How Turkey’s president Erdogan has maintained a tight grip on power in the country

The 69-year-old has led Turkey as prime minister or president for 20 years and already is the longest-serving leader in the Turkish republic’s history

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to his supporters during an elections campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, May 12, 2023.Khalil Hamra (AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a populist with increasingly authoritarian tendencies, is scheduled to take the oath of office and start his third presidential term Saturday following his latest election win.

Erdogan, who has led Turkey as prime minister or president for 20 years, prevailed in a runoff race last weekend despite the country’s ongoing economic crisis and his government’s criticized response to a February earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.

Known as “reis,” or “the chief,” among his fans, the 69-year-old Erdogan already is the longest-serving leader in the Turkish republic’s history. His 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.

Here is a look at Erdogan’s career and some of the reasons for his political longevity.

It’s not the economy

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 — he received 52% 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% in October before easing to 44% in April — might have resulted from many people preferring stability over change as they struggle to pay skyrocketing prices for rent and basic goods.

The president 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, his 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.”

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-defense systems, prompting the United States to oust Turkey from a U.S.-led fighter jet project. Yet, together with the United Nations, 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 islamic roots

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.

He 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.

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

Tight control over media

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

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

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 Organization 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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