Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigns on behalf of AKP candidates prior to last week's local elections. (Photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)

Turkish President Erdogan Consolidates Grip On Power

Under new presidential system, Erdogan will have supreme influence over parliament and thus the course of the country

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed victory in a contentious presidential vote that became unexpectedly close for the man who has been in power for about 16 years. According to state media, Erdogan secured 53 percent of the ballots while the main opposition party’s candidate Muharrem Ince received 31%.

In concurrent parliamentary elections held Sunday, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 42 percent while its electoral ally MHP got an unexpected 11%. The state broadcaster said that voter turnout was nearly 90 percent.

“Turkey has passed this great exam for democracy with great success,” Erdogan affirmed to a jubilant crowd in the capital Ankara even though official results had still not been published by the High Electoral Board.

Erdogan’s message was met by celebratory fireworks and honking horns as people drove through the streets in Istanbul. A crowd gathered in Taksim, the heart of the city, with people shouting out, “Allahu Akbar!”

Rebecca Harms, a member of the European Parliament whose focus is Turkey, told The Media Line that the opposition showed “incredible strength” in going up against the president.

“The conditions for the competition have not been fair. With most critical media silenced and many, many journalists imprisoned,” she stated, “you can‘t say that these elections have been free.”

Some polls suggested that Erdogan would not secure a majority, thereby necessitating  a run-off presidential vote against Ince that was tentatively slated for July 8. This might have posed a more serious challenge to Erdogan’s rule as most opposition parties promised to unite behind Ince, although the incumbent was still considered the front-runner.

Overall, neither race was expected to be so close when Erdogan called the snap elections 18 months early. Erdogan even recently floated the possibility of forming a coalition government when his chances of an outright win decreased as hundreds of thousands of opponents showed up to rallies of his primary rival, the Republican People’s Party’s Ince.

“He’s brought some excitement [to] his base,” Enes Bayrakli, Director of European studies with the pro-government SETA think tank, said of Ince.

Bayrakli contended, however, that it was always unlikely that Ince would take conservative votes away from Erdogan, but, rather, chip away at support from third-place challenger Meral Aksener of the new IYI party.

This election was especially crucial given that a new presidential system is set to come into effect, giving Erdogan sweeping new powers over a country of 81 million people.

Under the new political system, the role of prime minister has been scrapped, whereas the president has been afforded increased veto power over parliament and is able to appoint unelected vice presidents to act in his stead. The reforms also allow the president to unilaterally dissolve parliament and declare a state of emergency.

The parliament has, therefore, effectively become a rubber-stamp institution, according to Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

“He will put his values in place to shape Turkey in his own image and that is socially conservative, directionally Middle Eastern and politically Islamist,” he explained to The Media Line.

Erdogan’s critics accuse him of trying to erase the legacy of the secular founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, as symbolized by the demolition of a cultural center in Istanbul named after him. Moreover, a mosque is being built in Taksim square, where demonstrations against the AKP have often taken place.

Given the tense political climate, there were concerns that the elections would not be free nor fair, with opposition parties dispatching tens of thousands of observers to polling stations accross the country.

Fatos Minaz, 43, a member of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), did not see problems at the polling station in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa neighborhood, where Erdogan grew up.

However, there were allegations of voter fraud in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast along with reports of fighting at stations, which Minaz said the HDP had been keen to avoid.

“We don’t [want] high tension, it’s very dangerous,” she told The Media Line.

Two election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation were stopped from entering the country, with a state news agency claiming that the individuals were planning to contest the results and plan demonstrations after the vote.

A media watchdog said state television gave Erdogan dozens of hours of coverage while Ince received less than seven hours of air time.

HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas was forced to communicate with the public through his lawyers as he is in prison on terrorism charges.

Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish HDP party of maintaining connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.

Erdogan called the snap elections, originally meant to be held in November 2019, in anticipation of a potential financial crisis. Even after a trip to London where the president told investors that he would increase the government’s control over monetary policy, the Lira has hit record lows against the U.S. dollar.

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