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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Despite inflation, earthquakes and tough race, Erdogan is reelected

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrating his victory in Istanbul on Sunday.

By Ben Hubbard

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan beat back the greatest political challenge of his career Sunday, securing victory in a presidential runoff that granted five more years to a mercurial leader who has vexed his Western allies while tightening his grip on the Turkish state.

His victory means Erdogan could remain in power for at least a quarter-century, deepening his conservative imprint on Turkish society while pursuing his vision of a country with increasing economic and geopolitical might. He will be ensconced as the driving force of a NATO ally of the United States, a position he has leveraged to become a key broker in the war in Ukraine and to enhance Turkey’s status as a Muslim power with 85 million people and critical ties across continents.

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council declared Erdogan the victor late Sunday. He won 52.1% of the vote; opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu got 47.9% with almost all votes counted, the council said.

Erdogan’s supporters shrugged off Turkey’s challenges, including a looming economic crisis, and lauded him for developing the country and supporting conservative Islamic values.

In many Turkish cities Sunday night, they honked car horns, cheered and gathered in public squares to watch the results roll in and await his victory speech. Thousands gathered outside the presidential palace in Ankara, waving red and white Turkish flags.

“It is not only us who won, it is Turkey,” Erdogan said, to raucous applause. “It is our nation that won with all its elements. It is our democracy.”

Kilicdaroglu told his supporters that he did not contest the vote count but that the election overall had been unfair, nevertheless. In the run-up to the vote, Erdogan tapped state resources to tilt the playing field in his favor.

During his 20 years as the country’s most prominent politician — as prime minister beginning in 2003 and as president since 2014 — Erdogan has sidelined the country’s traditional political and military elites and expanded the role of Islam in public life.

Along the way, he has used crises to expand his power, centering major decision making about domestic, foreign and economic policy inside the walls of his sprawling presidential palace. His political opponents fear that five more years at the helm will allow him to consolidate power even further.

Erdogan has offered few indications that he intends to change course in either domestic affairs or in foreign policy.

Erdogan’s unpredictability and frequent tirades against the West left officials in some Western capitals wondering whose side he was on in the war in Ukraine and privately hoping he would lose.

The Turkish leader condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, but refused to join Western sanctions to isolate President Vladimir Putin and instead increased Turkish trade with Moscow. He calls Putin “my friend” and has hampered NATO efforts to expand by delaying the admission of Finland and still refusing to admit Sweden.

During his campaign, Erdogan indicated that he was comfortable with his stance on Ukraine. He described Turkey’s mediation at times between the conflict’s warring parties as “not an ordinary deed.” And he said he was not “working just to receive a ‘well done’ from the West,” making clear that the desires of his allies will not trump his pursuit of Turkey’s interests.

Erdogan operates on the understanding that “the world has entered the stage where Western predominance is no longer a given,” said Galip Dalay, a Turkey analyst at Chatham House, a London-based research group.

That view has led regional powers like Turkey to benefit from ties with the West even while engaging with American rivals like Russia and China. The idea is that “Turkey is better served by engaging in a geopolitical balance between them,” Dalay said.

Critics accuse Erdogan of pushing Turkey toward one-man rule. Election observers said that while this month’s voting was largely free, he used state resources and his sway over the news media to gain advantage, making the wider competition unfair.

Still, his opponents came closer to unseating him than ever before, and many expect he will try to prevent them from ever being able to do so again.

“Winning this election will give him ultimate confidence in himself, and I think he will see himself as undefeatable from now on,” said Gulfem Saydan Sanver, a political consultant who has advised members of the opposition. “I think he will be more harsh on the opposition.”

Over the years, Erdogan has merged himself with the image of the state, and he is likely to keep leveraging Turkey’s position between the West, Russia and other countries to enhance his geopolitical clout.

His relations with Washington remain prickly.

The United States removed Turkey from a program to receive F-35 fighter jets in 2019 after Turkey bought an air-defense system from Russia.

And during the long war in neighboring Syria, Erdogan criticized the United States for working with a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey says is an extension of a Kurdish militant group that has fought the Turkish government for decades to demand autonomy.

Erdogan’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, accused the United States of a “political coup attempt” to unseat Erdogan during the campaign. As evidence, Soylu cited comments from President Joe Biden’s own campaign, in which he criticized Erdogan as an “autocrat” and said the United States should support Turkey’s opposition.

Diplomats acknowledge that Erdogan’s ties to both Russia and Ukraine allowed him to mediate an agreement on the export of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea as well as prisoner swaps between the warring parties.

Recently, Erdogan has worked to patch up relations with former regional foes, including Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in order to cool tensions and stimulate trade. After conciliatory moves by Turkey, Saudi Arabia deposited $5 billion in Turkey’s central bank in March, helping shore up its sagging foreign currency reserves.

The Turkish leader has said he might meet with President Bashar Assad of Syria after years of supporting anti-Assad rebels. The goal: speeding the return of some of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, a key demand of Turkish voters.

Erdogan, the son of a ferry captain who grew up in a tough Istanbul neighborhood and dreamed of playing professional soccer, retains the deep devotion of many Turks, who credit him with developing the country. Swift economic growth in the 2000s lifted millions of Turks out of poverty and transformed Turkish cities with new highways, airports and rail lines.

Erdogan also expanded the space for Islam in public life.

Turkey is a predominantly Muslim society with a secular state, and for decades women who wore headscarves were barred from universities and government jobs. Erdogan loosened those rules, and conservative women vote for him in large numbers.

He also has a habit of making smokers he encounters promise to quit — and getting it in writing. In March, his office displayed hundreds of cigarette packs signed by the people Erdogan had taken them from, including his own brother and a former foreign minister of Bulgaria.

He has also expanded religious education and transformed the Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s most famous historic landmark, from a museum into a mosque.

Musa Aslantas, a bakery owner, listed what he considered Erdogan’s most recent accomplishments: a natural gas discovery in the Black Sea, Turkey’s first electric car and a nuclear power plant being built by Russia.

“Our country is stronger thanks to Erdogan,” said Aslantas, 28. “He can stand up to foreign leaders. He makes us feel safe and powerful. They can’t play with us like they used to.”

Erdogan’s most immediate challenge could be the economy.

His insistence on lowering interest rates has exacerbated inflation that peaked at more than 80% annually last year, economists say, and expensive moves he made before the election added to the state’s bills and depleted the central bank’s foreign currency reserves. Without a swift change of course, Turkey could soon face a currency crisis or recession.

Economic trouble could lead more voters to seek change in the future, assuming Erdogan’s foes can overcome their disappointment and mount another challenge.

“Erdogan has clear vision of what he wants for the country, and he has had that vision since he was very young,” said Selim Koru, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. “What people like about him is that he has not really compromised on that.”

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