Recep Tayyip Erdogan declares victory in historic Turkey runoff

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he addresses his supporters following early exit poll results for the second round of the presidential election in Istanbul on May 28, 2023.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

The head of Turkey’s election commission on May 28 declared President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the winner of a historic runoff vote that will extend his 20-year rule until 2028.

“Based on provisional results, it has been determined that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been elected president,” Supreme Election Council chairman Ahmet Yener was quoted as saying by the Anadolu state news agency.

Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu makes a statement at CHP headquarters in Ankara on May 28, 2023.

Turkish CHP party leader and Nation Alliance’s presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu makes a statement at CHP headquarters in Ankara on May 28, 2023.
| Photo Credit:
AP

Earlier in the evening, as results showed him leading secular opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Mr. Erdogan declared victory in the historic runoff vote that posed the biggest challenge to his 20 years of transformative but divisive rule.

The 69-year-old leader overcame Turkey’s biggest economic crisis in generations and the most powerful opposition alliance to ever face his Islamic-rooted party to take an unassailable lead.

“We will be ruling the country for the coming five years,” Mr. Erdogan told his cheering supporters from atop a bus in his home district in Istanbul. “God willing, we will be deserving of your trust.”

Turkey’s main cities erupted in jubilation as Mr. Erdogan spoke.

Traffic on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square ground to a halt and huge crowds gathered outside his presidential palace in Ankara.

Turkey’s longest-serving leader was tested like never before in what was widely seen as the country’s most consequential election in its 100-year history as a post-Ottoman republic.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu cobbled together a powerful coalition that grouped Erdogan’s disenchanted former allies with secular nationalists and religious conservatives.

He pushed Mr. Erdogan into Turkey’s first runoff on May 14 and narrowed the margin further in the second round.

Opposition supporters viewed it as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a man whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.

“I invite all my citizens to cast their ballot in order to get rid of this authoritarian regime and bring true freedom and democracy to this country,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said after casting his ballot on May 28..


Also Read | Voters in Turkey return to polls to decide on opposing Presidential visions

Opposition gamble

Mr. Kilicdaroglu re-emerged a transformed man after the first round.

The former civil servant’s message of social unity and freedoms gave way to desk-thumping speeches about the need to immediately expel migrants and fight terrorism.

His right-wing turn was targeted at nationalists who emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary elections.

The 74-year-old had always adhered to the firm nationalist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — a revered military commander who formed Turkey and Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s secular CHP party.

But these had played a secondary role to his promotion of socially liberal values practised by younger voters and big-city residents.

Analysts doubted Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s gamble would work.

His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party that Mr. Erdogan portrays as the political wing of banned militants left him exposed to charges of working with “terrorists”.

And Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s courtship of Turkey’s hard right was hampered by the endorsement Mr. Erdogan received from an ultra-nationalist who finished third two weeks ago.

Some opposition supporters sounded defeated already, after emerging from the polls.

“Today is not like the last time. I was more excited then,” Bayram Ali Yuce said in one of Istanbul’s anti-Erdogan neighbourhoods.

“The outcome seems more obvious now. But I still voted.”

Champion of poor

Mr. Erdogan is lionised by poorer and more rural swathes of Turkey’s fractured society because of his promotion of religious freedoms and modernisation of once-dilapidated cities in the Anatolian heartland.

“It was important for me to keep what was gained over the past 20 years in Turkey,” company director Mehmet Emin Ayaz told AFP in Ankara. “Turkey isn’t what it was in the old days. There is a new Turkey today,” the 64-year-old said.

But Mr. Erdogan has caused growing consternation across the Western world because of his crackdowns on dissent and pursuit of a muscular foreign policy.

He launched military incursions into Syria that infuriated European powers and put Turkish soldiers on the opposite side of Kurdish forces supported by the United States.

His personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has also survived the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

Turkey’s troubled economy is benefiting from a crucial deferment of payment on Russian energy imports that helped Erdogan spend lavishly on campaign pledges this year.

Mr. Erdogan also delayed Finland’s membership of NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the U.S.-led defence bloc.

‘Day of reckoning’

Turkey’s unravelling economy will pose the most immediate test for Mr. Erdogan.

