While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) electoral success will likely demoralise the opposition in the short term, the president faces several critical challenges as he starts his new term, writes Tamsin Hunt.
As Erdoğan walked into the iconic Hagia Sofia to lead evening prayers on the eve of general elections, emulating a pre-battle ritual of Ottoman Sultans, the symbolism of the spectacle was lost on few people. Turkey's strongman leader, arguably the most powerful head of state since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was facing the toughest battle of his political career. Many commentators, polling institutions, international media houses and even the markets had their money on a tight race, in which opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu would come out slightly ahead. This quiet confidence stemmed from several factors, including a struggling economy, persistent high inflation, the recent earthquakes devastating humanitarian impact, and Kılıçdaroğlu's leadership of the most united opposition coalition ever to challenge Erdoğan.
In defiance of these expectations, Erdoğan received 2.5 million more votes than Kılıçdaroğlu in the first round of presidential elections, won the runoff election more comfortably with 52 percent of the vote, and the AKP and its coalition partners retained their parliamentary majority. Erdoğan's brand of populism, the Atatürk's powerful grassroots and patronage networks, a government crackdown on opposition politicians, and Kılıçdaroğlu's lack of political charisma, likely all played a role in defying pre-election opinion polls. The president is now poised to further expand his influence over the Turkish state, although the new term will be anything but smooth sailing.
A divided republic
Victory in what has been billed as the most important election in Turkey's modern history puts Erdoğan in an even more powerful position, while the opposition ponders what went wrong. The administration will continue to clamp down on political opponents, independent journalists, and anti-government activists, while extending its already significant influence over the judiciary and the security apparatus. The opposition coalition – made of up parties with different and even opposing ideologies – will probably struggle to stick together in the face of government pressure over the next five years.
With Erdoğan at the helm for another five years, tensions between Turkey and the West are likely to continue, as demonstrated by the presidents recent accusation that the US and Europe were colluding with the opposition and Kurdish militants."
However, whoever replaces Kılıçdaroğlu as the new head of the opposition will take some solace from the fact that Erdoğan's popularity has waned in recent years. This is the first time that he did not win the required 50 percent for an outright victory in the first round of a general election. The tight result â€“ despite the AKP's considerable control over the state apparatus â€“ is a clear indication of Erdoğan facing increasing opposition. There have also been more visible signs of Erdoğan's ill health on the campaign trail. Given the AKP's political project is partly centred on his charismatic personality, should the president become incapacitated, the party may struggle to replicate its past electoral successes. These factors, in addition to Turkey's ongoing economic struggles and the negative impact on ordinary citizens, may ultimately re-energise the opposition and even instigate occasional anti-government protests in the near future.
Will another anti-Erdoğan protest movement emerge in the near future?
Over the past two decades, large and sustained opposition protests against Erdoğan and the AKP have been rare. The most prominent campaign over the past decade was the Gezi Park movement in 2013. Prompted by the authorities forced eviction of a small demonstration from Gezi Park in Istanbul, more than three million people staged thousands of demonstrations across the country for several weeks, demanding Erdoğan's resignation. A heavy-handed response from security forces killed more than 20 people and injured at least 8,000 others. While anti-Erdoğan protests still take place occasionally, the threat of police crackdown and politically-motivated prosecution remains a major deterrent to large or widespread unrest.
Erdoğan's declining popularity is largely rooted in Turkey's economic struggles over the past few years. The fragile currency, the lira, sank to new record lows following Erdoğan's stronger-than-expected performance in the elections, reaching more than 20 lira to one US dollar on 26 May. Some traders project that the lira will lose its value by an additional 24 to 40 percent over the next six to 12 months, a depreciation that Turkey can ill afford amid high inflation (43.7 percent in April 2023). Rather than raising interest rates – a widely accepted move to control inflation – Erdoğan continues to pursue unconventional economic policies aimed at preserving popular support among the middle class. In fact, days before the 14 May election, Erdoğan increased public sector wages by 45 percent, raised pensions, reduced electricity prices, and promised to provide free natural gas for households for a year, starting in June 2023. There is no indication that Erdoğan will change his approach to macroeconomics in any meaningful way, at least in the short- to medium-term, while foreign investors continue to lose confidence in Turkey's economy.
Divisive foreign policy
Erdoğan's economic gambles at home contrast his more flexible approach to foreign policy. In recent years, he sought to improve ties with several geopolitical rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt. He also recently touted his country's special relationship with Russia, despite Turkey being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which opposed Russia's invasion of Ukraine from the onset. Turkey has cashed in on Russia's geopolitical isolation, welcoming Russian tourists with open arms and buying large quantities of Russian oil and gas, for example. This does not mean Turkey is entirely pro-Russian, as it has also sent battlefield drones to Ukraine, but Erdoğan hopes the West adopts a more balanced approach to Russia.
In fact, it is Erdoğan's relationship with the West that has become volatile and unpredictable, especially over the past five years. Turkey's application to join the European Union (EU) has entirely stalled since 2018, as the country fails to meet the EU's Copenhagen criteria of a guaranteed democracy, rule of law and a well-functioning economy. Western attitudes to Turkey cooled even further when Turkey decided to stand in the way of NATO enlargement, opposing Sweden and initially Finland's bid to join the organisation.
Persistent tensions with the West could further damage Turkey's economic prospects. In 2018, for example, the Turkish lira plummeted after the US imposed selective sanctions and a 50 percent tariff on Turkish imported steel when Turkish authorities detained an American pastor on terrorism charges. And in 2020, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey's weapons procurement sector after it purchased S-400 missiles from Russia, despite warnings from the US. With Erdoğan at the helm for another five years, tensions between Turkey and the West are likely to continue, as demonstrated by the president's recent accusation that the US and Europe were colluding with the opposition and Kurdish militants.
The future of history
100 years on from Atatürk's founding of the Turkish republic, Erdoğan had promised a new Turkish century if re-elected. Whether his legacy can match Atatürk's is up for debate, but what is certain is that the long-time leader will not change course in any meaningful way, be it in terms of clamping down on dissent or (mis)handling the economy. Nevertheless, multiple challenges lurk ahead, which will make his quest to reshape Turkey anything but predictable.