Erdogan seeks third decade of rule in Turkish runoff

A supporter of the Republican People's Party (CHP) plays the violin as people listen ahead of the May 28 presidential runoff vote, in Istanbul on 27 May, 2023AFP

Turkey votes Sunday in a historic runoff that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enters as the firm favourite to extend two decades of his Islamic-rooted rule to 2028.

The NATO member’s longest-serving leader defied critics and doubters by emerging with a comfortable lead against secular challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the first round on 14 May.

The vote was the toughest the 69-year-old has faced in one of Turkey’s most transformative eras since its creation as a post-Ottoman republic 100 years ago.

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

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

But Erdogan still managed to come within a fraction of a percentage point of winning outright in the first round.

His success came in the face of one of the world’s worst cost-of-living crises and almost every poll predicting his defeat.

The opposition leader tried his best to keep his disappointed supporters’ spirits up.

“Do not despair,” Kilicdaroglu told his supporters on Twitter after the vote.

Opposition gamble

Kilicdaroglu vanished from view for four days and re-emerged a transformed man.

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

His right-wing turn focused on nationalists that emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary polls.

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

But these had played a secondary role to his promotion of socially liberal values practised by younger voters and big-city dwellers.

Analysts question whether Kilicdaroglu’s gamble will work.

His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party left him exposed to charges from Erdogan of working with “terrorists”.

The government portrays the Kurdish party as the political wing of outlawed militants.

“Until yesterday, they were terrorist lovers,” Erdogan said of his rivals this week.

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

‘Transactional and tense’

The political battles are being watched closely across world capitals because of Turkey’s footprint in both Europe and the Middle East.

Erdogan’s warm ties with the West during his first decade in power were followed by a second in which he turned Turkey into NATO’s problem child.

He launched a series of 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 survived the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

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 delayed Finland’s membership of NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the US-led defence bloc.

Stockholm has tried to oblige Erdogan by adopting tough new anti-terror laws that it hopes may open its way to membership at a NATO summit in July.

The Eurasia Group consultancy said Erdogan was likely to continue trying to play world powers off each other should he win.

“Turkey’s relations with the US and the EU will remain transactional and tense,” it said.

‘Day of reckoning’

Turkey’s unravelling economy will pose the most immediate test for whoever wins the vote.

Erdogan went through a series of central bankers until he found one who faithfully started enacting his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021.

The Turkish leader denies the rules of conventional economics and believes lower rates can cure chronically high inflation.

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

Erdogan has promised to continue these policies post-election during the campaign.

Economists predict peril if he does.

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

The central bank’s net foreign reserves last week entered dangerous negative territory for the first time since 2002.

Analysts believe that Turkey must now either hike rates or let go of the lira—two solutions that incur economic pain.

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