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Explained: How Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan Held Turkey For So Long, What Does His Reelection Mean?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power for almost 20 years. Despite protests and a tough competition, he won the presidential election last month, further tightening his grip on the country.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (File photo)
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to start his third presidential term on Saturday after winning the election held last month. 

Erdogan has led Turkey for 20 years now either as the president of prime minister. He is the country's longest-serving leader.

Erdogan's reelection to a five-year term that runs until 2028 extends his rule into a third decade, and he could possibly serve longer with the help of a friendly parliament. He is a populost leader who has increasingly acquired authoritarian tendencies.

Erdogan overcame Turkey's ongoing economic crisis and criticism over the response to a February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people to win polls.

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Here we explain what's behind Erdogan's grip over Turkey and what his reelections means for the country, the region, and the world.

It's not the economy

The Turkish economic crises can be attributed to Erdogan's policies but the voters did not hold it against him.

Many experts agree that Turkey's severe economic woes result from Erdogan's unorthodox fiscal policies — most notably, depressing interest rates against rampant inflation despite the warnings of economists. However, the majority of voters —Erdogan received 52 per cent of the runoff vote— did not seem to hold it against him.

Erdogan's endurance amid a cost-of-living crisis —inflation in Turkey hit a staggering 85 per cent in October before easing to 44 per cent in April— might have resulted from many people preferring stability over change as they struggle to pay skyrocketing prices for rent and basic goods.

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Erdogan has demonstrated an ability to turn the economy around in the past. And he has never shied away from spending and deploying government resources to his political advantage.

Over the past two decades, Erdogan's government has spent lavishly on infrastructure to please constituents. In the period leading up to last month's parliamentary and presidential elections, he increased wages and pensions to cushion the blow from inflation and disbursed electricity and gas subsidies.

One point of pride for many voters is Turkey's ballooning military-industrial sector. Throughout the campaign, Erdogan frequently cited domestically made drones, aircraft, and a warship touted as the world's first "drone carrier".

Erdogan on the world stage

Erdogan has swayed many Turks to his side with the way he navigates the world stage. Supporters see in him a leader who has shown that Turkey can be a major player in geopolitics while displaying an independent streak as it engages with the East and West.

Turkey is a key NATO member because of its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and it controls the alliance's second-largest army. During Erdogan's tenure, the country has proven to be an indispensable and, at times, troublesome NATO ally.

The Turkish government has held up Sweden's entry into NATO and purchased Russian missile-defence systems, prompting the United States to oust Turkey from a US-led fighter jet project.

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Yet, together with the United Nations (UN), Turkey brokered a vital wartime deal that allowed Ukraine to resume shipping grain through the Black Sea to parts of the world struggling with hunger.

Erdogan has hailed his reelection, which came as the country prepares to mark the centenary of the republic, as the start of the "Century of Turkey".

A return to Turkey's Islamic roots under Erdogan

Erdogan has cultivated deep loyalty from conservative and religious supporters by elevating Islamic values in a country that was defined by secularism for nearly a century.

Erdogan has curbed the powers of the military, which frequently meddled in civilian politics whenever the country began deviating from secularism. He lifted rules that barred conservative women from wearing headscarves in schools and government offices.

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Erdogan also reconverted Istanbul's landmark Hagia Sophia into a mosque, meeting a long-time demand of Turkish Islamists. The Byzantine-era cathedral first became a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople but had served as a museum for decades.

More recently, Erdogan has slammed LGBTQ+ rights, suggesting they pose a threat to the traditional, conservative notion of what constitutes a family.

Erdogan's tight control over media

During his two decades in power, Erdogan consolidated control over the media.

A majority of Turkish news outlets are now owned by conglomerates loyal to Erdogan. He has used his position to silence criticism and to disparage the opposition.

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International election monitors observed that both the first round of the presidential election on May 14th and the May 28th runoff were free but not fair.

While voters in the second round had a choice between genuine political alternatives, "biased media coverage and a lack of a level playing field gave an unjustified advantage to the incumbent", said Farah Karimi, a coordinator for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Erdogan's opponent in the runoff election, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, had promised to undo the president's economic policies and to put Turkey back on a democratic path by ending crackdowns on free speech. 

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What does Erdogan's victory mean for the world?

The path that Turkey had been on lately is likely to continue under Erdogan, which means further consolidation of power is expected.

"With a further five years at the helm, it’s unlikely that Erdoğan will choose to change tack on his domestic agenda. If anything, he is likely to go even further," notes Time Magazine.

Gönül Tol, the author of Erdoğan War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria, told Time that while Erdoğan could plausibly bow to pressure to return to more orthodox economic policies in order to restore financial stability in the country, he is unlikely to relent when it comes restoring the country’s democratic credibility. 

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At the regional and world level, Erdogan is expected to be more assertive. Turkey has already emerged as a key concern for the West at NATO over the question of Sweden. At the same time, the country has emerged as a mediator in the Ukraine War.

Vox notes that Erdogan's belief in a multi-polar world means that he would not completely accept the West-led world order.

It further notes that while Erdogan's pursuit of a relatively independent foreign policy would continue, he understands that his power also stems from Turkey's NATO membership, so he will jeopardise that.

"Erdoğan is not irrational, which means he also understands something fundamental about Turkey’s NATO membership: it’s part of what gives him his clout...Erdoğan has used his relationship with Moscow to try to play both sides — not fully befriending Russia, but playing footsie enough to irk the West (a tension that also serves Russia interests)," notes Vox.

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(With AP inputs)

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