guard stirred the religious convictions that had been suppressed within them for decades.
“This is not a farewell,” Erdogan told the crowd. “I hope it is just a pause in a series of songs to be finished.”
Today, across from a nearby plaza where locals sacrificed a sheep in Erdogan’s honour on that day in 1999, his supporters remember his visit with pride.
“There was a great atmosphere; I couldn’t say how many people came but the entire square was full of people, people who came to pray with him,” says Omer Guler, who owns a spices shop facing the Eyüp mosque.
When Erdogan left the mosque, a double-decker bus whisked him away to Pinarhisar Prison 170km northwest of Istanbul.
But the astute Erdogan, a graduate in business management, knew his time had come.
Despite having his prison term twice commuted to monetary fines, he chose to go to jail – though he was accommodated in a luxurious “cell”, separate from other prisoners – and served four months of his sentence.
Such was the reverence in which Erdogan was held among his small but loyal following that Hasan Yesildag, the brother of an Istanbul city councillor, managed to get himself jailed so he could accompany Erdogan while he was in prison.
“While we were waiting for the ‘chief’, I held a meeting with the convicts and guardians in the prison. I warned everybody precisely: ‘There should be no smoking around Mr Tayyip. No crossing of legs. Everybody must be respectful,’” Yesildag later said, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.
On Sunday, the most important day yet in Erdogan’s political career, his “series of songs” will transform Turkey’s political landscape, if its citizens vote “Yes” in a referendum to enact constitutional changes that could allow the Turkish president to stay in power until 2029.
Having grown up in a country run by people who hated the idea of mixing religion and politics, Erdogan was always something of an outsider.
The former semi-professional soccer player was initially seen as a political upstart by the raki-drinking military and political establishment, who ridiculed him when he became mayor of Istanbul.
Nevertheless, during his tenure he managed to identify the frustrations bubbling underneath the surface of a suppressed populace.
His work as mayor brought him into contact with pious businessmen and every-day, mosque-going folk.
He came to understand that many Turks wanted change, and started to believe he could deliver it.
A couple of years after his release from jail, he co-founded the AK Party, having succeeded in getting the law changed to allow him re-enter politics.
“Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) went through five incarnations before it found a balance that voters would embrace but the military would also accept, albeit reluctantly,” writes Ömer Taspinar, in the book The Islamists Are Coming: Who They Really Are.
After his election as prime minister in March 2003, Erdogan gradually became recognised as one of the most influential Muslims in the world.
In the following years, he was extolled in the West for successfully tying Islam and a democratic rule of law with a robust market economy.
The acclaim saw him grace the cover of Time magazine, while universities and hospitals from the Black Sea coast to Somalia were named in his honour.
“He delivered phenomenal economic growth and helped elevate the majority of the Turkish population to the middle class,” says Soner Çagaptay, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose book on Erdogan will be published this month.
When Erdogan chose to send his daughters to study in the US so that they could wear their headscarves – which were banned on Turkish campuses at the time – Turks felt they were dealing with a different kind of politician.
Erdogan would go on to break the back of the once all-powerful Turkish military and face down anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013.
In the same year, he responded to corruption allegations that implicated his family and high-ranking members of his party by instituting a purge in the police force and blaming the controversy on an international conspiracy against him.
He achieved stunning electoral success, overseeing three straight AK Party victories.
Experts believe it was the progress made in two sectors – healthcare and housing – that copperfastened his support among the electorate.
However, while Erdogan was building his power base, his authoritarian streak was becoming increasingly evident in his dealings in Turkey and abroad.
As long as a decade ago, it became clear that once someone or something moved beyond his control, Erdogan’s response was to hit out, or to seek to suppress.
When accession talks with the EU hit a wall in 2009, Erdogan lost patience and began to berate EU leaders at every turn.
The Sufi preacher Fethullah Gülen and Erdogan had been close for years, but when the cleric refused to submit to Erdogan’s demand that male and female students in Gülen’s prep schools be housed separately, there was an irrevocable parting of the ways.
Erdogan blames Gülen, now exiled in the US and designated a terrorist by the Turkish government, for last year’s failed coup attempt in Turkey.
The crackdown following that coup attempt has resulted in tens of thousands of suspected opponents of the government being dismissed from their jobs or detained.
Dozens of politicians and journalists arrested during the purge remain in prison.
Although he has visited almost 100 countries, he speaks no language other than Turkish.
He champions the poor and enjoys their support, but he lives in a 1,150-room, €700 million palace.
He has driven projects that carved tunnels through mountains and under seas, cutting hours off commutes and and millions of lira off shipping costs for Turkish SMEs.
But under his watch, academics have been jailed simply for signing a petition calling for peace.
Erdogan likes to say that, when he was imprisoned in 1999, he went quietly, and he criticises today’s opposition politicians for not doing likewise.
This is despite the fact that, during his four-month stint behind bars, Erdogan didn’t even eat prison food – he had all his meals brought in from outside.
His painstaking work to modernise Turkey’s economy has been undermined by a rise in domestic terrorism that many blame on Erdogan’s increasingly oppressive response to Kurdish desires for autonomy.
His single-minded pursuit of control has also placed Turkey on shaky ground with international powers.
With polls showing the Yes campaign has a slight lead ahead of Sunday’s referendum, the president may soon have the authority to remove and appoint ministers and members of the judiciary, and to dissolve parliament to call new elections if and as he pleases.
The prospect of more power being concentrated in Erdogan’s hands has obvious implications for Turkey’s relationship with the West.
“It would mean Turkey’s further estrangement from the Euro-Atlantic community and the EU,” says the former Turkish ambassador to the US, Osman Faruk Logoglu.
On Wednesday, Erdogan said he would approve the return of the death penalty if Turks vote Yes, a development that would end any possibility of EU membership.
For Omer Guler, having the former mayor in full control of Turkey would mean the country was no longer talked down to by other nations.
“Europe is very happy if Turkey sits down and does what it is told,” he said, adding that he intends to vote Yes.