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Incumbent Erdogan Declares Victory in Unprecedented Turkey Presidential Runoff Race

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By Nabih Bulos
Los Angeles Times

Istanbul (TNS) — Incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory Sunday for a third term as Turkey’s president, with most of the ballots counted in a rancorous runoff election which saw a voter turnout of more than 80%. headline news

In unofficial results with more than 90% of ballots counted, the state Anadolu news agency showed Erdogan at 52.3% and his challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, at 47.7%. Meanwhile, the ANKA news agency, close to the opposition, showed the results at 51.5% for Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu at 48.5%.
Official final election results have not yet been reported by Turkey’s electoral commission.

“I thank each member of our nation for entrusting me with the responsibility to govern this country once again for the upcoming five years,” Erdogan said in a speech to the nation.

He ridiculed Kilicdaroglu, saying “bye bye, Kemal,” as supporters booed.

Erdogan, 69, has dominated the Turkish political landscape virtually unchallenged for more than two decades. A victory would provide the Islamist with the chance to continue shaping the country through his vision of Turkey as a rising power with a nonaligned foreign policy that has frustrated his Western and NATO allies. It would also provide him the chance to double down on an unorthodox economic strategy critics believe will soon plunge the country into financial ruin.

Challenger Kilicdaroglu, 74, is the leader of a coalition of opposition parties working together with the singular aim of toppling Erdogan.
The two sides represent widely differing visions for this country of 84 million, which occupies a unique position as a literal land bridge between Europe and Asia, represents one of the world’s 20 largest economies and has the second-largest military force in NATO.

Erdogan wants to cement his image as the leader who refashioned Turkey into an industrial heavyweight as he pursues unorthodox economic policies aimed at supercharging growth. With the Turkish Republic about to enter its second 100 years, he has vowed to make it “Turkey’s century” with plans to build the country’s military and diplomatic influence.

Kilicdaroglu and the opposition aim to undo much of Erdogan’s recent economic policies and restore a working parliamentary system and bring back the independence of the judiciary, the foreign ministry and the central bank — institutions critics say have been all but sidelined under Erdogan’s personalized brand of governance. Kilicdaroglu also says he will seek improved ties to the West and restart Turkey’s long-languishing application to join the European Union.

Neither candidate garnered the simple majority needed to win outright in the first round of elections, which was held May 14. But Erdogan came close, garnering 49.5% of the vote, defying polls that had predicted he would lose. Kilicdaroglu received 44.9%; third-place finisher Sinan Ogan, who represented an alliance of nationalists and has since endorsed Erdogan, got 5.2%.

Sunday’s vote represents uncharted territory for Turkish democracy: It’s the first runoff in the nation’s history. Though turnout reached 88% in the first round, both contenders feared there would be less appetite from voters to come out to the polls again; that was especially true for the opposition, whose inability to top Erdogan in the first round threatened to fracture the coalition and has left some in its ranks demoralized.

“My brother who hasn’t voted yet, go to the ballot box, don’t be lazy, play the game,” Kilicdaroglu tweeted in the hour before polls closed Sunday.
In his final election rally in Istanbul on Sunday, Erdogan exhorted supporters to not be complacent and “work until the end” for the victory.

The hours after the vote began at 8 a.m. indicated that many heeded the candidates’ call. At the Munir Ozkul Secondary School in Istanbul’s Cihangir district, election observers said the turnout seemed slightly deflated compared with the first round, but nevertheless, dozens of people — some so old or infirm they needed an ambulance and medics to bring them — were filtering in to the 13 classrooms turned polling stations to participate in what they felt was a fateful election.

“It matters to me that I participate in governance. I’m a lawyer, so this is an election that will affect legislation and therefore directly affect me,” said Anil Uyalhas, 23. “Erdogan has done a lot of things for the country. But time passes, and maybe we need a change.”

A key economic issue for many voters is inflation, which rocketed to 80% last year. Government figures say it has since fallen to a little more than half of that, but it doesn’t feel like it in large urban centers such as Istanbul, where unofficial estimates put price increases in the triple digits.

Another concern is how the state will deal with the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in February that left more than 50,000 people dead (a full accounting of the dead has yet to happen) and millions more homeless, and brought harsh criticism of what many saw as a lackadaisical government disaster response. Many blame Erdogan for an atmosphere of corruption and cronyism that allowed shoddy construction projects to continue unchallenged for decades even while granting amnesties to those who ignored safety codes. Others point to his growing authoritarian streak that has eroded civil liberties and, after an attempted coup in 2016, spurred him to imprison tens of thousands of people and purge many more from their state jobs.

“I’m someone who has his own business. And I want a life where I don’t have to think about what the currency’s value against the dollar is going to be tomorrow, who is going to be arrested tomorrow, or what the headline is going to be tomorrow,” said Guray Ters, 40, a technology company business owner who had just finished voting with his wife, 33-year-old Bushra, who worked in home textiles.

