Recep Tayyip Erdogan has secured another presidential tenure following his victory in Turkey’s elections
ince becoming a republic in 1923, Turkey has strived to balance its imperial past with democratic values. Kemal Ataturk guided the country for a long period, politically, socio-economically and strategically. Domestically, the military emerged as a strong actor with a constitutional role to preserve democratic-secular values. Externally, Turkey pursued cordial ties with European countries, with the exception of Greece with which it tussled over Cyprus. Due to its geostrategic significance, it became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1952. The Cold War helped countries like Turkey and Pakistan receive economic and military aid and hardware from the Unites States and its allies. With socioeconomic stability, the emergent middle classes in these countries reflected political and ideological dynamics. In Pakistan, religious scholars such as Maulana Maududi launched an Islamic movement to ‘purify’ the state and society.
Similar ideological currents stirred Turkish policy in the 1950s. Pakistan passed its Objectives Resolution in 1949 and later, had Islamic provisions in the 1956 (and 1962 and 1973) constitution in a bid to assuage religious elements. Turkish politicians were not alien to clashing societal values and political world-views. Indeed, politicians even in democratically developed countries such as the US try to capitalise on polarised populations electorally. Donald Trump did this in the US and became a super rightist president until he marginally lost in 2020 to Biden, who represented the so-called ‘liberal’ sections of the population. In India, Narendra Modi, channelised religious sentiments of RSS-inspired Hindus, who had felt neglected and disempowered by the Congress-led governments.
A section of the Turkish populace continued to admire the Ottoman past. The empire had accorded religious freedom not just to Muslims but also other religious denominations. However, the Ataturk-led republic implemented a unique civic code where even the call for prayers was made in Turkish rather than Arabic. Such measures might have offended some segments of the population, which looked for opportunities to affect the secular pillars of the Turkish state. Politically, thus, Adnan Menderes, who won elections in the 1950s and was prime minster for 10 years, appeased deeply religious sections of the Turkish polity. Having seen Menderes incrementally reversing the core components of the Kemalist ideology, the Turkish military, already a stakeholder in politics and foreign policy due to Cold War alliance with the US, toppled Menderes’s government in 1960. Menderes was put on trial, and later hanged to death. In the following decades, the civil-military power struggle and ideological contestation hampered socioeconomic stability and democratic development in Turkey, which saw two more coups – in 1971 and 1980 – in the Cold War period.
After the Cold War ended, civil-military imbalance and ideological struggle between secular/ Kemalist and Islamic/ anti Kemalist forces intensified to the extent that the Turkish military staged another coup in 1997 ostensibly to control the contours of politics, policy and polity. Nonetheless, the deeply religious section of the population represented by religiously conservative political parties such as the Welfare Party resisted military intervention in politics and personal domain, i.e., values. With Necmettin Erbakan of the Welfare Party barred from politics, other faces such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former member of the Welfare Party, started gaining popular support. From a humble background, Erdogan rose through the ranks. He served as Istanbul’s mayor during 1994-98 as part of the Welfare Party. After parting ways with Erbakan, he founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001. He quickly gained popularity in the conservative sections of the population and the party won parliamentary election the following years. This enabled Erdogan to serve as Turkey’s prime minister from 2003 to 2014. He also won Turkey’s first direct presidential election in 2014. Erdogan again became president after defeating his political rivals in 2018. His second presidential tenure ended in 2023.
This electoral win will further consolidate Erdogan’s influence in Turkish politics, society and the state.
As Tayyip Erdogan chose to contest the presidential election for a third consecutive term, his party, the AKP, formed an alliance (called People’s Alliance) with the MHP, the YRP and the BBP, which contested against Kemal Kilicdaroglu-led Nation Alliance that comprised major opposition parties, namely the Republican People’s Party (CHP), as well as right-wing Iyi Party, liberal-right’s Democracy and Progress (DEVA) Party and the centre-right Gelecek Party. The alliance also included smaller ultra-conservative Saadet Party and the right-wing Democrat Party. A third political grouping called the ATA alliance comprising Zafer Party, Adalet Party, Ulkem Party and Türkiye Ittifak Party also participated in the election held on May 14.
Each alliance made various appeals to the masses through media. Erdogan highlighted his contributions in domestic and foreign policy spanning over two decades. His opponents criticised him for high inflation, which has hit Turkish economy in recent years. Kilicdaroglu, a bureaucrat-turned-politician, emphasised progressive values and economic prosperity for all and sundry. On the polling day, more than 56 million Turks voted for their favourite candidate. The voter turnout remained very high (86.98 percent). Erdogan received 49.52 percent of the cast votes, Kilicdaroglu 44.88 percent and Sinan 5.17 percent of the vote. A withdrawn candidate polled 0.43 percent. For presidential elections, Turkey follows majority electoral system whereby a winning candidate needs to get 50 percent of the votes polled. Less than 50 percent votes lead to a run-off election. Arguably, Ogan Sinan-led ATA alliance that secured 5.17 percent votes was a spoiler. Serious issues have since been raised about the instruments used by opinion poll agencies.
Turkey had a run-off election on May 28. Importantly, Sinan’s alliance announced its support for Erdogan before the run-off. The latter conveniently won the second round by securing 52.16 percent of the vote while his archrival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, secured 47.84 percent. A very high turnout was observed in the runoff, too. Erdogan’s effective use of (state) media coupled with ATA’s electoral support were the major factors in his victory. By comparison Kilicdaroglu’s alliance was weak. Four of the allied parties had barely one percent support countrywide.
The electoral victory will further consolidate Erdogan’s influence in Turkish politics, society and the state. Domestically, his topmost priority is economic revival. It is a herculean task. The urban middle class did not buy his policy prescriptions and overwhelmingly voted for Kilicdaroglu.
On the foreign policy front, Turkey under Erdogan is likely to support Sweden’s entry into the NATO. To what extent his strategic support to EU/ NATO, in particular, and the US, in general, translates into economic opportunities for Turkey remains to be seen.
President Erdogan is expected to raise his voice against Islamophobia and the plight of Muslims in occupied territories, such as Jammu and Kashmir.
The writer has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor. He can be reached at email@example.com