Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dreamt for years of taking the helm of an all-powerful executive presidency. On Sunday night, that ambition became a reality after Turkey’s populist leader defied the challenges of an ailing economy and a resurgent opposition to claim victory in pivotal presidential and parliamentary elections.
The man who has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, ushering in dramatic changes to the country’s social and economic landscape, not only secured five more years in office, but will now control a powerful system of government that abolishes the role of prime minister and places unprecedented power in his hands.
The new turbo-charged presidency will grant almost total control over the levers of the state to a divisive leader who has already been accused of using ballot box victories to justify a winner-takes-all style of rule. He will now be able to hire and fire ministers and senior civil servants, issue executive decrees that carry the force of law, and wield greater control over judicial appointments.
“This is a nightmare result for Turkish democracy,” said Alan Makovsky, a Turkey expert at the Centre for American Progress, a Washington-based think-tank. “Turkey’s autocratic ruler just got stronger . . . Turkey could be facing ugly times, and there’s no obvious exit for the next five years.”
In his 3am victory speech, delivered from the balcony at the Ankara headquarters of his ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), Mr Erdogan showed little interest in healing the rifts running through Turkish society. Instead, he pursued familiar rhetorical themes of goading western powers and railing against terrorists and coup plotters.
He revelled in his win, which came after a campaign that party insiders said was one of the most difficult they had faced during a decade and a half in power.
But there was also a tacit acknowledgment that the AKP result was not as strong as he had hoped. In Sunday’s parliamentary contest, the ruling party he founded won 42.6 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary results — a 7 percentage point drop compared with the previous general elections in November 2015. “We got the message that the nation gave to our party at the ballot box,” he said, promising to “fix all the deficiencies” in the period ahead.
Mr Erdogan was saved by an alliance with the Nationalist Movement party (MHP), an ultranationalist group known for its historic links to rightwing paramilitaries and criminals. A few years ago, a pact between the two parties would have been unthinkable. But the Turkish president, who has pursued an increasingly nationalistic approach in recent years, teamed up with the MHP to push through his plans for an executive presidency and to ensure he would have a parliamentary majority.
The MHP’s strong performance was the biggest surprise of the night. It won 11.1 per cent of the national vote share in the parliamentary contest, bringing the combined AKP-MHP total to 53.7 per cent. That boost — as well as the party’s support for Mr Erdogan in the presidential contest — proved crucial to the president.
Devlet Bahceli, the MHP’s ageing leader, may now demand senior positions for himself and his acolytes. He is likely to veto talk of a return to the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a militant group that has been locked in a 30-year battle with the Turkish state.
Mr Erdogan promised during the campaign to lift the state of emergency imposed after a violent 2016 coup attempt that led to a period of social and political turmoil. Those emergency powers — which also allowed him to rule by decree — may be less important to him now that he has finally won the executive presidency he has sought for years.
Turkey’s allies in the EU and US will be looking for signs of a softer approach towards his critics and attempts to reduce tension in their strained relationships with Ankara. “The ball is in his court now,” said one European diplomat. “He knows exactly what the EU wants from him on human rights, on the rule of the law.”
In response to the election, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, promised to work together with Ankara but warned that Turkey “would benefit from urgently addressing key shortcomings regarding the rule of law and fundamental human rights.”
Some European officials believe that, despite a campaign that international observers warned on Monday was heavily skewed in his favour, it is time for Brussels to pursue a more transactional relationship with Mr Erdogan, given his enduring popularity in Turkey.
The most immediate challenge facing the Turkish president is managing a debt-laden economy reliant on external financing that leaves it at the mercy of foreign investors.
The lira, which has lost more than a fifth of its value this year, rallied following the result but then reversed its gains, falling as low as 4.72 to the dollar on Monday afternoon.
Analysts have warned of an impending slowdown in growth and a potential crisis on the horizon.
Mehmet Simsek, who was deputy prime minister under the previous government, said the election result “sets the stage for speeding up reforms”.
Investors will be watching closely to see if Mr Simsek — seen as a rare voice of economic orthodoxy in Mr Erdogan’s top team — will be given a senior role after a cabinet shake-up expected after results are officially certified on Friday.
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