Ters had thought the first round would go to Kilicdaroglu. But after that disappointment, he had little belief the opposition leader could snatch a victory. Still, he insisted on coming out to vote.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for the last 20 years. We had some hope for this election,” he said. He paused, looking for a moment crestfallen. “Perhaps the look on my face says enough.”

Whoever wins the presidency will preside over an increasingly polarized electorate. After the opposition’s call to dislodge Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to resonate with voters in both the presidential and parliamentary elections (where the AKP maintained its majority), and as the opposition changed tack to court ultranationalists ahead of the runoff, Turkish politics appear on the cusp of their most acrimonious moment yet.

Divisions have deepened — between religious conservative voters and their relentlessly secular counterparts, between nationalist voices and those who seek outreach to the country’s Kurdish minority, and between Turkish residents and the millions of refugees the country hosts within its borders.

The campaigns of both candidates reflected that heightened tension in the weeks between the first round and the runoff. Kilicdaroglu, abandoning the mild-mannered persona he cultivated before May 14, launched a broadside on refugees, vowing to send back millions of Syrians as soon as he is elected. Erdogan, meanwhile, lambasted Kilicdaroglu as a quisling who is in cahoots with the West and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish separatist group that both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist entity.

But in broader ways, the election is a referendum on Erdogan and how he has reshaped the country’s identity over his two decades in power.
From his time as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, to prime minister in 2003 and his nine years as president, he has placed Turkey’s Islamist movement at the center of the country’s political life, lifting bans on headscarves in state offices and universities, infuriating traditional elites who saw his maneuverings as a betrayal of the republic’s secular origins. He defanged a once-powerful military that had often been willing to act above the law and interfere in politics.

He has also overseen a construction boom that has transformed the country, building roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure projects while taking advantage of the country’s geographic location to make it into a major transit hub. At the same time, his economic policies saw income rise and lift millions from poverty.

A charismatic and canny political operative, he has brought a pugnacious attitude to his successive positions that adversaries derided as mere hooliganism but that supporters felt an authentic expression. Recently, he has cast himself as a nationalist who can defend Turkey from external threats. Pointing to achievements such as the country’s first aircraft carrier — trotted out to a harbor in Istanbul during the campaign — he has cultivated the image of Turkey as an imperial power with little patience for dictates from the West.

“His biggest achievement in the issue of identity is that he managed to empower the left-behind, and once he did that, he could sway them anyway he wanted,” said Can Selucki, a Turkish analyst.

Many expected the economy to have far more of an effect on the ballot box. But in the months before the election, Erdogan wielded his position to ease the financial hardship on his base, enacting populist moves such as raising the minimum wage and pensions, lowering the retirement age, and even giving citizens free gas.

He also used his hold over state media to shut out the opposition — on Friday, Kilicdaroglu accused the government of blocking his campaign’s text messages to voters, calling Erdogan a “coward.”

“Yes there are problems, but at the same time, resources are not completely exhausted to make sure the base doesn’t feel the adverse effects of deteriorating economic conditions,” said Selva Demiralp, an economist at Koc University in Istanbul.

“From the perspective of voters, they had the circumstances masked. They’re not cognizant of the upcoming challenges of the economy.”
Those challenges are myriad. The central bank has used foreign reserves to prop up the lira; in the past week those reserves plunged into the negative for the first time, Demiralp said. If nothing changes with interest rates, and with the government requiring $8 billion to $9 billion a month to pay for imports, it will have to introduce capital controls — a disaster for an open economy like Turkey’s.

But for Zerrin, a 41-year-old election monitor at a polling station in the Dolapdere neighborhood who refused to give her last name to be able to speak freely, Erdogan’s place in politics was about far more than money.

“We’re not voting for a person, but for the future of Turkey. For the liberty of choosing a lifestyle,” she said, as she put a hand to the black hijab she wore. When she was young, she said, she had faced constant harassment from secularists and couldn’t get a university education because of her religious convictions— until Erdogan came along.

“In the street, in the bus, in any governmental office, they would look at me like I was a monster, insult me as if I were a prostitute. And I was just a high school student,” she said.

“Because of this pressure, everything in my life started so late. I didn’t graduate university until I was 31. Many people here don’t want to go back to the country that we had 20 years ago.”

The difference between the two candidates, she added, was that one represented trust and the other fear. And she trusted Erdogan to protect the country from terrorist threats.

But others were equally vociferous about rejecting Erdogan.

“He’s a dictator. Like Saddam. Or Qaddafi,” said Sayed, a 52-year-old taxi driver who gave only his first name to avoid reprisals. He referred to the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi.

“The economy is basically finished, and he’s still using his political power to remain in his seat. If he wins it’s not going to be honest. It won’t be the will of people, nor the will of Allah. It’s going to be fraud.”

©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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