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

Erdogan may still be in the lead, but the run-off is humbling

Updated - May 17, 2023 02:08 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2023 12:10 am IST

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was perhaps at the weakest moment of his two-decade-long reign when an overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens voted in Sunday’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Six Opposition parties came together to seize the momentum and fielded a joint candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a mild-mannered former bureaucrat who promised to arrest Turkey’s “slide towards authoritarianism” and fix its economy. Most opinion polls predicted that Mr. Erdoğan was trailing Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu. Yet, in the preliminary results, Mr. Erdoğan won 49.5% of the votes in the presidential election, a tad lower than the threshold that would have avoided a run-off, against Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s 44.9%. The President’s nationalist-conservative coalition also took a comfortable majority in Parliament. Mr. Erdoğan was facing serious criticism, particularly about his mismanagement of the economy. Turkey’s lira has lost some 60% of its value against the dollar in just two years. Foreign investors are fleeing and the current account deficit is ballooning. Annual inflation has hit the middle-class. After a devastating earthquake in February, the government’s response to the calamity and its building permit rules were slammed. Yet, the Opposition failed to turn these challenges Mr. Erdoğan faced into votes.

Mr. Erdoğan, whose Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2003, has remained a towering figure in Turkey’s politics. He rewrote its Constitution, turning its parliamentary system into an executive presidency, and got himself elected as the first President under the new Constitution. He used the failed 2016 coup to purge his rivals and tame the generals. He moved Turkey away from the western orbit and began building stronger ties with Russia and Arab countries, while retaining its NATO membership. His promise was to turn Turkey, once the core of the Ottoman Empire, into a major global power again. He presented himself as an outsider who revolted against the Kemalist establishment, and built a new order rooted in Islamist conservatism, public welfare and an Ottoman imperial nostalgia. Sunday’s election results show that this revivalist brand of politics still remains powerful. But that is not the whole story. The results also suggest that there are cracks in his base. In 2018, he won the presidential election in the first round with a 22-percentage point lead over his closest rival. This time, he was not just forced to go into a run-off, but the gap is just five points. Public resentment towards his policies was particularly high in and around Ankara and Istanbul. A directionless Opposition finally seems united and potent. Mr. Erdoğan may still be in the lead, but he has been humbled by Turkey’s voters.

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