Mr. Erdogan went through a series of central bankers to find one who would enact his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021 — flouting conventional economics in the belief that lower rates can cure chronically high inflation.

Turkey’s currency soon entered freefall and the annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year.

Mr. Erdogan has promised to continue these policies and rejected predictions of economic peril from analysts.

Turkey burned through tens of billions of dollars trying to support the lira from politically sensitive falls ahead of the vote.

Many analysts say Turkey must now hike interest rates or abandon its attempts to support the lira.

“The day of reckoning for Turkey’s economy and financial markets may now just be around the corner,” analysts at Capital Economics warned.

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Voters in Turkey return to polls to decide on opposing Presidential visions

Voters in Turkey returned to the polls on May 28 to decide whether the country’s longtime leader stretches his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade or is unseated by a challenger who has promised to restore a more democratic society.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at Turkey’s helm for 20 years, is favoured to win a new five-year term in the second-round runoff after coming just short of an outright victory in the first round on May 14.

The divisive populist who turned his country into a geopolitical player finished 4% points ahead of Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the candidate of a six-party alliance and leader of Turkey’s centre-left main opposition party. Mr. Erdogan’s performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.

Kilicdaroglu (pronounced KEH-lich-DAHR-OH-loo), a 74-year-old former bureaucrat, has described the runoff as a referendum on the country’s future.

More than 64 million people are eligible to cast ballots. The polls opened at 8 a.m.

Turkey does not have exit polls, but the preliminary results are expected to come within hours of the polls closing at 5 p.m.

The final decision could have implications far beyond Ankara because Turkey stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it plays a key role in NATO.

Turkey vetoed Sweden’s bid to join the alliance and purchased Russian missile-defense systems, which prompted the United States to oust Turkey from a U.S.-led fighter-jet project. But Erdogan’s government also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.

The May 14 election saw 87% turnout, and strong participation is expected again on May 28, reflecting voters’ devotion to elections in a country where freedom of expression and assembly have been suppressed.

If he wins, Mr. Erdogan, 69, could remain in power until 2028. After three stints as Prime Minister and two as President, the devout Muslim who heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is already Turkey’s longest-serving leader.

The first half of Mr. Erdogan’s tenure included reforms that allowed the country to begin talks to join the European Union and economic growth that lifted many out of poverty. But he later moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Mr. Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.

Mr. 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.

The May 14 election was the first that Mr. Erdogan did not win outright.

Critics blame Mr. Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis. Many also faulted his government for the slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.

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

In a bid to woo voters hit hard by inflation, he has increased wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills, while showcasing Turkey’s homegrown defence industry and infrastructure projects. He also centred his reelection campaign on a promise to rebuild quake-stricken areas, including constructing 319,000 homes within the year. Many see him as a source of stability.

Mr. Kilicdaroglu is a soft-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. He campaigned on a promise to reverse Mr. Erdogan’s democratic backsliding, restore the economy by reverting to more conventional policies and to improve ties with the West.

In a frantic do-or-die effort to reach out to nationalist voters in the runoff, Mr. Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out any peace negotiations with Kurdish militants if he is elected.

Many in Turkey regard Syrian refugees who have been under Turkey’s temporary protection after fleeing the war in neighboring Syria as a burden on the country, and their repatriation became a key issue in the election.

Earlier in the week, Mr. Erdogan received the endorsement of third-place candidate, nationalist politician Sinan Ogan, who garnered 5.2% of the votes and is no longer in the race. Meanwhile, a staunchly anti-migrant party that had supported Ogan’s candidacy, announced it would back Mr. Kilicdaroglu.

A defeat for Mr. Kilicdaroglu would add to a long list of electoral losses to Mr. Erdogan and put pressure for him to step down as party chairman.

Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament following a legislative election that was also held on May 14. Parliamentary elections will not be repeated on May 28.

Editorial | Weaker by the year: on the elections in Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Mr. Erdogan’s party also dominated in the earthquake-hit region, winning 10 out of 11 provinces in an area that has traditionally supported the president. Mr. Erdogan came in ahead in the presidential race in eight of those provinces.

As in previous elections, Mr. Erdogan used state resources and his control of the media to reach voters.

