ISTANBUL: Turkiye President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection Sunday, extending his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade as the country reels from high inflation and the aftermath of an earthquake that leveled entire cities.
A third term gives Erdogan an even stronger hand domestically and internationally, and the election results will have implications far beyond Ankara. Turkiye stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it plays a key role in NATO.
With more than 99 percent of ballot boxes opened, unofficial results from competing news agencies showed Erdogan with 52 percent of the vote, compared with 48 percent for his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu. The head of Turkiye’s electoral board confirmed the victory, saying that even after accounting for outstanding votes, the result was another term for Erdogan.
In his first comments since the polls closed, Erdogan thanked the nation for entrusting him with the presidency for five more years.
“We hope to be worthy of your trust, as we have been for 21 years,” he told supporters on a campaign bus outside his home in Istanbul.
He ridiculed his challenger for his loss, saying “bye bye bye, Kemal,” as supporters booed.
“The only winner today is Turkiye,” Erdogan said, promising to work hard for Turkiye’s second century. The country marks its centennial this year. “No one can look down on our nation.”
Kilicdaroglu campaigned on promises to reverse Erdogan’s democratic backsliding, to restore the economy by reverting to more conventional policies, and to improve ties with the West. He said the election was “the most unjust ever,” with all state resources mobilized for Erdogan.
“We will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country,” he said in Ankara. He thanked the more than 25 million people who voted for him and asked them to “remain upright.”
The people have shown their will “to change an authoritarian government despite all the pressures,” he said.
Supporters of Erdogan, a divisive populist, were celebrating even before the final results arrived, waving Turkish or ruling party flags, and honking car horns and chanting his name. Celebratory gunfire was heard in several Istanbul neighborhoods.
Erdogan’s government vetoed Sweden’s bid to join NATO and purchased Russian missile-defense systems, which prompted the United States to oust Turkiye from a US-led fighter-jet project. But Turkiye also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Turkiye was likely to “move the goal post” on Sweden’s membership in NATO as it seeks demands from the United States.
He also said Erdogan, who has spoken about introducing a new constitution, was likely to make an even greater push for it.
“It would be a constitution that would be less democratic” and would seek to lock in the changes overseen by Erdogan’s conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP, Cook said.
Erdogan, who has been at Turkiye’s helm for 20 years, came just short of victory in the first round of elections on May 14. It was the first time he failed to win an election outright, but he made up for it Sunday.
His performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Erdogan, along with leaders in Qatar, Venezuela, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Libya, Algeria, Serbia and Uzbekistan.
The two candidates offered sharply different visions of the country’s future, and its recent past.
Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis. Many also faulted his government for a slow response to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkiye.
Erdogan has retained the backing of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in the Turkiye, which was founded on secular principles, and for raising the country’s influence in world politics.
In Ankara, Erdogan voter Hacer Yalcin said Turkiye’s future was great. “Of course Erdogan is the winner … Who else? He has made everything for us,” Yalcin said. “God blesses us!”
Erdogan, a 69-year-old Muslim, is set to remain in power until 2028.
He transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office through a narrowly won 2017 referendum that scrapped Turkiye’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014, and won the 2018 election that ushered in the executive presidency.
The first half of Erdogan’s tenure included reforms that allowed the country to begin talks to join the European Union, and economic growth that lifted many out of poverty. But he later moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his own hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkiye says was orchestrated by the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.
Erdogan’s rival was a soft-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010.
In a frantic effort to reach out to nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace negotiations with Kurdish militants if he is elected.
In Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir, 37-year-old metalworker Ahmet Koyun said everyone would have to accept the results.
“It is sad on behalf of our people that a government with such corruption, such stains, has come into power again. Mr. Kemal would have been great for our country, at least for a change of scene,” he said.
Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament following a legislative election that was also held on May 14.
Sunday also marked the 10th anniversary of the start of mass anti-government protests that broke out over plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and became one of the most serious challenges to Erdogan’s government.
Erdogan’s response to the protests, in which eight people were convicted, was a harbinger of a crackdown on civil society and freedom of expression.
Following the May 14 vote, international observers pointed to the criminalization of dissemination of false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “unjustified advantage.”
They also said that strong turnout showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.
Erdogan and pro-government media portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and of supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.