Erdogan victory threatens to deepen Turkey’s ideological divide

Supporters say the president will make Turkey a forceful international player, while critics fear a slide towards autocracy

Counting had not even concluded in Turkey’s run-off election on Sunday evening when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan climbed atop a bus in his hometown of Istanbul to declare victory.

“We will be together to the grave,” Erdogan proclaimed to booming applause before flying to Ankara, the capital city, to deliver a formal victory speech to a large crowd of supporters from the balcony of his sprawling 1,100-room palace.

Erdogan’s win in Sunday’s bitterly fought run-off election against Kemal Kılıcdaroglu will give the president, Turkey’s most influential politician since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the republic a century ago, a fresh mandate to shape the country of 85 million people. But it also threatens to deepen the nation’s divide along ideological lines.

“He’s managed to split Turkey ... into two blocs: for or against Erdogan,” said Emre Peker at Eurasia Group. “Even with Turkey going through its worst economic period since the 2001 financial crisis, Erdogan can still win elections on identity politics.”


Erdogan’s staunchest supporters, a large bloc of pious, conservative voters in Turkey’s vast Anatolian heartland, are betting the 69-year-old will follow through on his nationalist vows, building Turkey into a more forceful player in international politics and the global economy.

Critics fret that his re-election, which extends his rule into a third decade, will accelerate a slide towards autocracy and reinforce his preference for unorthodox economic policies that have ignited a painful cost-of-living crisis and sent the lira tumbling to record lows.

But Kılıcdaroglu’s warning that the election was a last chance to “close the gates of hell” failed to resonate with most Turks, many of whom feel an emotional connection with their leader of 20 years, said Tarık Oguzlu, a professor at Istanbul Aydın University.

“People clearly didn’t buy the opposition’s argument that this was a referendum between democracy or illiberal authoritarianism,” he said. “Several parts of society have benefited from a transfer of wealth that [Erdogan] was able to exploit during the campaign, warning: ‘If I leave, you will lose what you have gained’.”

Kılıcdaroglu, backed by a six-party opposition alliance, scored only 47.9 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s second-round presidential election, compared with 52.1 per cent for Erdogan, according to provisional figures from Turkey’s election board. The parliamentary alliance led by the ruling Justice and Development party, which Erdogan first led to power in 2002, also performed well in the first round of elections on May 14th, retaining its majority in the legislative branch.

Election observers have argued that while voting in Turkey remains largely free, Erdogan enjoys unfair advantages, including an obedient mainstream press that largely ignored the opposition and the use of state funds for a raft of pre-election giveaways.

That spending, and Erdogan’s growth-at-all-costs strategy for the economy, means he must now reckon with Turkey’s financial hangover.

Foreign investors have fled Turkey’s markets in recent years, with holdings of the country’s stocks and bonds sinking to historic lows as worries grow over Erdogan’s economic policies, including his insistence that interest rate cuts would cure Turkey’s runaway inflation.

Concerns have mounted this year as Turkey has burned through $24 billion (€22.4 billion) in foreign currency reserves since the end of 2022 as it attempts to prop up the lira and finance a current account deficit that is running near record levels. The government has had to resort to an ever-growing number of other tools in an attempt to keep the economy on an even keel.

Turkey’s bonds have sustained a blow while the cost to insure against default has leapt higher since it became clear after the first round of elections that Erdogan was likely to remain at Turkey’s helm.

The president in his victory speech on Sunday evening appeared to double down on his signature policies, saying addressing inflation and the squeeze on living costs were “the most urgent matters for the coming days”.

“If anyone can do this, I can do it,” he said. “[The central bank’s main policy rate] has now been reduced to 8.5 per cent and you’ll see inflation will also fall.”

Yet luring back investors will also require repairing frayed ties with Turkey’s traditional partners, said Jay Truesdale, chief executive of the political risk consultancy Veracity Worldwide. Dropping opposition to Sweden’s Nato entry would “help begin to thaw some of the very icy relationships Turkey has with its allies, who see Erdogan pursuing policies that he assesses to be in Turkey’s national interests, not necessarily in the interest of its alliances”.

After boasting of congratulatory calls coming in from leaders around the world, Erdogan told supporters on Sunday that “nobody can wag their finger at Turkey”. That mission to make Turkey appear a bigger, independent player in international affairs is likely to remain a priority, analysts said.

“By the time he’s done, he’d like to be able to say the country is no longer dependent on its western treaty allies, free to be its own axis,” said Selim Koru, an analyst at the Ankara-based Tepav think-tank.

Oguzlu of Istanbul Aydın University added that Ankara’s foreign policy of “strategic autonomy” would continue. “The relationship with the US and EU will continue to be transactional, not one based on common values.”

Erdogan’s shift to core conservative values included recruiting a small party to his alliance that argues women do not belong in the workplace. He has sharpened his rhetoric against minority groups and on Sunday railed against political rivals claiming they were “LGBT”.

He also vowed he would never release Selahattin Demirtaş, a popular Kurdish politician jailed in 2016 for his political speeches.

“One thing Erdogan has pretty definitely is a vision for the future,” Koru said. “His genius is being very gradual about it. One step at a time.”

Additional reporting by Funja Güler in Ankara

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023