Turkey's anti-Erdogan protests ten years on

What's changed since the mass demonstrations against the Turkish President on 14 April 2007?

Turkey Protest
Hundreds of thousands of Turks wave national flags and portraits of the country's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk during a rally in Istanbul in April 2007
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Ankara, Turkey's capital, in a show of support for secularism amid a row over the presidential bid by the pro-Islamic prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This week Turkey will vote on whether to give Erdogan, who became president in 2014, sweeping new powers.

So how did Turkey get to this point?

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What happened in the run up to 14 April 2007?

The Turkish presidency had always had a symbolic role in safeguarding secularism. But in 2007, protesters were galvanised by fears that Erdogan, the leader of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP), might stand in the presidential elections later in 2007.

Erdogan had stoked secularist concerns by speaking out against restrictions on wearing Islamic headscarves and by taking steps to bolster religious institutions.

At the time, the AKP enjoyed an overwhelming majority in parliament, which meant it could in effect appoint whoever it wanted to the presidency.

How about the day itself?

Two days before the start of the presidential election process, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Ankara's Caglayan Square to support secularism in Turkey.

"We don't want an imam as president" was one of the demonstrators' slogans.

A second rally took place in Istanbul on 29 April, followed by a third and fourth in Manisa and Canakkale on 5 May. More than one million people reportedly participated in the fifth rally in Izmir on 13 May.

What was the reaction to all the protests?

Instead of Erdogan, the AKP chose to put foreign minister Abdullah Gul forward for the presidency.

Although a less divisive figure than Erdogan, he was viewed with suspicion by opponents. Gul's wife, it was noted, always appeared in a headscarf.

But Gul narrowly failed in the first round to gain enough support from MPs to become president. A political crisis followed and the general election planned for November 2007 had to be brought forward to July. It produced a resounding victory for the AKP. Gul was sworn in as president after another parliamentary vote.

What's happened in Turkey since then?

Erdogan was named as the AKP presidential candidate in 2014 and was elected with 51.79 per cent of the vote.

Over the past 10 years, Erdogan has survived a corruption investigation involving his ministers, a stalled application to join the European Union, a six-year conflict in neighbouring Syria, a coup attempt, an ongoing conflict with Kurdish separatists, and several domestic terror campaigns.

Meanwhile, grassroots support and Turkey's impressive economic performance since 2000 have given the AKP two more emphatic general election victories in 2011 and 2015.

From one perspective, the failed military coup on 15 July 2016 bolstered Erdogan's position by giving him an excuse to enforce a draconian crackdown. "Tens of thousands of suspected coup sympathisers and political opponents were arrested," says the Wall Street Journal. More than 150,000 Turks were summarily fired from jobs without evidence of wrongdoing and the government closed 160 media outlets.

Now, ten years on from the protests of 2007, Erdogan has the opportunity to accumulate yet more power. On 16 April, voters will be asked to approve changes to Turkey's constitution that could eliminate the position of prime minister and vest new powers in the presidency.

Writing in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins calls the poll "an attempt to overturn Turkish democracy and rubber-stamp the authoritarian powers that Erdogan has been pursuing for the past decade".

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