Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection Sunday, according to unofficial results, in a victory that extends his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade in a country reeling from high inflation and the aftermath of an earthquake that levelled entire cities.
With a third term, Erdogan will have an even stronger hand domestically and internationally, and the election results will have implications far beyond Ankara. Turkey stands at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it plays a key role in NATO.
With nearly 99% of ballot boxes opened, results from competing news agencies showed Erdogan with 52% of the vote, compared with 48% for his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
In his first comments since the polls closed, Erdogan spoke to supporters on a campaign bus outside his home in Istanbul.
“I thank each member of our nation for entrusting me with the responsibility to govern this country once again for the upcoming five years,” he said. “We hope to be worthy of your trust, as we have been for 21 years.”
He ridiculed his challenger for his loss, saying “bye bye bye, Kemal,” as supporters booed.
“The only winner today is Turkey,” Erdogan said. He promised to work hard for Turkey's second century. The country marks its centennial this year.
“No one can look down on our nation," he said.
Supporters of the divisive populist were celebrating even before the final results arrived, waving Turkish or ruling party flags, and honking car horns, chanting his name and “in the name of God, God is great.”
Celebratory gunfire was heard in several Istanbul neighborhoods.
On the international stage, Erdogan’s government vetoed Sweden’s bid to join NATO and purchased Russian missile-defense systems, which prompted the United States to oust Turkey from a U.S.-led fighter-jet project. But it also helped broker a crucial deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.
Erdogan, who has been at Turkey’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 congratulated Erdogan via Twitter for an “unquestionable election victory,” and Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani wished the Turkish president success in a tweet. Other congratulations poured in from 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 Turkey.
In the mainly Kurdish-populated province of Diyarbakir — one of 11 regions that was hit by the Feb. 6 earthquake — 60-year-old retiree Mustafa Yesil said he voted for “change.”
“I'm not happy at all with the way this country is going. Let me be clear, if this current administration continues, I don’t see good things for the future,” he said. “I see that it will end badly — this administration has to change.”
Mehmet Yurttas, an Erdogan supporter, disagreed.
“I believe that our homeland is at the peak, in a very good condition,” the 57-year-old shop owner said. “Our country’s trajectory is very good and it will continue being good.”
Erdogan has retained the backing of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in the Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and for raising the country’s influence in world politics.
Erdogan, 69, is set to remain in power until 2028. A devout Muslim, he heads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office through a narrowly won 2017 referendum that scrapped Turkey’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 Turkey says was orchestrated by the U.S.-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. 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.
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.
The defeat for Kilicdaroglu adds to a long list of electoral losses to Erdogan, and puts pressure on him to step down as party chairman.
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 for alleged involvement, 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.
In his victory speech, he repeated those themes, saying LGBTQ people cannot “infiltrate” his ruling party or its nationalist allies.