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Turkey's Erdogan retains power, now faces challenges over the economy and earthquake recovery

May 29, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
People watch a television channel to listen to the results at CHP headquarters, in Istanbul, Turkey, Sunday, May 28, 2023. Turkey's incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory Sunday in his country's runoff election, extending his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade. (AP Photo/Valeria Ferraro)

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a mandate to rule until 2028, securing five more years as leader of a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia that plays a key role in NATO. He must now confront skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis and rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.

Erdogan secured more than 52% of the vote in Sunday’s presidential runoff, two weeks after he fell short of scoring an outright victory in the first round. His opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had sought to reverse Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leanings, promising to return to democratic norms, adopt more conventional economic policies and improve ties with the West. But in the end, voters chose the man they see as a strong, proven leader.

Erdogan thanked the nation for entrusting him with the presidency again in two speeches he delivered in Istanbul and Ankara.

“The only winner today is Turkey,” Erdogan said outside the presidential palace in Ankara, promising to work hard for Turkey’s second century, which he called the “Turkish century.” The country marks its centennial this year.

Kilicdaroglu said the election was “the most unjust ever,” with all state resources mobilized for Erdogan.

“We will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country,” he said in Ankara.

Supporters of Erdogan, a divisive populist and masterful orator, took to the streets to celebrate, waving Turkish or ruling party flags, honking car horns and chanting his name. Celebratory gunfire was heard in several Istanbul neighborhoods.

Leaders across the world sent their congratulations, highlighting Turkey’s, and Erdogan’s, enlarged role in global politics. His next term is certain to include more delicate maneuvering with fellow NATO members over the future of the alliance and the war in Ukraine.

Western politicians said they are ready to continue working with Erdogan despite years of sometimes tense relations. Most imminently, Turkey holds the cards for Sweden’s hopes to join NATO. The bid aims to strengthen the military alliance against Russia. Turkey is also central to the continuity of a deal to allow Ukrainian grain shipments and avert a global food crisis.

In his victory remarks, Erdogan said rebuilding the quake-struck cities would be his priority. He also said a million Syrian refugees would go back to Turkish-controlled “safe zones” in Syria as part of a resettlement project being run with Qatar.

Erdogan has retained the backing of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and raising the country’s influence in international politics.

Erdogan’s rival was a soft-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. The opposition took months to unite behind Kilicdaroglu. He and his party have not won any elections in which Erdogan ran.

In a frantic outreach effort to nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu had vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace negotiations with Kurdish militants if he was elected.

Erdogan and pro-government media portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.

In his victory speech, Erdogan repeated those themes, saying LGBTQ people cannot “infiltrate” his ruling party or its nationalist allies.

Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office through a narrowly won 2017 referendum that scrapped Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 election that ushered in the executive presidency.

Erdogan is now serving his second term as president under the executive presidency. He could run again for another term if parliament — where his ruling party and allies hold a majority — calls early elections. The number of terms was a point of contention ahead of the elections when critics argued Erdogan would be ineligible to run again since he had also held the office before the system change but he pointed to the constitutional amendments that brought in the executive presidency as justification.

The first half of Erdogan’s tenure included reforms allowing the country to begin talks to join the European Union, as well as economic growth that lifted many out of poverty.

But he later moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his own hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.


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