By Hamish Armstrong (Senior Communications Officer), Published

Turkey’s incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has secured another term in office after an election run-off victory against rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Having first come to power in 2002, President Erdoğan won the second-round vote amid several recent controversies to gain another five years in government. However, many have been quick to criticise the legitimacy of his victory in a hugely polarised political environment.

Dr Begum Zorlu, Visiting Lecturer at City, University of London explained how President Erdoğan was able to hold onto power despite mounting opposition, following his response to the Covid pandemic and recent earthquakes that have shocked the country.

“Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, repression against the political opposition has steadily increased in Turkey,” Dr Zorlu said.

“It is not a surprise to hear opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu labelling the contest as the ‘most unfair election in recent years’, arguing that ‘all the means of the state were mobilised’ for the ruling party.

“Apart from establishing control over key institutions, Erdoğan and his party have systematically used fabricated videos and slanders to frame the opposition as an advocate of terrorism. An example of their tactics to shape the political terrain could be seen by the jail sentence handed to Ekrem Imamoglu, Mayor of Istanbul, just months before the election, as well as the imprisonment of many pro-Kurdish opponents.

“The election was also marred by voting irregularities and media bias. According to the Reporters Without Borders index, Turkey is among the worst twenty countries in the World for press freedom.

“While critical journalists faced attacks and arrests, the government assumed almost total control over state and mainstream private media, along with reports of illegal voting and observer intimidation on election day.”

Dr Orkun Saka, Senior Lecturer in Economics at City, believes President Erdoğan’s early reforms have helped him build lasting legitimacy even in the face of current problems.

Erdoğan came to power with the promise of political renewal and economic reform that would lead Turkey towards membership of the European Union

“His Justice and Development Party (AKP) inherited an economy that had hit rock bottom, and did a very good job initially with promised reforms to banking, tax and public health systems.

“Long-term successes have helped his party survive the test of time despite a later shift from economic orthodoxy and gradual erosion in the country’s public institutions.”

A contest of coalitions

Although tactical voting was widely implemented to ensure defeat for Erdoğan, the forming of alliances proved more beneficial for the incumbent in the final reckoning, as Dr Zorlu explained.

“Even though AKP’s vote decreased from around 42 to 35 per cent, Erdoğan gained a majority by forming the ‘People’s Alliance’ with the Nationalist Movement Party, New Welfare Party and the Free Cause Party.

“The opposition coalition could not increase its vote as newly-formed parties performed below expectations. During the election process, they seemed less united than the ruling block – particularly visible during the right-wing Good Party leader Meral Akşener's contestation of Kilicdaroglu's candidacy before the election.”

“Increased polarisation and counter-framing”

Another strategy devised by Erdoğan and AKP was to claim leadership and success on global issues over domestic problems in their campaign. By contrast, Kılıçdaroğlu and the National Alliance focussed on national issues as a way of attacking the incumbent on economic trouble and justice.

“The electoral race was marred by increased polarisation and counter-framing, which expanded beyond Turkey's borders,” Dr Zorlu continued.

“The dynamics of international politics impacted the election results, as they became a sphere where AKP could claim competence and success. For instance, during its campaign, the AKP repeatedly stated that it could negotiate with both sides in the Russia-Ukraine war and make concrete progress such as the grain corridor initiative and prisoner exchange.

“The AKP elites were therefore able to frame themselves as peacemakers and used it to enhance their legitimacy both domestically and internationally.”

Dr Saka added that the country’s polarisation issues had led Erdoğan to double down on autocratic measures which dented his popularity with the political centre.

“Polarisation breeds populism and the autocratic tendencies of strong leaders.

“Unfortunately, this has been an issue for almost a decade since the Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2013 and subsequent deadly clashes between protesters and police forces. After the attempted coup of 2016, Erdoğan increasingly resorted to autocratic measures and policies which shifted him towards the right.

“The country is now split between Erdoğan and his opponents to the extent that each side considers one another as a serious threat to lifestyle, beliefs and values.”

The road ahead for Turkey and Erdoğan

Looking ahead, Dr Zorlu fears the outcome will result in a worsening of Turkey’s domestic and overseas challenges.

“Turkey's pressing issue is addressing the coming economic problems, just as the lira plummeted to a record low this week,” she said.

“Aside from concerns about impending economic collapse, civil society groups and opposition parties have argued that yet another term for AKP will worsen human rights abuses, the rule of law, LGBT+ and women's rights.

In his victory speech, Erdoğan labelled the opposition as ‘LGBT lovers’ while claiming commitment to the importance of family values. Clearly, increasing polarisation will be the incumbent's primary strategy against the political opposition.

“After a race that was profoundly unfair and unbenignant, another term with Erdoğan will cause Turkey's assertive and populist policy at home and abroad to deepen further.”

Dr Saka fears for the continuation of outward migration of skilled workers from Turkey.

“Victory for Erdoğan preserves the privileged project and financial access of his allies in construction, media, defence and shipping,” he said.

“However, one unfortunate consequence in the last decade of this strong polarisation has been the immigration of highly-qualified people, such as doctors, academics, out of Turkey. Another five years of Erdoğan will likely see this problem worsen to the detriment of the country’s economy.”

All quotes can be attributed to Dr Begum Zorlu, Visiting Lecturer and Dr Orkun Saka, Senior Lecturer in Economics at City, University of London.