Turkey’s Erdogan claims victory after toughest challenge yet to his two-decade rule

Herzog congratulates ruling leader, says he is confident Ankara, Jerusalem will work to ‘expand the good ties’ between them; Hamas, PA’s Abbas also laud incumbent for his win

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold flags depicting him, near Taksim Mosque in Istanbul, on May 28, 2023.  (Yasin Akgul/AFP)
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold flags depicting him, near Taksim Mosque in Istanbul, on May 28, 2023. (Yasin Akgul/AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory Sunday in a historic runoff vote that posed the biggest challenge to his 20 years of transformative but divisive rule.

The 69-year-old leader overcame Turkey’s biggest economic crisis in generations and the most powerful opposition alliance to ever face his Islamic-rooted party to take an unassailable lead.

With nearly 99 percent of ballot boxes opened, unofficial results from competing news agencies showed Erdogan with 52% of the vote, compared with 48% for his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

“We will be ruling the country for the coming five years,” Erdogan told his cheering supporters from atop a bus in his home district in Istanbul. “God willing, we will be deserving of your trust.”

Turkey’s main cities erupted in jubilation as Erdogan spoke.

Traffic on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square ground to a halt and huge crowds gathered outside his presidential palace in Ankara.

President Isaac Herzog congratulated Erdogan late Sunday evening, tweeting: “I am convinced that we will work together to strengthen and expand the good ties between Turkiye and Israel.”

President Isaac Herzog meets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the presidential complex in Ankara on March 9, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Palestinian terror group Hamas released a statement congratulating the longtime Turkish leader and hoped for a new era of “strengthening Islamic-Arab ties and support for the Palestinian issue.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a statement hailing the incumbent’s victory, expressing belief he “will continue on the path of development and secure great achievements for Turkey and its people.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands during a welcome ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, August 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici/File)

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani congratulated Erdogan, tweeting his hopes for even tighter ties between the countries.

Erdogan, the country’s longest-serving leader, was tested like never before in what was widely seen as the country’s most consequential election in its 100-year history as a post-Ottoman republic.

Kilicdaroglu cobbled together a powerful coalition that grouped Erdogan’s disenchanted former allies with secular nationalists and religious conservatives.

He pushed Erdogan into Turkey’s first runoff on May 14, and narrowed the margin further in the second round. He promised to make a statement later Sunday.

Opposition supporters viewed the election as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a man whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.

“I invite all my citizens to cast their ballot in order to get rid of this authoritarian regime and bring true freedom and democracy to this country,” Kilicdaroglu said after casting his ballot on Sunday.

Opposition gamble

Kilicdaroglu re-emerged as a transformed man after the first round.

The former civil servant’s message of social unity and freedoms gave way to desk-thumping speeches about the need to immediately expel migrants and fight terrorism.

Turkish CHP party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and his wife Selvi Kilicdaroglu, cast their vote in the presidential run-off at a polling station in Ankara, Turkey, May 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Ali Unal)

His right-wing turn was targeted at nationalists who emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary elections.

The 74-year-old had always adhered to the firm nationalist principles of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — a revered military commander who formed Turkey and Kilicdaroglu’s secular CHP party.

But these had played a secondary role in his promotion of socially liberal values practiced by younger voters and big-city residents.

Analysts doubted Kilicdaroglu’s gamble would work.

His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party that Erdogan portrays as the political wing of banned militants left him exposed to charges of working with “terrorists.”

And Kilicdaroglu’s courtship of Turkey’s hard right was hampered by the endorsement Erdogan received from an ultra-nationalist who finished third two weeks ago.

Some opposition supporters sounded defeated already, after emerging from the polls.

Onlookers watch a television broadcast of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he makes his election victory speech, inside the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Ankara on May 28, 2023. (BULENT KILIC/AFP)

“Today is not like the last time. I was more excited then,” Bayram Ali Yuce said in one of Istanbul’s anti-Erdogan neighborhoods. “The outcome seems more obvious now. But I still voted.”

Champion of poor

Erdogan is lionized by poorer and more rural swaths of Turkey’s fractured society because of his promotion of religious freedoms and modernization of once-dilapidated cities in the Anatolian heartland.

“It was important for me to keep what was gained over the past 20 years in Turkey,” company director Mehmet Emin Ayaz told AFP in Ankara. “Turkey isn’t what it was in the old days. There is a new Turkey today,” the 64-year-old said.

But Erdogan has caused growing consternation across the Western world because of his crackdowns on dissent and pursuit of a muscular foreign policy.

He launched military incursions into Syria that infuriated European powers and put Turkish soldiers on the opposite side of Kurdish forces supported by the United States.

His personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin has also survived the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

File: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during their meeting on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit, in Astana, Kazakhstan, October 13, 2022. (Vyacheslav Prokofyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Turkey’s troubled economy is benefiting from a crucial deferment of payment on Russian energy imports that helped Erdogan spend lavishly on campaign pledges this year.

Erdogan also delayed Finland’s membership in NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the US-led defense bloc.

‘Day of reckoning’

Turkey’s unraveling economy will pose the most immediate test for Erdogan.

Erdogan went through a series of central bankers to find one who would enact his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021 — flouting conventional economics in the belief that lower rates can cure chronically high inflation.

Turkey’s currency soon entered freefall and the annual inflation rate touched 85% last year.

Erdogan has promised to continue these policies and rejected predictions of economic peril from analysts.

Turkey burned through tens of billions of dollars trying to support the lira from politically sensitive falls ahead of the vote.

Many analysts say Turkey must now hike interest rates or abandon its attempts to support the lira.

“The day of reckoning for Turkey’s economy and financial markets may now just be around the corner,” analysts at Capital Economics warned.

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