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Turkey’s Erdogan might not be as untouchable as we all think

Key Points
  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan won another term in office and gained far-reaching powers following an election Sunday.
  • There are ongoing economic and societal problems in Turkey, however.
  • The ruling AK Party did not gain an outright majority in parliament.
A banner of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images

Recep Tayyip Erdogan won another term in office and gained far-reaching powers, but analysts believe the election has left the Turkish president looking more vulnerable than before.

Erdogan won 52.5 percent of the vote in the snap election that took place on Sunday, with the main opposition candidate Muharrem Ince getting 30.6 percent, state news agency Anadolu said.

Turnout was a high 88.1 percent and the result shows that Erdogan’s “brand” of populism, nationalism and conservative religious values remain robust. Yet the election showed a strengthening of the opposition, particularly for Ince. While Erdogan’s popularity endured, he failed to gain an outright majority and analysts said he faces challenges on the economic and societal front.

“I guess we all forgot the number one rule of Turkish politics — never bet against Erdogan. And despite a campaign which was heavily weighted in favor of the ruling party (with the state media giving him 90 percent plus of media coverage), he took a chance calling the election early, campaigned with vigor and won,” Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in a note Monday.

“I guess the fact that he won, despite the best campaign fought by the opposition in 16 years, just underlines the dominance of the AKP (The Justice and Development Party) and Erdogan's personal brand,” he added.

Checks and balances

Despite improvements to Turkey’s economy and living standards, Erdogan has been seen by his critics as increasingly authoritarian, having increased his power and influence in Turkey since he became prime minister in 2003, and president from 2014. Notably, he has challenged Turkey’s secular roots, cracked down on political opponents and the free media. An unsuccessful coup in 2016 saw hundreds of thousands of officials, academics and opponents imprisoned and a state of emergency declared.

Last year, Turkish citizens narrowly approved the changing of the country’s constitution, granting extensive powers to the president that he said would prevent instability.

The changes, ushered in with Sunday’s vote, mean there will no longer be a prime minister and Erdogan will become the “executive president,” both head of state and head of the government. He can now appoint ministers, officials and judges at will, can dissolve parliament, intervene in the country’s judicial system and impose a state of emergency. His opponents say the changes will create “one-man rule” in Turkey but Erdogan’s opponents, Ince especially, will take comfort that voter support for them was robust.

Strategist: Erdogan victory caught most people by surprise
Strategist: Erdogan victory caught most people by surprise

A parliamentary election held at the same time as the presidential election Sunday could actually herald less power for Erdogan, however, as his AKP party lost its majority. Gaining 295 seats in the 600-seat parliament, it will now be reliant on the support of its junior coalition partner, the Nationalist Movement Party, which gained 49 seats and gave the alliance an overall majority in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly.

“The AKP lacks a majority — and is now dependent on the largely secular/nationalist MHP. Its leader Devlet Bahceli will exert disproportionate influence, and Erdogan will have to tread carefully,” Ash noted.

Opposition’s morale boost

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), allied with Ince, won 146 seats. Although it won far less seats than the AKP, analysts are noting that many voters have rallied around Ince, giving the opposition a boost. The pro-Kurdish HDP party also took 11.6 percent of the vote, passing the 10 percent threshold to enter Parliament. The result has been seen as impressive given the party’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas had to campaign from prison.

Erdogan’s entrenched opposition toward the Kurdish community (the largest ethnic minority in Turkey), who want greater political and cultural rights, shows no signs of changing.

Similarly, analysts say that economic problems faced by the country — the lira’s depreciation, the budget deficit, inflation at 12 percent and fears that Erdogan (who wants the central bank to lower interest rates to promote growth) could threaten the bank’s independence – could be put on the back burner as a less-confident Erdogan remains in office.

George Dyson, a Turkey analyst at consultancy Control Risks, said Monday that the outlook for Erdogan was not as rosy as it seemed from the election result.

"Further political instability is expected in Turkey despite a convincing victory for the incumbent Erdogan amid growing economic problems and widening societal tensions,” Dyson said in a note Monday.

Turkey's Erdogan claims victory in presidential election
Turkey's Erdogan claims victory in presidential election

“Erdogan was rattled by the opposition campaign and will work hard ahead of local elections in March 2019 to maintain support,” he added, a sentiment echoed by Ian Bremmer, the head of political analysis firm Eurasia Group.

Bremmer said the result was bad news for any resolution to the Kurdish problem and was also a challenge for any constructive turn in relations with the West.

“Erdogan also won’t feel confident enough to push through necessary structural reforms or go through fiscal consolidation ahead of March 2019 local elections, particularly at a time when the country will be experiencing an economic slow-down. Not much upside for this one, I'm afraid,” Bremmer said in a note Monday.