Turkey's main cities erupted in jubilation after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory
Istanbul (AFP) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory Sunday in a historic runoff vote that posed the biggest challenge to his 20 years of transformative but divisive rule.
The 69-year-old leader overcame Turkey’s worst economic crisis in a generation and the most powerful opposition alliance to ever face his Islamic-rooted party to take an unassailable lead.
Near complete results showed him leading secular opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu by four percentage points.
“We will be ruling the country for the coming five years,” Erdogan told his cheering supporters from atop a bus in his home district in Istanbul.
“God willing, we will be deserving of your trust.”
Turkey’s main cities erupted in car-honking jubilation while world leaders started congratulating the veteran leader on extending his rule for one last time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said it showed Turks’ support for “your efforts to strengthen state sovereignty and pursue an independent foreign policy”.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged “to continue to move forward” on joint global challenges and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to “further strengthen our strategic partnership”.
Former US president Donald Trump hailed Erdogan’s “big and well deserved victory”.
Traffic on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square ground to a halt and huge crowds of singing and flag-waving supporters gathered outside his presidential palace in Ankara.
The official Anadolu news agency showed Erdogan leading with more than 70 percent of the vote counted
“Our people chose the right man,” 17-year-old Nisa Sivaslioglu said in the Turkish capital.
“I expect Erdogan to add more to the good things he had already done for our country.”
Turkey’s longest-serving leader was tested like never before in what was widely seen as the country’s most consequential election in its 100-year history as a post-Ottoman republic.
Kilicdaroglu pushed Erdogan into Turkey’s first runoff on May 14 and narrowed the margin further in the second round.
Opposition supporters viewed it as a do-or-die chance to save Turkey from being turned into an autocracy by a man whose consolidation of power rivals that of Ottoman sultans.
Kilicdaroglu did not formally concede defeat in a brief statement he read to reporters in Ankara.
But he expressed “real sadness about the big difficulties awaiting the country” – a comment suggesting acceptance that Erdogan would run Turkey until 2028.
- Opposition gamble -
Kilicdaroglu re-emerged a transformed man after the first round.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu formed a strong opposition alliance that included Recep Tayyip Erdogan's former allies
The former civil servant’s message of social unity and freedoms gave way to desk-thumping speeches about the need to immediately expel migrants and fight terrorism.
His right-wing turn was targeted at nationalists who emerged as the big winners of the parallel parliamentary elections.
Analysts doubted Kilicdaroglu’s gamble would work.
His informal alliance with a pro-Kurdish party that Erdogan portrays as the political wing of banned militants left him exposed to charges of working with “terrorists”.
Turkey's inflation rate remains one of the highest in the world
And Kilicdaroglu’s courtship of Turkey’s hard right was hampered by the endorsement Erdogan received from an ultra-nationalist who finished third two weeks ago.
- Champion of poor -
Erdogan is lionised by poorer and more rural swathes of Turkey’s fractured society because of his promotion of religious freedoms and modernisation of once-dilapidated cities in the Anatolian heartland.
“It was important for me to keep what was gained over the past 20 years in Turkey,” company director Mehmet Emin Ayaz told AFP in Ankara.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated power and transformed society over his two-decade rule
“Turkey isn’t what it was in the old days. There is a new Turkey today,” the 64-year-old said.
But Erdogan has caused growing consternation across the Western world because of his crackdowns on dissent and pursuit of a muscular foreign policy.
He launched military incursions into Syria that infuriated European powers and put Turkish soldiers on the opposite side of Kurdish forces supported by the United States.
His personal relationship with Putin has also survived the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.
Turkey’s troubled economy is benefiting from a crucial deferment of payment on Russian energy imports that helped Erdogan spend lavishly on campaign pledges this year.
Erdogan also delayed Finland’s membership of NATO and is still refusing to let Sweden join the US-led defence bloc.
- ‘Significant pressure’ -
Turkey’s unravelling economy will pose the most immediate test for Erdogan.
He went through a series of central bankers to find one who would enact his wish to slash interest rates at all costs in 2021.
Turkey’s currency soon entered freefall and the annual inflation rate touched 85 percent last year.
Erdogan has promised to continue these policies and rejected predictions of economic peril from analysts.
Turkey burned through tens of billions of dollars trying to support the lira from politically sensitive falls ahead of the vote.
Many analysts say Turkey must now hike interest rates or abandon its attempts to support the lira.
“The main challenge for Erdogan right now is the economy,” Chatham House associate fellow Galip Dalay told AFP.
“He implemented significant election economics – giving wages rises to the public employees, providing early retirement for millions of people. This is going to put significant pressure on public finances.”