Understanding Recep Erdogan's victory and future outlook for Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured another term as president amidst economic challenges and polarisation of political view in one of the largest economies of the world

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during his meeting with mukhtars at the Presidential Palace in Ankara (Photo: Reuters)

Photo: Reuters

BS Web TeamPTI New Delhi
In a recent run-off election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged victorious over his long-time rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, securing another five-year term as the president of Turkey. This means that if he completes the full term, he will have held power for a remarkable 26 years, which spans almost the entire history of Turkey in the 21st century.

What is truly astonishing is that Erdogan managed to win the election despite a deteriorating economy and the onset of chronic hyperinflation, which would typically pose a significant threat to any government in a democratic nation.

While the election process allowed political parties to nominate their candidates and conduct campaigns, it cannot be deemed entirely fair according to Ozalp, an Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, the Director of the Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and an Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology at the Charles Sturt University in Melbourne.

Removal of Rivals

One noteworthy development was the sentencing of potential leading rival Ekrem Imamoglu to over two years in prison in December on a charge of insulting public figures. Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul, had handed Erdogan's party an unexpected defeat in the 2019 Istanbul elections and was seen as a strong contender in the presidential race. Some argue that the court ruling against Imamoglu was politically motivated. With him out of the race, the opposition had to rally behind Kilicdaroglu, who was perceived as the weakest among the high-profile candidates.

Control over Media

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Erdogan calls for 'unity, solidarity' after securing historic third term

Erdogan has established a pervasive influence over the Turkish media through Fahrettin Altun, the head of media and communication at the presidential palace.

Many Turkish media outlets are directly owned by Erdogan's relatives, such as the widely read Sabah newspaper, managed by Sedat Albayrak. Other media organisations are controlled by managing editors appointed and monitored by Altun.

Some independent internet news sites, like T24, practice self-censorship to maintain their operations. With such extensive media control, Erdogan was able to dominate television airtime, portraying himself as a visionary leader advancing Turkey's progress with infrastructure projects. During televised appearances, he would face a selected group of journalists, with scripted questions and pre-written answers displayed on a prompter.

Altun also orchestrated a massive smear campaign against Kilicdaroglu, reportedly, limiting his airtime and depicting him as an unfit leader.

Social Media Influence

Altun's control extended beyond traditional media to social media platforms, including Twitter, which holds significant influence in Turkey. Through the use of bots, paid trolls, and influencers, Altun sought to shape the online narrative. This strategy succeeded in swaying a significant number of voters by sowing confusion and fear, suggesting that the country would be worse off under Kilicdaroglu's leadership.

Claims of Election Fraud

Another concern surrounding the electoral process was the lack of transparency in how election results were processed. Once the ballots were counted at each polling station, the ballot papers and result sheets were transported by the police in cities and the military in regional areas to the electoral commission. Given that both the police and military are under Erdogan's tight control, there was potential for fraud. Furthermore, the election results were reported solely through the state-owned Anadolu Agency, whereas in the past, multiple independent agencies would report the results. While no concrete evidence of fraud has emerged in this election, the specter of doubt may cast uncertainty over the integrity of the entire electoral process.

Support from Opposition

In the eleventh hour, when going into the runoff, Erdogan received crucial support from Sinan Ogan, who had secured 5.2 per cent of the votes and finished third in the initial round of the presidential election two weeks ago. Erdogan successfully convinced Ogan to lend his support, consolidating his position further.

The Mythical View of Erdogan

The perception of Erdogan as a religious hero and savior by conservative and religious voters in Turkey is quite remarkable. These voters believe they have endured persecution in the name of secularism, and they view Kilicdaroglu and his Republican People's Party as symbols of that persecution.

Despite Kilicdaroglu's shift away from strict secular policies, these voters have not forgotten the party's history of banning headscarves for Muslim women and keeping religion separate from public life and politics for many years.

For the conservative and religious right in Turkey, Erdogan is seen as a world leader and a hero who fought against both internal and external forces to restore greatness to Turkey. However, with Erdogan's continued rule, the challenges faced by the country are likely to intensify, affecting the social, political, and economic spheres.

Turkey's economic struggles

Erdogan had promised to reinvigorate the Turkish economy by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the republic's founding, with a goal of reaching the top 10 global economies. However, Turkey’s economy currently ranks 19th, according to WorldData info. When calculated per inhabitant, taking purchasing power parity into account, Turkey ranks 55th in the list of richest countries. The same data shows inflation in Turkey in 2022 was around 72.31 per cent, in comparison to the European Union, where the average in the same year was 9.22 per cent.

The country has experienced a significant economic downturn in the past three years. The Turkish lira has drastically depreciated, leading to a heavily dollar-based economy. Unfortunately, acquiring dollars has become increasingly difficult according to media reports.

In order to sustain the economy during the elections, the Turkish Central Bank depleted its reserves. The Central Bank has been running a monthly current account deficit of $8-10 billion, and its reserves recently fell into the negative for the first time since 2002. Now Erdogan must find ways to secure funding. He may resort to high-interest foreign loans and seek financial support from oil-rich Muslim countries through diplomatic efforts. However, the success and short-term benefits of these endeavors remain uncertain, potentially plunging the Turkish economy into recession, states Ozalp in the PTI report.

This could result in widespread unemployment and a further rise in the cost of living. Inflation, which reached a 24-year high of 85.5 per cent last year, may continue to escalate as the cash-strapped government resorts to printing more money to pay its large bureaucracy.

Foreign policy and Erdogan's future

Erdogan's foreign policy will likely continue to pursue regional power status independent of NATO, the European Union, and the United States.

Strengthening ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a concern for Turkey's Western allies. It's important to note that this term will be Erdogan's final one according to the Turkish constitution, and there are potential challenges ahead.

The 69-year-old president faces various health issues, with his physical frailty and speech difficulties becoming more pronounced. In the coming years, his health may deteriorate further, possibly leading to the transfer of his presidency to a trusted deputy.

Another possibility is that potential leaders within his party may attempt a coup to remove Erdogan from power before his term ends, in order to gain public support ahead of the 2028 presidential election.

While there may be some political stability in post-election Turkey for the time being, the country is expected to face economic, social, and political turmoil in the foreseeable future as the country’s economic situation does not seem to be improving.

First Published: May 29 2023 | 12:57 PM IST

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