ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won re-election on Sunday, according to unofficial results, in a victory that extends his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade as the country reels from high inflation and the consequences of an earthquake that flattened entire towns.
A third term gives Erdogan an even stronger hand domestically and internationally, and the election results will have implications far beyond Ankara. Turkey is located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and plays a key role within NATO.
With nearly 99% of ballots open, results from competing news agencies showed Erdogan with 52% of the vote, compared to 48% for his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
In his first comments since polling stations closed, Erdogan thanked the nation for handing him the presidency for five more years.
“We hope to be worthy of your trust, as we have been for 21 years,” he told supporters on a campaign bus outside his home in Istanbul.
He ridiculed his opponent for their defeat by saying “goodbye, Kemal”, as the fans booed.
“The only winner today is Turkey,” Erdogan said, promising to work hard for Turkey’s second century. The country celebrates its centenary this year. “No one can despise our nation.”
Kilicdaroglu said the election was “the most unfair ever”, with all state resources mobilized for Erdogan.
“We will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country,” he said in Ankara. He thanked the more than 25 million people who voted for him and asked them to “stand up”.
The people have shown their willingness “to change an authoritarian government despite all the pressure”, he said.
Supporters of divisive populist Erdogan were celebrating even before the final results arrived, waving Turkish or ruling party flags and honking car horns, chanting his name and “in the name of God, God is great”. Festive gunshots were heard in several districts of Istanbul.
Internationally, Erdogan’s government vetoed Sweden’s NATO membership and purchased Russian missile defense systems, prompting the United States to oust Turkey from a US-led fighter jet project. But it also helped broker a crucial deal that enabled Ukrainian grain shipments and averted a global food crisis.
Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for 20 years, narrowly missed victory in the first round of the May 14 election. It was the first time he had failed to win an election, but he made up for it on Sunday.
Its performance came despite crippling inflation and the effects of a devastating earthquake three months ago.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban congratulated Erdogan via Twitter on a “clear electoral victory”, and Qatar’s leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani wished the Turkish president success in a tweet. Other congratulations poured in from Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Libya, Algeria, Serbia and Uzbekistan.
The two candidates offered very different visions of the country’s future and its recent past.
Critics blame Erdogan’s unconventional economic policies for soaring inflation that has fueled a cost of living crisis. Many also blamed his government for responding slowly to the earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people in Turkey.
In the predominantly Kurdish-populated province of Diyarbakir – one of 11 regions affected by the February 6 earthquake – Mustafa Yesil, a 60-year-old pensioner, said he had voted for “change”.
“I am not at all happy with the way this country is going. Let me be clear, if this current administration continues, I don’t see good things for the future,” he said. “I see it will end badly – this administration needs to change.”
Mehmet Yurttas, an Erdogan supporter, disagreed.
“I believe our homeland is at the top, in great shape,” the 57-year-old trader said. “Our country’s trajectory is very good and it will continue to be good.”
Erdogan retained the support of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for raising the profile of Islam in Turkey, which was based on secular principles, and for increasing the country’s influence in world politics.
Erdogan, 69, is expected to stay in power until 2028.
A devout Muslim, he leads the conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Erdogan transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role into a powerful office thanks to a narrowly won referendum in 2017 that ended Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 elections that ushered in the executive presidency.
The first half of Erdogan’s term included reforms that allowed the country to begin talks to join the European Union and economic growth that lifted many people out of poverty. But he then moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his hands, especially after a failed coup attempt which Turkey says was orchestrated by US Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies any involvement.
Erdogan’s rival was a mild-mannered former civil servant who had led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. Kilicdaroglu campaigned on promises to reverse Erdogan’s democratic backsliding, restore the economy by returning to more conventional policies and improving relations with the West.
In a frantic effort to reach out to nationalist voters in the run-off, Kilicdaroglu pledged to return refugees and ruled out peace talks with Kurdish militants if elected.
Erdogan’s AKP party and its allies retained a majority of seats in parliament following parliamentary elections also held on May 14.
Sunday also marked the 10th anniversary of the start of mass anti-government protests that erupted against plans to uproot trees in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and have become one of the most serious challenges to the government of ‘Erdogan.
Erdogan’s response to the protests, in which eight people were convicted for their alleged involvement, was a harbinger of a crackdown on civil society and free speech.
After the May 14 vote, international observers pointed to the criminalization of spreading false information and online censorship as evidence that Erdogan had an “unfair advantage”. They also said the strong turnout showed the resilience of Turkish democracy.
Erdogan and pro-government media described Kilicdaroglu, who received support from the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.
In his victory speech, he repeated those themes, saying LGBTQ people cannot “infiltrate” his ruling party or nationalist allies.
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