Following the May 14 vote, international observers also pointed to the criminalization of dissemination of false information and online censorship as evidence that Mr. Erdogan had an “unjustified advantage.” The observers also said the elections showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.

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

Mr. Kilicdaroglu “receives his orders from Qandil,” Mr. Erdogan repeatedly said at recent campaign rallies, a reference to the mountains in Iraq where the leadership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is based.

“We receive our orders from God and the people,” he said.

The election was being held as the country marked the 100th anniversary of its establishment as a republic, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

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In divided Turkey, Erdogan’s hold is weakened but not broken

“Why are you so curious,” Cehan finally asked after at least 40 minutes of Google Translate-aided conversation. And suddenly, it occurred to me that his honest responses could have got him in trouble if he was not careful. Sitting on a public bench in Kaleici, Antalya, overlooking the blue Mediterranean waters, we discussed politics, President Erdogan’s possible return, growing religiosity in Turkey, steep inflation, and the Kurds.

On May 15, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — an Islamist who was imprisoned on the charges of inciting religious hatred and violence in 1999 while holding the mayoral office of Istanbul — prayed at Hagia Sophia for his return as Turkey’s most powerful man despite growing anti-incumbency sentiments. In the opinion polls before the May 14 elections, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Mr. Erdogan’s rival and the opposition coalition candidate, was said to have a slight edge. However, the preliminary results showed that Mr. Erdogan won 49.5% of the votes against Mr. Kılıcdaroglu’s 44.9%, and his coalition has secured a comfortable majority in Parliament.

A resurgent Mr. Erdogan will now face off Mr. Kılıcdaroglu in a presidential run-off May 28.

Stirred but not shaken

Clearly, his hold over Turkey is stirred, not shaken. For each Ataturkist Turkish citizen, there’s at least one staunch Erdogan supporter and half a decrier of the “West’s conspiracy to undermine Islam”.

Cehan, 36, is a fitness trainer in Antalya and he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by a curious foreigner on a sunny afternoon. He was there with his friend, Orhan, smoking cigarettes and drinking beers that the duo kept furnishing from a tiny black plastic bag. “If he [Erdogan] comes back, we won’t be able to drink beers in public like this,” he typed on his phone and offered me a pint that I was too happy to accept. “My parents are Ottoman supporters, but I am an Ataturk,” he said, referring to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey.

He declared with mellow pride and echoed the sentiment of many a man and woman in Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa and Pamukkale.

ALSO READ | Weaker by the year: on the elections in Turkey and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

The night before, Semi, 29, a jeweller, was a lot more boisterous. He spoke English with reasonable ease. “I live away from my family because they don’t understand my life and choices. I was with them for Bayrham Ramzan (Id-ul-Fitr) but that’s all. They are becoming increasingly religious, and I cannot deal with it any more.” Semi, however, believes in the Illuminati. He will vote against Mr. Erdogan.

Message to Muslims

Barak, 34, a tourist guide in Istanbul, had given me a great primer the day I landed in Turkey on what most young people in coastal Turkish cities thought of the two decades of President Erdogan’s rule. His guided tour in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood of Istanbul was deeply political in spirit. “The Ottomans decided to convert Hagia Sophia, the church, into a mosque [in the 15th century, after the fall of the Constantinople] They wanted to send a message to all the Muslims worldwide that now they were the caretakers of Islam. Many centuries later, the same message has been conveyed with the conversion of Hagia Sophia the museum into a mosque.”

A banner of Kemal Kiliçdaroglu banner in Izmir, Turkey
| Photo Credit:
Nishtha Gautam

Ataturk, who abolished the Caliphate, closed down Hagia Sophia in 1930. Five years later, it was was reopened as a museum. Mr. Erdogan turned it back to a mosque in July 2020.

“Erdogan has destroyed our country beyond repair,” Barak continued. “People wanted employment, education, and healthcare, he gave them religion. A lot of people in Turkey are not practising Muslims. They gravitated towards ‘nationalism’ to make up for that. Erdogan exploited this. He also exploited the fact that the global economic crash of 2008 did not affect Turkey as badly as it did the rest of Europe and the US.”

