His straight talking may at times have been a liability, but with a solid base behind him, he has whipped his country's foreign policy into shape, wooing the Middle East and catching his traditional allies off balance. Yigal Schleifer assesses a mercurial prime minister. It has been a busy couple of weeks for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister. There were visits from Bashar al Assad, the Syrian leader, and the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to deal with, strategically significant trips to Greece and Azerbaijan to get out of the way, and even a jaunt over to Spain to receive an honorary doctorate. And, oh yes, there was that short stop in Tehran on Monday to sign the nuclear fuel swap deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil with Iran. Turkey's mercurial leader is clearly a man on the move - and he is taking his country along for the ride. A decade ago a somewhat cautious American ally and Nato member, Turkey today is becoming a force to contend with, particularly in the Middle East, a region it had kept at an arm's length for decades. Much of this change can be attributed to policies pursued by Erdogan (pronounced "erdo-ahn") and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Since being formed in 2001 by Erdogan and other members of the reformist wing of one of Turkey's veteran Islamist parties, the AKP has become a significant force in Turkish politics, winning two national elections decisively and becoming the first single-party government to rule in almost two decades. The years preceding the AKP's first election, in 2002, were particularly difficult ones for Turkey, marked by a severe economic crisis and the after-effects of the 1980 military coup. The AKP's success in righting the country at home appears to have provided Erdogan with opportunities in the foreign arena. The troubles before the AKP came to power "created a major political vacuum in Turkey. Those were really horrible years and Turkey lost big time," says a senior foreign policy adviser. "The AKP came to power and proved to the world that it could run this country much better than all the other governments before. The more successful AKP became, the more new possibilities in foreign policy emerged. It's no longer a narrow nation-state agenda. It's a regional agenda. It's a global agenda." For the past several years, Erdogan - with the help of Ahmet Davutoglu, his foreign minister - has been shaking up Turkey's foreign stance: recalibrating relations with its traditional allies, the United States and Israel, re-engaging with the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East, and positioning Turkey as a global soft-power broker. Relations with Syria and Iran have improved dramatically. From being on the verge of war a decade ago, Ankara and Damascus are now on the road to becoming close allies. In October, Turkey and Armenia signed a historic set of protocols that lays the groundwork for the two countries to restore relations and examine their difficult past. Although currently stalled, the reconciliation process with Yerevan still represented a major breakthrough.
Turkey has also been involved in mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, between Fatah and Hamas, between rival groups in Lebanon, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now between Iran and the West. This new-found diplomatic activism has left many of Turkey's traditional allies off balance. In Washington, Ankara's increasingly strained ties with Israel and warming relations with Iran have raised question marks about its future orientation. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Turkey's assertive reappearance has created a stir. Erdogan's regional popularity - at street level, at least - skyrocketed after his 2009 performance at Davos, where he stormed off the stage he was sharing with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, after angrily berating him for his country's actions in Gaza. Erdogan returned a hero, crowned the "Conqueror of Davos" by a crowd of cheering supporters waiting at the airport. The drama also helped introduce him to a Middle Eastern public. For Turks, meanwhile, Davos was very much about Erdogan simply being Erdogan. The prime minister came of age in the streets of Kasimpasa, a scruffy working-class neighbourhood with a rough reputation near the heart of old Istanbul, and he maintains a straight-talking, no-holds-barred style. While out on the hustings a few years ago, he famously told off a farmer who was complaining about his economic situation with words that would have made a sailor blush. His lawyers, meanwhile, have made something of a cottage industry out of suing cartoonists and others who the PM feels have insulted his dignity. His family migrated to Kasimpasa from the Black Sea coast when he was a young teen, and in the winding streets that lead off from the neighbourhood's main mosque, locals still consider Erdogan one of them. "He was just a typical guy, with two suits and a Tofas" - a boxy Turkish-made Fiat, is the way one local put it. Many in the neighbourhood remember him as an outstanding footballer who might have gone pro had his conservative father not forbidden it. (Kasimpasa today has a gleaming new government-built football stadium, named after the prime minister.) Many also remember the political ambition he showed early on. At 16, Erdogan joined the youth branch of the Islamist National Salvation Party, a precursor to the Welfare Party, which governed Turkey for a shaky 12 months until it was forced out of power by the military in 1997. Erdogan quickly rose through the party ranks, becoming chairman of its Istanbul branch by the mid-1970s. A military coup in 1980 put his political aspirations on hold, but in 1994 he was back, successfully running for mayor of Istanbul.
Erdogan's tenure as mayor was, by all counts, a success. He improved the city's infrastructure, installing water and sewage lines and upgrading public transport. But he also caused serious concern when he banned the serving of alcohol at city-owned establishments and issued statements such as: "One cannot be a secularist and a Muslim at the same time." In 1998, at rally in the south-eastern Turkish town of Siirt, Erdogan read a poem as part of a speech. "The minarets are our bayonets; the mosques are our barracks; our believers are our soldiers," he told the crowd. The Turkish authorities, looking for a way to muzzle Erdogan, charged him with "religious incitement", an accusation that got him banned from holding political office and earned him four months in prison.
Once out of jail, Erdogan started planning the formation of the AKP. He had previously been a protégé of Necmettin Erbakan, the éminence grise of Turkish Islamist politics, who served as the country's prime minister during the aborted rule of the Welfare Party, but now he appeared to be moving away from the kind of Islamist politics he had previously been involved in. Formed in 2001, the AKP went on to sweep the elections that were held the next year, winning almost two thirds of the seats in parliament. The new parliament quickly lifted the ban on Erdogan and he was able to become Turkey's prime minister after a by-election win. Under Erdogan's guidance, the AKP was re-elected in 2007, winning nearly 47 per cent of the vote. The irascible and sometimes imperious Erdogan's penchant for speaking off-the-cuff has given rise to concerns. His description of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, as a "friend" and his defence of Omar al Bashir, the Sudanese leader, have led to accusations that Erdogan's Islamist sympathies are not too far below the surface. The PM's straight talk has at times also been a liability for Turkey's image abroad. Soon after Ankara and Yerevan signed their historic protocols last October, Erdogan quickly put them in the deep freeze by stating that there would be no progress on them until there was progress in the disputed Azeri region of Nagorno-Karabakh, currently occupied by Armenian forces. And in a March interview with the BBC, Erdogan made the unfortunate suggestion that one of the results of the recent Armenian genocide resolutions passed in Sweden and the US could be the mass expulsion from Turkey of the thousands of Armenians working illegally in the country.
Still, he remains the most towering figure on the Turkish political landscape, with few coming even close. The big question is what's next for the prime minister? Erdogan has said that he won't run for the office again and possibly has his eyes on the presidency, a post he recently suggested making more powerful. It appears that the biggest obstacle facing him is the lack of a credible and responsible opposition that can keep his worst tendency - the occasional veering towards populism and illiberalism - in check. Without a viable opposition, there are those who believe Erdogan's greatest enemy could turn out to be himself. * The National