Recep Tayyip Erdogan: People’s Choice for TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year

The Turkish Prime Minister was the most popular -- and the least popular -- in our annual online poll.

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The Nov. 28, 2011 cover of TIME's international editions

He’s lauded as a steward of Islamic democracy. He’s helped boost Turkey to its place as the world’s second fastest-growing economy. Though not an Arab, he’s the most admired world leader among Arabs, according to a University of Maryland poll. His diplomatic missions bring out throngs of cheering crowds that could make a rock star jealous.

And he’s apparently quite good at winning online popularity contests, too. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the far-and-away favorite in TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year poll. He received 122,928 votes nominating him as the most influential person of the year. The three-term Turkish PM blew away every competitor; second-place challenger Barca striker Lionel Messi earned a mere 60% of the votes (74,412) that Erdogan did, with The 99% taking a healthy third.

(SPECIAL: Mark Zuckerberg: TIME’s Person of the Year 2010)

Though it’s not all rosy for Erdogan (pronounced Erd-waan; the g is silent), A majority of voters indeed voted “No,” arguing he should not be TIME’s Person of the Year. More than 180,000 votes were cast in the negative for the lauded politician, and his margin of “No” votes was even greater than the positive ones: The 1% was the second least-favorite candidate with 34,489 votes, a paltry 20% of Erdogan’s negative clicks.

So how did Erdogan earn the title of both most and least-favored Person of the Year? A viral campaign circulating on Turkish websites and via email kept the worldwide audiences voting. According to The Wall Street Journal, an email chain letter warns Turks of the consequences of voting Erdogan as TIME’s Person of the Year. “I hope you can imagine what the consequences of winning this kind of a poll would be for someone craving to be a Sultan, and by participating in this voting, I invite you to not allow this environment to evolve,” it reads.

(READ: TIME Cover Story: Erdogan’s Moment)

Even the savviest politician makes a few enemies during the course of his or her career. Erdogan has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with Israel after the Gaza flotilla raid in 2010. And even among his own people he has some restless resistance. The Kurds, a 14 million-strong minority group living in the southeastern part of the country, are frustrated with their second-class status – the Turkish constitution allows the government to ban Kurds from celebrating cultural festivities and speaking in their native tongue. A scathing headline on the website for the Alliance for Kurdish Rights leaves little unsaid: “TIME Nominates Erdogan and his Crimes for Person of the Year.” The ensuing article encourages readers to vote down Erdogan and send letters to TIME expressing their disapproval.

The polarization is hardly a surprise, though: for nearly three decades, the Kurdish separatist group PKK has waged a violent campaign against Turkey in hopes of winning an autonomous state. The Turkish government has long struggled to make peace with the Kurds, and Erdogan’s recent attempts at smoothing the ripples have ranged from compromise to oppression. In recent months, PKK terrorist attacks have made a resurgence.

Erdogan’s love-him-or-hate-him persona boosted him to the top of both polls, but what about society’s less controversial figures? Steve Jobs was the fifth most-popular pick for Person of the Year, notching up 30,047 votes. SEAL Team 6 was the eighth most-popular and Gabby Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman making a stunning recovery after being shot in the head in January, garnered the tenth most “Yes” votes. On the flip side, Casey Anthony made few friends, and was ranked the third least-popular candidate for the accolade. A number of politicians were ranked in the top 10 lowest-rated people, including Michele Bachmann (#5), Silvio Berlusconi (#8) and Barack Obama (#10).

While the people have spoken loudly for (and against) Erdogan, in the end, TIME’s editors make the decision. The 2011 Person of the Year will be revealed this week.

GRAPHIC: TIME’s Person of the Year from 1927 to 2010