Polarizing, threatening, distracting: how Erdogan will remain in power

Turkish President Erdogan has been in power for more than 20 years. He was re-elected for five more years. Anyone who has heard his victory speech cannot hope for reconciliation.

It wasn’t as easy as before, but he did it again: the incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also the new President. In Sunday’s runoff, the 69-year-old won more than 52 percent of the votes. He remains in office for another five years.

This will be his third decade in power. First as Prime Minister, since 2014 as President, Erdogan has shaped the country like no other politician ever before.

Before these important elections, the polls had put him behind his challenger, prompting Erdogan to bring new allies into his People’s Alliance. This then won in the parliamentary elections on May 14, 323 of the 600 seats and got a majority. The new parliament is also the most conservative, nationalist and Islamist in recent history.

Victorious – despite several crises

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around four million people seeking protection live in Turkey – a huge challenge. Added to this was the economic crisis, galloping inflation, high unemployment, the pandemic and the two major earthquakes.

“Despite these various crises, voters chose a president who was in power during all of these crises,” recalls political scientist Evren Balta from Özyegin University in Istanbul. On the one hand it was a surprise for many, on the other hand it was to be expected, says the expert. Because in such times of crisis, voters often tended to choose a politician they already knew. She believes that confidence in Erdogan has been eroded somewhat, yet voters would have voted for him rather than experimenting with a new, inexperienced politician.

It seems that Erdogan is very aware of this realization. In his traditional victory speech on the balcony of his palace on election night, he expressed his gratitude to his supporters. He sang songs with them and promised to be with them “to the grave.” He invited his allies individually onto the stage and thanked them for making this “victory of the century” possible.

Erdogan’s attack on the opposition

He showed no mercy for the opposition. He also accused his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu of receiving orders from the headquarters of the PKK terrorist organization and implementing them. It is not for nothing that Kilicdaroglu promised to release the ex-chairman of the pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, Erdogan said in front of more than 350,000 supporters. Demirtas is a terrorist whom he will never release. The crowd then demanded the death penalty for Demirtas.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly requested the release of the Kurdish opposition politician – so far in vain. Demirtas had interfered in the election campaign from prison through his lawyers – and spoke out in favor of Kilicdaroglou being elected.

Ibrahim Uslu, pollster and political communications expert, expects Erdogan to continue this harsh rhetoric. In his view, Erdogan sees no reason for a change. He sees his renewed victory as a confirmation of his previous line.

Uslu points out that local elections will be held in Turkey in just under ten months. Uslu believes that the country will return to election campaign mode in a few weeks.

Erdogan also promotes polarization in order to divert the attention of the population from actual problems, such as the ailing economy and social inequality in the country. If, on the other hand, the Turkish president were to be conciliatory, Uslu believes that the population would begin to put the government to the test and, above all, to question it. Therefore, he expects that Erdogan will continue this sharper tone until after the local elections in spring 2024.

Future of opposition alliance uncertain

The question is whether this will be necessary at all. Because it is not yet certain whether the largest opposition alliance will survive at all after this defeat. It was forged three years ago by opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. Its six members, who address very different target groups, have made difficult concessions for the sake of cohesion. But will these parties continue to stick together?

Prof. Evren Balta believes that the alliance will last at least until local elections, as there are not as many concessions to be made at local level as in parliamentary or presidential elections.

Nevertheless, she believes that the opposition must deal critically with the current defeat and need new driving forces and actors if it wants to be successful.

Erdogan’s legacy

While the opposition deals with the defeat, Erdogan celebrates his victory. But how much did he really triumph?

Henrik Meyer, head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Istanbul, sees things differently. “The fact that Erdogan first had to go to a runoff election, which he then won by a mere four percentage points, is likely to scratch his self-image,” Meyer told DW. In addition, the close race shows once again that the population is dissatisfied with Erdogan and his government. “We’ll see what conclusions he draws from his declining popularity,” Meyer continued.

In terms of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Meyer does not expect any improvements. He only hopes that Erdogan will think about his political legacy in the new term. If he doesn’t want to leave behind a divided country with weakened institutions and galloping inflation at the end of his reign, Meyer said he would have to reconsider his actions.

Erdogan will arrange his successor

Whether he does so is questionable. Pollster Uslu is convinced that Erdogan will definitely take care of his successor. One of the core questions of this term of office is to prepare his party for a time after him.

Because according to the Turkish constitution, Erdogan is not allowed to stand again after this term. The 69-year-old also appears to be in poor health.

But Uslu also thinks it is conceivable that a constitutional amendment could ultimately enable the “eternal President Erdogan” to have additional terms in office.

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