President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defied predictions of his political demise with a strong showing in Turkey’s election, facing his toughest test yet in the polls by mobilizing conservative voters who may could push him into a third decade in power.
Although Erdogan has yet to win – he must first win the May 28 runoff against his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu – he appeared in a celebratory mood as the results came in and supporters of his Islamist-rooted AK Party rallied in Ankara.
“This is a meeting of lovers. We are experiencing the result of this marathon with you tonight,” Erdogan, 69, told thousands of flag-waving supporters from the balcony of his party’s headquarters.
The victory would cement the rule of a reformist leader in Turkey, who has reshaped the secular state founded 100 years ago to fit his pious vision while consolidating power in his hands. in what critics see as a march on autocracy.
While defending himself as the defender of Turkish democracy, Erdogan has amassed power around an executive presidency, stifled dissent, jailed critics and opponents and seized control of the media, judiciary and economy. He filled most public institutions with loyalists and stripped critical organs of the state.
On the world stage, he has distanced the NATO member from traditional Western allies, allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin and turned Turkey into a powerful regional power.
Erdogan, the son of a sea captain, faces a political dilemma ahead of Sunday’s vote: he already faces the blame for an economic crisis when a devastating earthquake hit in February. Critics have accused his government of a slow response and lax enforcement of building codes, failures they say could have cost lives.
Officials said Erdogan considered postponing the election after the disaster but changed his mind, confident he could rally voters with promises to rebuild quickly.
Opinion polls show him trailing Kilicdaroglu, nominated by an alliance of six parties for an election they see as the best chance to oust Erdogan and reverse course.
But Erdogan, a veteran of a dozen electoral victories, came out comfortably ahead of Kilicdaroglu, albeit just short of the majority needed to win. His AK Party and its allies won a parliamentary majority in Sunday’s election.
The result shows the strong support Erdogan still commands, especially in religiously conservative regions where voters have long felt alienated by a once-dominant secular elite.
Rally the base
Aided by a largely supportive Turkish media, his campaign sought to focus attention on economic successes rather than a crisis in the cost of living and the aftermath of the earthquake in which more than 50,000 people died.
The month ahead of the vote was filled with celebrations of industry milestones, including the launch of Turkey’s first electric car and the inauguration of the first amphibious assault ship, which was built in Istanbul to carry Turkish-made drones. .
Erdogan also flicked the switch on Turkey’s first natural gas deliveries from its Black Sea reserves, promised households free supplies, and inaugurated its first nuclear power station in a ceremony that attended by Putin.
His attacks against Kilicdaroglu included accusations, without evidence, that he had won support from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency since the 1980s in which more than 40,000 people have been killed. . Kilicdaroglu denied the accusations.
For more than two decades, Erdogan has redrawn Turkey’s domestic, economic, security and foreign policy, rivaling that of historic leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who founded modern Turkey a century ago.
He survived an attempted military coup in 2016 when rogue soldiers attacked parliament and killed 250 people.
The economy was one of Erdogan’s main strengths in the first decade of his rule, when Turkey enjoyed a sustained boom with new roads, hospitals and schools and an increase in standard of living for its 85 million people.
But it became a political problem because the government started a policy of slashing interest rates in the face of rising inflation. Aimed at boosting growth, the policy crashed the currency in late 2021 and exacerbated inflation.
mayor of Istanbul
Erdogan grew up in a poor district of Istanbul and attended an Islamic vocational school, entered politics as a local leader of the party’s youth branch and became mayor of Istanbul in 1994.
He was imprisoned in 1999 for a poem he recited in 1997 that compared mosques to barracks, minarets to bayonets and the faithful in an army.
After the national stage as the head of the AK Party, he became the prime minister in 2003.
His government tamed Turkey’s military, which has toppled four governments since 1960, and in 2005 began talks to scrap a decades-old ambition to join the European Union. – a process that later stopped grinding.
Western allies initially saw Erdogan’s Turkey as a vibrant blend of Islam and democracy that could serve as a model for Middle Eastern states struggling to shake off autocracy and stagnation.
But his pursuit of greater powers has angered the Turks and alarmed international partners. Ardent supporters saw it as just a reward for a leader who has put Islamic teachings at the core of public life in a country with strong secularist traditions, and promoted of the pious working class.
Opponents described it as a commitment to authoritarianism.
After the 2016 coup attempt, authorities launched a massive crackdown, imprisoning more than 77,000 people pending trial and firing or suspending 150,000 from state jobs. Rights groups say Turkey has become the world’s biggest jailer of journalists for a time.
Erdogan’s government said the purge was justified by threats from coup supporters, as well as the Islamic State and the PKK.
At home, a sprawling new presidential palace complex on the edge of Ankara has become a striking symbol of its new powers, while abroad Turkey has become increasingly assertive, intervening in Syria, Iraq and Libya and regularly deploy Turkish-made military drones with decisive force.