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After two decades in power, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan solidified his dominance of Turkish politics with victory in Sunday’s presidential election. The question now facing Turkey – and the rest of the world – is what the strongman leader will do next.
As head of a strategically vital NATO power, which unites Europe with the Middle East, Erdoğan’s international influence is paramount. At home, with an economy struggling to cope with rampant inflation, his domestic challenges are daunting.
Sunday’s elections posed one of the biggest threats to Erdoğan’s government so far. He is Turkey’s most authoritative leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the country 100 years ago, and won, 52% to 48%, in a campaign that bolstered his authoritarian creed.
« The results show that the president can implement identity politics to win a victory despite the worst economic conditions since the 2001 financial crisis, » Emre Peker, director for Europe at consultancy Eurasia Group, told POLITICO. referring to the financial collapse he helped usher in Erdoğan’s government more than two decades ago.
The president’s critics say his victory reflects his control over state resources. They say he is transforming the country into a more authoritarian state, through his influence on most of the media and the imprisonment of prominent members of the opposition and civil society. The fear expressed by many opposition groups is that another five years of Erdoğan in power could deal a devastating blow to Turkish democracy.
Erdoğan’s supporters counter that the vote reflects Turkish appreciation for his 20 years in office, first as prime minister and then as president.
They say the country is much stronger than it was 20 years ago, thanks to economic growth, improved infrastructure and a more active role in world affairs – and that the president isn’t afraid to take an independent line from the West, despite Turkey’s status as a member of NATO.
Noting the extreme polarization between pro- and anti-Erdoğan factions, Peker said the president’s re-election win « goes to show how consolidated his base is and how [barely] more than half of the electorate who dictated the law for more than two decades”.
He added that in each successive election, Erdoğan has taken a tougher line on nationalist and conservative issues.
In his victory speech in Ankara, Erdoğan himself signaled that he is unlikely to compromise on his strongman style in the next five years. He pledged that jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş – former party leader and presidential candidate – should remain in jail. The European Court of Human Rights said he should be freed.
But there is one challenge that is not entirely under its control: the Turkish economy.
Turkey has suffered from skyrocketing inflation – which reached 85% at one point last year – and a weak currency, which hit an all-time low against the dollar on Friday. The country’s central bank also ran out of reserves ahead of the vote.
A big question is whether Turkey will let the lira weaken further now that the elections are over or will be forced to by the markets.
An even more important question is whether Erdoğan will return to more orthodox economic policies or instead continue with his current mix of big spending and resistance to interest rate hikes. Many economists say this combination is unsustainable and risks a crisis in the aftermath of the elections, with the lira vulnerable to attack.
Murat Üçer, a former Turkish central bank adviser now at GlobalSource Partners, told POLITICO that he does not see a quick return to orthodoxy and that the thorniest issue is the Turkish lira.
“Truly liquid reserves excluding gold, official swaps etc have now fallen to a paltry $20bn – $25bn, Turkish lira liquidity has had to be drastically tightened and controls on foreign exchange demand have reached unsustainable proportions « , he has declared.
But Erdoğan refuses to budge. In his victory speech in Ankara, he promised to keep interest rates low, which he said would reduce inflation, an argument many mainstream economists dismiss as preposterous.
A provocative ally
Perhaps the main focus for other countries is what Erdoğan’s re-election means for Turkey’s position in world affairs. Under his rule, Turkey has become a crucial player and provocative ally on many vital issues, not least of which is Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Ankara declined to join sanctions against Russia following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but played a pivotal role in negotiating a deal to allow Ukrainian grain to be exported across the Black Sea. of NATO, Turkey has approved Finland’s entry into the alliance, but is still blocking Sweden’s membership.
Peker of the Eurasia Group predicted that « Ankara will maintain solid diplomatic and economic ties with Moscow, while remaining a key but difficult NATO ally. » As a result Erdoğan will eventually ratify Sweden’s NATO membership if he is allowed to buy more F-16 jets from the US, he said.
Turkey has an uneasy relationship with the EU, not only due to European perceptions that Erdoğan has undermined the rule of law in his own country, but also due to his threats to send millions of Syrian refugees currently hosted in Turkey to the bloc .
« Turkey will give a message to the West with this election, » Erdoğan said in combative comments last month. « This country does not look at what the West says, neither when it fights terrorism nor when it determines its economic policies ».
Now that the elections are over, Erdoğan is more powerful than ever. Turkey’s NATO allies will be watching anxiously to see if he keeps his promises or his threats.