Strongman Erdogan consolidates his grip

May 29, 2023 08:40 PM IST

The Erdogan regime has a stranglehold over all major institutions, from the judiciary, police to the parliament, and is duly served by the Turkish media

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been re-elected Turkey’s president in a significant election that will have repercussions in the country, and far beyond its borders. Erdogan’s win follows his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) victory in the parliamentary elections of May 14, which makes the strongman’s regime invincible. He received 52.14% of the vote, defeating the main Opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who got 47.86% — underlining that Turkey is deeply polarised.

Erdogan’s victory came after a run-off where he missed the 50% mark by a whisker, due to Kilicdaroglu, who came a close second(AFP) PREMIUM
Erdogan’s victory came after a run-off where he missed the 50% mark by a whisker, due to Kilicdaroglu, who came a close second(AFP)

Erdogan’s victory came after a run-off where he missed the 50% mark by a whisker, due to Kilicdaroglu, who came a close second. The third candidate, Right-wing ultra-nationalist Sinan Ogan, shifted his support to the incumbent in the run-off round, guaranteeing him an easy, if somewhat narrow, victory.

The Erdogan regime has a stranglehold over all major institutions — from the judiciary and police to the military and parliament — and is duly served by the Turkish media. Erdogan’s nationalism envisions a republic that links conservative Sunni Islamist assertion and capitalism, symbolised by mega-projects, and the military industry. He has a base among the rural conservative populace, and his pay-and-pension hike for public workers, increase in minimum wages, and promise of loans to rebuild earthquake-affected houses, attracted voters. Turkey has five million refugees, the majority from Syria, and Erdogan’s promise to resettle them in Turkish-occupied enclaves in Syria was also popular.

His challenges were largely economic — the sky-high inflation, the decline of the lira, and a dogged inability to create jobs. The February 6 earthquake affected 11 provinces that left 50,000 dead and displaced millions. Like a typical autocrat, Erdogan did not tolerate dissent, oppressed the 18% minority Kurds, and threw senior leaders such as Abdullah Ocalan and Selahttin Demirtas in jail. The Opposition — a six-party “millet alliance” of diverse outfits and ideologies from the extreme Right, the Left and parties of the Kurdish minorities — hoped to leverage this discontent.

Kilicdaroglu advocated policies respecting minorities and institutions, and promoted secularism, nationalism and statism. He also displayed a pro-West leaning when he pledged to resurrect Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Evidently, these promises were not enough to remove an entrenched incumbent.

What does Erdogan’s victory mean for the world? The 69-year-old projects himself as the inheritor of the Ottoman tradition. He has been neutral in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and traditionally balances effectively between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Russia. But this has not stopped him from striking an assertive geopolitical stance, including ramping up Turkey’s traditional hostility with Greece over Cyprus, repeated interventions in Syria, and backing Azerbaijan over Armenia. His commitment to multipolarity and plans for partnering with Russia for building Turkey as an energy, tourism and communications hub invited western criticism. Erdogan’s relations with the United States (US) turned sour after a failed coup in 2016 that he blamed on Washington.

During the 2023 campaign, the western press repeatedly stated that US President Joe Biden will not be comfortable with an Erdogan victory. This became a factor in the election after the incumbent said on May 14 that Biden was interfering against him, effectively revving up nationalist fervour. This cemented Erdogan’s supporters who appreciated his policy of standing up to NATO, negotiating with the Russians, and not sanctioning Moscow despite western pressure. It only fuelled the popular perception that he made Turkey a major international player.

As the strongman enters his third decade in one of the most geostrategically important countries in the world, he faces a difficult task. He has to unite a polarised nation where almost half the population backed the revival of democratic institutions; it is unlikely that he will engage the Opposition, release political prisoners, and ensure minority and democratic rights. But for democratic legitimacy, he will have to address the twin crises of inflation and refugees. And globally, his legacy will be shaped by shifting sands of West Asia, where he will want to play a more strident role — whether in establishing peace in Syria, stabilising Iraq, or balancing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Anuradha Chenoy is adjunct professor, Jindal Global University and former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University The views expressed are personal

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