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Erdoğan’s Victory: More of the Same in Store for Turkey

The government is likely to continue with a raft of policies designed to establish a protective wall of independence against Western powers

Turkey’s president and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is greeted by his supporters after an election rally in Istanbul.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s victory in the second round of Turkey’s presidential elections on 28 May 2023 has been met with a volley of commentary around the world, driven largely by the expectation that his days as leader of Turkey would have been numbered. The truth is, however, that little about this victory was out of the ordinary or unpredictable. There is also little about Turkey’s political and ideological direction that will change, but in light of the new cabinet appointments markets are expecting a move to more orthodox monetary and fiscal policy. 

Erdoğan’s win over joint opposition candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu by 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent, representing 2.3 million more votes in a country of 85 million, could be described in some senses as narrow but it tracks his previous presidential victories in 2018 and 2014. The fact that roughly 50 percent of the population is with him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), in alliance with the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and 50 percent, following diverse groups across the political spectrum, is against him is nothing new. The main change already took place in that regard in 2015, when the AKP failed to secure a parliamentary majority in its own right and was forced into its ongoing Islamist-nationalist alliance.

Erdoğan’s main challenge will be the economy. During the election campaign he vowed to continue with his unorthodox approach to interest rates, refusing to view them as a tool to manage inflation, which hit a 24-year high of 85.5 percent last year before easing to 44 percent in April. “If anyone can do this, I can do it,” he said in his victory speech on 28 May, promising to keep interest rates at 8.5 percent while bringing down inflation. But the new treasury and finance minister Mehmet Şimşek, who had the respect of markets when previously serving in the position, says the country has no choice but to return to the “rational ground” of fiscal discipline to ensure predictability in the economy. The question is how much leeway Şimşek gets to take measures that could see interest rates rise gradually to 25 percent over 18 months. Politically, the early period of Erdoğan’s five-year tenure is the time to act.

Currency reserves have dropped by about $27 billion this year as the government tried to prop up the lira and finance a current account deficit at near-record levels, which means he will need to seek new sources of funding from Gulf Arab and other allies around the world who share his vision of independence from the West. Western investors have fled Turkey’s financial markets in recent years and it’s not clear if Erdoğan wants them back as he bonds with the bloc keen to advance the notion of de-dollarization in the global economy to protect themselves from the US penchant for sanctions. He will also push on with plans to develop oil and gas production after recent Black Sea discoveries, as well as the controversial Istanbul canal project for a second waterway to ease Bosphorus congestion.

On foreign policy, Erdoğan made it clear during the campaign that he would continue with his Eurasian balancing between the West on one hand and Russia, the Middle East, rising China, and other global alliances on the other. The new minister, Erdoğan’s trusted lieutenant Hakan Fidan, who was previously head of Turkish intelligence, is certain to stick close to those lines. US President Biden was one of the first foreign leaders to reach out, offering Turkey the F-16 fighter planes it has been waiting for if Ankara approves Sweden’s entry into NATO. The four million refugees in the country can breathe a sigh of relief that imminent eviction is not on the cards, as the opposition was threatening, though Erdoğan will be obliged – against his better judgement – to take some measures to return Syrians and maintain the anti-Kurdish line demanded by his allies, such as an outright ban on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its jailed former leader Selahattin Demirtaş. Some form of normalization with the Assad regime in Syria will still be difficult given Turkey’s occupation of northwestern territory and support for Idlib militants.

Erdoğan has, however, talked about a new constitution that would, at the least, enshrine women’s right to wear Islamic headscarves and possibly include language discouraging same-sex relationships. Here, Erdoğan would move into new territory, challenging the legal bases of the secular regime established in 1923, something his enemies have long predicted he would do. The threat of military intervention and the risk of social strife, given the sharp divide between liberal and conservative constituencies in the country, have been factors holding the AKP back from pushing too hard against Turkey’s Kemalist foundations, despite often directing criticisms.

But having ended the system of military supervision, introduced direct presidential elections, shifted cabinet-forming powers to the presidency, and now winning a third term as president after previous terms as prime minister since his AKP first came to power in 2002, Erdoğan could be tempted to go further. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sought to banish religion to the privacy of people’s homes in his drive to westernize Turkey overnight, even instituting a ban on the Arabic call to prayer (rescinded in 1950). Now sure that he will oversee the Turkish republic’s centenary in October this year, Erdoğan can take risks in his bid to fashion the country in his image and right what Islamists consider historical wrongs.

That said, Erdoğan will have to go back soon to what he does best: campaigning. Municipal elections next year offer the chance to get back Istanbul and Ankara mayoralties – but it will be a tall order, given the significant opposition majority in both during the recent election. This will put the 69-year-old leader’s health under further strain and make the question of succession more pressing than ever, given his failureso far to identify an effective figure to carry the torch. 

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