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Erdogan cements his power with a victory in Turkey's presidential runoff election

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Istanbul, on Sunday.
Murad Sezer
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AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan casts his ballot at a polling station during the second round of the presidential election in Istanbul, on Sunday.

Updated May 28, 2023 at 4:24 PM ET

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured a victory in a historic runoff election, the toughest challenge of his political career.

The win cements his third term in power and signifies the endurance of his one-man executive rule, despite mounting grievances against him in Turkey, including his unorthodox economic policies, poor response to a devastating earthquake and diminishing democratic freedoms.

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Ahmet Yener, the head of Turkey's Supreme Election Council, announced that with 99.4% votes counted, 52.14% had gone for Erdogan and 47.86% for his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The first round of voting two weeks ago failed to produce a clear winner for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic. But Erdogan came ahead of his main opponent, Kilicdaroglu, by 4.5 percentage points, giving him an advantage ahead of Sunday's vote.

The two men offered starkly different visions for Turkey and its future. Erdogan, 69, led a divisive campaign in which he presented himself as the leader who would make Turkey a global power, pushing his trademark religious nationalist rhetoric, and accusing his opponent of being linked with terrorists and a pawn of Western nations.

Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather outside the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday. Erdogan has declared victory in his country's runoff election, extending his rule into a third decade.
Ali Unal / AP
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AP
Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gather outside the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, on Sunday. Erdogan declared victory in his country's runoff election, extending his rule into a third decade.

Erdogan's supporters see him as a modernizer, who has elevated Turkey's presence on the global stage and advanced the country's infrastructure and military capability, while empowering religious Turks who were repressed when secular leaders were in power decades ago. His critics see him as an autocrat who has allowed government corruption to flourish, leading to shoddy, unregulated construction that made a devastating earthquake in February even deadlier when hundreds of thousands of buildings collapsed, killing more than 50,000 people.

Kilicdaroglu, 74, was backed by a coalition of parties ranging from secularists, Islamists and nationalists, and put up the strongest opposition Erdogan and his ruling party have seen in years. He promised to restore Turkey's governing system back to the original parliamentary democracy, instead of the executive presidency it became after a constitutional referendum in 2017.

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Kilicdaroglu also promised to end corruption, fix the economy, and bring back independence to the judiciary. But Kilicdaroglu also ran on nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He highlighted his plans to secure Turkey's borders and send the nearly 4 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Turkey after the civil war back to Syria.

Turnout was down

In the end, turnout appeared lower on Sunday than the first round which saw a high turnout of nearly 89%. The opposition, which had high expectations that it could beat Erdogan in the first round, suffered a huge morale loss and was unable to fully recover in the two weeks since.

Despite nearly half of the Turkish population's feelings of fatigue over Erdogan's long tenure in power, and a crippled economy with an unstable currency and rising living costs, Kilicdaroglu struggled to convince voters who were on the fence that he would do a better job than Erdogan, according to Vahap Coskun, a political scientist and professor of law at Dicle University in Diyarbakir, Turkey.

Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul on Sunday.
Emrah Gurel / AP
/
AP
Supporters of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrate in Istanbul on Sunday.

"Kilicdaroglu's party has some unresolved historic baggage with many voters, and he struggled with presenting himself as an alternative to Erdogan, who's seen as a much more charismatic leader," Coskun said.

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But the race was also seen as far from fair. Erdogan has near total control of Turkey's broadcast media. And while he made frequent and lengthy appearances on TV, Kilicdaroglu had to make do with social media and YouTube to get his message across. Erdogan also took advantage of government resources to hand out benefits to millions of citizens and raised the minimum wage several times in the last year.

The result carries implications for the U.S.

An Erdogan win has implications beyond Turkey, which is a regional powerhouse, a NATO member, and a strategic yet frustrating ally to the United States. Turkey, under Erdogan, has maintained close ties with Russia and refused to participate in Western sanctions, and held up the expansion of NATO by refusing to ratify Sweden's membership so far. He's also expanded the Turkish military's reach into Northern Syria and brokered a deal with the United Nations, between Ukraine and Russia, to allow Ukrainian grain exports through Russian blockade.

Experts told NPR they expect to see more of the same behavior from Erdogan over the next five years of his term.

"There's absolutely no reason to think that [Erdogan] would reverse course or soften his approach," said political analyst Selim Koru, both on domestic issues and international affairs.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR
Fatma Tanis