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50 People Who Matter 2011 | 11. Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish delight.

In September 1998, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, was sentenced to ten months in prison for reciting a religious poem deemed by a panel of judges to be an attack on Turkish secularism. "Erdogan's political career is over," was the verdict of commentators. Less than five years later, Erdogan was elected prime minister after his neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (or AK) won a landslide victory. This year, in June, Erdogan was re-elected a second time, making him the only premier in Turkey's history to win three consecutive elections.

Erdogan is considered to be the most powerful Turkish leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the republic in 1923. Born in Istanbul in 1954 to parents from Rize, a conservative town on the Black Sea coast, he has moderated his Islamist views in recent years, proclaimed his support for secular politics and succeeded in reducing the role of the Turkish military in public life. Even his most ardent opponents recognise that he is an effective and popular politician - but they fear his authoritarian tendencies may be exacerbated if, Putin-style, he changes the constitution and stays in power beyond 2015.

Poised between east and west, Turkey occupies a strategic location that has always made it influential - but, in recent years, its economic and diplomatic power has been on the rise. In this country, once the "sick man" of Europe, GDP grew by 8.9 per cent in 2010, making it the fastest-growing economy in the OECD. It has also become more adventurous in its foreign policy: Erdogan called on Hosni Mubarak to step down, has engaged in nuclear negotiations with Iran and denounced the violence in Syria. He has been received as a hero in the Arab capitals he has visited.

But it is the Turkish PM's critical attitude to Israel that has attracted most attention. Having been the Jewish state's closest ally in the Muslim world, Turkey, under Erdogan, has become a champion of the Palestinian cause.

In 2009, he denounced Israel's war on Gaza and walked out of a discussion with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres. Following Israel's attack on a Turkish-led aid flotilla in 2010, which killed nine Turks, he withdrew his ambassador from Israel and came close to declaring war. In recent weeks, he has further downgraded relations between the two states.

Erdogan has proved himself to be a master of alliance-building; he has exploited a power vacuum in the Middle East to transform his country into a regional diplomatic giant.

And, in the words of the historian Stephen Kinzer, he "has helped draw Turkey away from half a century of subservience to western foreign policy".

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter