Many people in Turkiye and many more outside the country might have wished for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lose this week’s election. But Turkiye’s Islamist, populist leader has defied the odds, as well as a united and well-organized opposition, to woo the electorate once again. He now has another five-year mandate, but he also seems to have put himself on course to stay in power for much longer.
He won Sunday’s presidential election runoff ahead of Kemal Kilicdaroglu despite the country’s economic challenges and harsh headwinds ahead. The people voted for him, albeit with a slim margin, despite the cries of government failures that contributed to the death toll from the earthquakes that hit the country in February and reduced to rubble several cities and towns, which now await reconstruction. Erdogan won despite the divisive religious versus secular narrative he has adopted and the ethnic tensions that persist with the Kurdish community. Following his victory, regional allies and foes alike will have to contend with and work with Erdogan, whether in search of a lasting settlement in Syria or in ensuring the Ukraine grain export deal is extended to avert global food shortages. Ankara under Erdogan will also continue to have a constructive approach, balancing its geopolitical interests to keep simultaneous good relations with Russia, China and, closer to home, its Middle East neighbors, as well as Turkiye’s strategic allies in NATO and the West.
Turkiye’s longest-serving leader’s four-point victory margin was the narrowest of any of his election victories, highlighting the country’s sharp polarization. But that is unlikely to dampen his will, his rhetoric or his global ambitions as his country this year marks its centennial. In his victory speech, Erdogan promised the world that the country will, under his leadership, continue its march through what he labeled the “Turkish century.” Like Erdogan or loathe him, over two full decades in power he has proved to be a street fighter domestically and an astute strategist on the regional and international levels. His initial years in office showed him to be a moderate leader who was adamant about reining in Turkiye’s military and hoped to get his country to join the EU, while using Turkiye’s membership in NATO to comfort doubters about his country’s Islamic identity and its conformity with democracy. Though joining the EU is, from a Turkish point of view, no longer a priority, his relations with the European powers are likely to continue to be shrouded in skepticism.
Although key European leaders rushed to congratulate Erdogan on his reelection, many are often uncomfortable with Turkiye’s stance of putting itself at the heart of major international conflicts and debates, from intervening militarily in Syria’s civil war to engaging in controversial gas exploration in the Mediterranean, rubbing the Greeks up the wrong way in the process. Turkiye’s hosting of millions of Syrians who were fleeing the violence in their country was initially applauded, but Erdogan’s inclination to use them as leverage in discussions with European nations less so. Erdogan’s tendency to play both sides is not likely to abate any time soon, as the world remains more divided and conflictive than ever. His closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin has often irked his allies in NATO, especially after his refusal to enforce the sanctions regime imposed on Moscow due to its invasion of Ukraine. He has, however, continued to sell Turkish-made military drones to Kyiv.
Only a few years ago, Erdogan insisted on procuring the S-400 Russian-made air defense system despite Washington’s displeasure and its subsequent decision to chalk Turkiye off the list of countries involved in the F-35 combat aircraft project. The Americans are now close to agreeing to supply Turkiye’s air force with older, yet still very versatile, F-16 fighter jets. NATO partners are likely to remain anxious while waiting for Ankara to approve Sweden’s stalled bid to join the defense alliance. Erdogan has so far blocked the application, accusing Stockholm of sheltering Turkish opposition figures with alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants, although many in the West believe that, now that he has won a new term in office, Erdogan will likely find a formula to climb down and open the way for Sweden’s membership. Europe and Turkiye have long been linked at the hip with a transactional type of relationship, where cooperation is driven only by interests and often resembles the haggling in Turkish bazaars.
After two decades at the helm of Turkish power, Erdogan remains a divisive figure and a bruiser, a masterful orator who transformed Turkiye’s ceremonial post of president into the key office of power in the republic. Erdogan’s victory was partly due to the continued backing of the conservative voters, who remain largely devoted to him after his success in embracing their Islamic identity and making it acceptable in the previously heavily secular system. They continue to back him because they see in him a nationalist bent on raising the country’s influence worldwide, while charting an independent course that reflects Turkiye’s own national interests. In a fractured world order, Turkiye’s president is expected to double down on his brand of populism, which has served him well so far despite the division it sows in society. But his long-term success will hinge on his ability to calm the markets and offer a clear path to recovery from the worst economic crisis to hit the country since the 1990s.