Sitting in a historical coffee house in Istanbul — where poets, writers, and philosophers have been communing for centuries — Barak was relentless. “He (Erdogan) has ensured that there are spiralling queues in front of the Hagia Sophia to show that the world is at his doorstep. The Blue Mosque has been under supposed renovation for the past two years and is inaccessible to tourists. And there are these inconvenient barricades outside Hagia Sophia, so, obviously, the crowds build up and give the impression that the world has congregated to applaud his decision to turn it into a mosque.”

Selma and Rashet* (names changed) run a cafe near Suleimani mosque in Istanbul. Rashet is a bit careful while expressing his angst. “We often get into trouble for critiquing Erdogan in front of the foreigners. I have nicknamed him ‘the tall man’ and we spell out KURD while talking about these oppressed people. The police can pick us up for questioning and detain us for talking about the K.U.R.D.S.”

The Kurdish question

The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey and an armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia group, and the Turkish state has been ongoing since 1978. In November 2022, a bombing in Istanbul, allegedly carried out by a Kurdish-Syrian separatist, claimed six lives. “Yes, there are Kurdish terrorists in Turkey but why punish the innocent Kurds for the terrorists’ actions?” Rashet asked.

A rock sculpture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, in Izmir, Turkey

A rock sculpture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, in Izmir, Turkey
| Photo Credit:
Nishtha Gautam

After the failed military coup attempt in 2016, Mr. Erdogan undertook a purge that saw his dissenters across civil, military and educational institutions either getting sacked or arrested. His powers grew with the constitutional referendum in 2017 through which the Turkish parliamentary system got converted into a presidential system.

“You know Mussolini? Erdogan is our Mussolini. You know Hitler, he’s our Hitler,” an impassioned native interrupts me as I chat, days later, with Çevat and Sara (names changed), the local shopkeepers of Derinkuyu village in the Anatolian plateau region of Turkey. This statement came as a mild surprise. Geographically speaking, rural Anatolia (Anadolu in Turkish) has been rallying behind Erdogan, as against the ‘liberal’ cities of Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara, Antalya et al. Konya, the biggest province of Turkey, is called Erdogan’s fortress.

Inshallah, Erdogan

Despite the criticisms he faces and the mounting economic woes of Turkey, including runaway inflation, the President’s supporters remain adamant and confident. Mehmet, 20, who works in a small cafe in the Ilhara Valley in the tourist-riddled Cappadocia region, says, “Inshallah, Erdogan!” He responded to my sly question about the next possible President that I cautiously slip in after almost an hour of Google Translate-facilitated conversations about food, fashion, education, family, and girls. I smile and ask about the state of the economy. This time his father, Yunus, gesticulates, “Prices up up up!”

Inflation has been Erdogan’s biggest challenge as it surged to above 85% last year and is hovering around 40% now. Why is he not able to control inflation, I enquire. Mehmet punched the following on my keypad: “Everything is in control. All is well. Mashallah.”

Birsen Aliçi, a political worker of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), puts up posters of party candidates

Birsen Aliçi, a political worker of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), puts up posters of party candidates
| Photo Credit:
Nishtha Gautam

My conversation is interrupted by an incoming canvassing party. Yilmaz Ilhan, a local candidate, arrives with his supporters to seek votes. Contesting as an independent, he is sure that Mr. Erdogan will come back. His confidence is built on the support of people like Gursen and Sinaan (names changed), the police guards posted outside a heritage site in the region. But equally confident was Birsen Aliçi, a political worker of the Turkish Workers’ Party (TIP), who was putting up posters of her candidates at midnight in Antalya and wanted me to meet them. “We’ll make sure Erdogan does not come back to power. Turkey has had enough.”

There is Najat (name changed), too. A hardcore Ataturkist, Najat works with Turkish Airlines. “Even if I woke up on May 29 and saw the regime change, I won’t be able to believe it. He (Erdogan) will not go easily. He cannot afford to, there are too many skeletons in his cupboard. His family, friends, and coterie have indulged in corruption and crimes and won’t survive out of power. Yes, you may call me a pessimist.”

As despondency surges in the anti-Erdogan camp, all eyes are now on Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul and Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s vice presidential candidate. What Turkey decides will have consequences not just for the country, but for the rest of the world, too.

Nishtha Gautam is a Delhi-based writer, entrepreneur.

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