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Key takeaways from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish presidential elections

he election was closely followed by Turkey’s Nato allies, including the United States, who have often seen Erdogan as a frustrating partner because of his anti-western rhetoric and close ties with President Vladimir Putin of Russia

Ben Hubbard Istanbul Published 30.05.23, 05:51 AM
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan File Photo

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election grants him five more years to deepen his conservative imprint on Turkish society and to realise his ambition of increasing the country’s economic and geopolitical power.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council named Erdogan the victor after a runoff election on Sunday. He won 52.1 per cent of the vote against the Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who had 47.9 per cent with almost all votes counted, the council said.


The election was closely followed by Turkey’s Nato allies, including the United States, who have often seen Erdogan as a frustrating partner because of his anti-western rhetoric and close ties with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which have grown since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Erdogan has given no indication that he plans to change his policies abroad, where he has sought to use Turkey’s place at the juncture of Europe, Asia and West Asia to expand its influence, or at home, where he has consolidated power in his hands and responded to an inflation crisis with unconventional measures that economists said exacerbated the problem.

Challenging him in the election was a newly united Opposition that billed the election as a make-it-or-break-it moment for Turkish democracy. The Opposition’s candidate, Kilicdaroglu, ran as the anti-Erdogan, vowing to restore civil freedoms and improve ties with the West. He billed himself as more in touch with the common people’s struggles.

Here are some key takeaways:

Crises damaged but did not break Erdogan.

This was the most challenging election of Erdogan’s 20 years as Turkey’s most prominent politician, as Prime Minister since 2003 and as President since 2014. Before the initial vote, most polls suggested a tight race with Kilicdaroglu in the lead.

Analysts cited several reasons Erdogan might struggle. Anger at a painful cost-of-living crisis turned some voters against him. Powerful earthquakes in February killed more than 50,000 people and damaged hundreds of buildings in southern Turkey. Many quake survivors complained about the government’s slow initial response while the destruction raised questions about whether Erdogan’s haste to develop the country had encouraged unsafe construction.

Turkey’s historically fractious Opposition set aside its differences to come together behind Kilicdaroglu and argued that change was needed to stop the country’s slide towards one-man rule.

But Erdogan prevailed, thanks to fervent support from a significant portion of the population and his skills as a campaigner. Religiously conservative Turks who appreciate his expanding the role of Islam in public life stood by him, and even many of those angry about inflation said they did not have faith that the Opposition could govern any better.

The earthquake didn’t affect the election much.

Erdogan came to power 20 years ago amid anger at the government’s disastrous response to an earthquake near Istanbul in 1999 that killed more than 17,000 people. So many expected this year’s quake to hurt his standing as well.

But there are few indications that it did.

Erdogan came out ahead in eight of the 11 provinces affected by February’s earthquake. His governing Justice and Development Party and its political allies fared even better, winning a majority of votes in the simultaneous parliamentary elections in all but one of the quake-stricken provinces.

Participation in the earthquake zone was also high, despite worries that many voters displaced by the destruction would struggle to return home to cast their ballots as required.

Interviews with quake survivors indicated many reasons that the disaster had not changed their political outlook. Some described the quake as an act of God that any government would have struggled to respond to. Others had more faith in Erdogan to rebuild the affected areas than they had in his challenger.

Terrorism warnings resonated with voters.

Erdogan undermined the Opposition by portraying its leaders as weak and incompetent, but one line of attack proved to be especially potent: accusations that they would be soft on terrorism.

The President repeatedly made this argument to voters, based on the Opposition’s having received the support of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party. The government often accuses that party of collaboration with militants from Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

Erdogan went so far as to air videos at his rallies that had been doctored to show militant leaders singing along to Kilicdaroglu’s campaign song. Many voters believed him.

The vote was free but not fair.

International observers reported no large-scale problems with the process of collecting and counting votes during the first round, deeming the process free.

But they noted the tremendous advantages Erdogan had before voting began, including his ability to unleash billions of dollars in state spending to try to offset the negative effects of inflation and other economic strains and the abundant, positive media coverage he received from the state-funded broadcaster.

Late on Sunday, Kilicdaroglu did not contest the vote count, but told his supporters that the overall election had been “one of the most unfair election processes in recent years”.

Erdogan must now confront economic problems.

Economists warn that Erdogan resorted to expensive short-term tactics to insulate voters from inflation and prevent the value of the national currency from sinking further. But he can’t keep it up forever. Regardless of what moves Erdogan would like to prioritise, the risks of a currency crisis or recession are likely to demand his attention.

New York Times News Service

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