Turkey’s long-serving leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, continued his string of electoral victories on Sunday, winning crucial elections that hand him increased powers. His Islamist-rooted political party and a nationalist ally also appeared set to maintain control of parliament, according to preliminary election results released by the state-controlled Anatolia News Agency.
In a speech after most votes were counted, Erdogan appeared calm and conciliatory, praising the country for a turnout that exceeded 87 percent of eligible voters.
“We should leave behind the tensions and grievances made during the election process and instead focus on the country’s future,” Erdogan told supporters. “When we govern our country well, we believe from the heart that our country will do great things.”
The results revealed a highly polarized Turkey. Erdogan won with 52.5 percent of the vote, slightly more than his victory for president in 2014 and better than what he drew for constitutional changes in the constitutional referendum last year. The nearest opposition contender, the center-left People’s Republican Party (CHP) candidate Muharrem Ince, received 30.8 percent of the vote, while other contenders running against Erdogan received roughly 16.6 percent of the vote.
Cheating had been a grave concern of the opposition before the vote, and there were reports of scattered but serious election day irregularities that included violent clashes between government supporters and opponents, suspicious power outages in opposition areas, monitors being denied access to voting stations, and ballot troubles.
The complications were mostly concentrated in the heavily Kurdish southeast, where heavy opposition to Erdogan among Kurds cost Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party control of parliament. Opposition lawmakers posted videos purporting to show ballots being dumped into boxes en masse. Authorities confirmed that a car holding ballots was stopped, in a case still under investigation.
Perhaps the oddest dimension of the elections was the performance of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, Erdogan’s coalition partner. It won a stunning 11.2 percent of the parliamentary vote, well above its poll numbers, despite barely campaigning and suffering through a split within the organization that had spawned the newly formed Iyi party, which won about 10 percent of the vote. Before the split, MHP won only 11.9 percent of the vote in November 2015 elections.
With his election victory, Erdogan retains power for at least another five years under a new constitutional system voted in by a referendum last year, which consolidates executive power in the presidency and gives the office more authority over the judiciary and cabinet.
Erdogan already retains great power, especially since a July 2016 coup attempt ignited a wide-ranging crackdown on opponents. He and his allies have reshaped the country’s social, international and economic policies, fraying alliances with the U.S. and Europe, alienating the country’s financiers, and frightening the country’s secular elite. Erdogan and his allies exercise heavy control over both state and privately owned media, and the campaign season was marred by television and newspaper coverage that grossly favored the incumbent.
Some analysts said that Erdogan may use his latest victory to moderate his domestic policies while taking more ambitious gambles in the Middle East and on the global stage.
“Obviously he will feel more emboldened in his foreign policy especially in Syria and in his disputes with the U.S.,” said Ragip Soylu, Washington correspondent for the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper. “There are signs that he will be more influential in controlling foreign affairs, especially with the new system that puts the foreign ministry directly under his control. You can find him being more moderate in domestic affairs because he wouldn’t need to be more hawkish to receive nationalist votes. There is no elections for the the next five years.”
But none of Erdogan’s previous victories have moderated either his tone or his policies. His Justice and Development Party, or AKP, on Sunday lost its parliamentary majority, and will be forced to find a partner to enact legislation. That means a continued partnership with the far-right MHP and a strong incentive not to moderate. “So he will in any case need a coalition in parliament, and the most likely partner is MHP,” said Sinan Ulgen, a Turkey specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So I think there is no need for him to jettison MHP, given that it has proven to be a winning formula. That will have implications for both domestic and foreign policy.”
The biggest immediate challenge for Erdogan will be improving the economy at a time when the lira has badly slid and foreign investors have withdrawn. Economic troubles may have cost his party support; AKP went from more than 49.4 percent in 2015 elections to only 42.4 percent. But enough voters supported him to keep his party strong, and those who defected may have voted for his nationalist MHP partner.
“I am 40 years old and I have voted for the AKP my whole life,” said Orhan Kaya, a jeweler voting with his wife and two daughters in the conservative Fathi district of Istanbul. “I have been through the previous era and the AKP seems to keep economic advancement going so that’s why I keep supporting them.”
Erdogan, a 64-year-old former mayor of Istanbul, originally came to national prominence as a reformer who would curtail the power of the military and improve the economy. But in recent years he has been accused of stifling dissent, jailing journalists, and purging opponents from the ministries. He has already left a deep mark on Turkey, elevating economic status and self-confidence of the country’s pious poor and undertaking vast infrastructure projects that have physically transformed the country.
But Erdogan’s occasionally erratic economic policies, authoritarian drift, and fiery rhetoric have alarmed investors, human rights monitors, and Turkey’s NATO partners, including in the E.U. and the U.S., which has clashed with Ankara over strategy in fighting the Islamic State in Syria, and policy in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Erdogan also has oriented Turkey closer to Russia, China, and Iran, causing consternation in Washington. Lawmakers in Congress in recent days sought to block sales of advanced F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, though the deal appears to be moving forward.
Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker now a senior fellow for the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington, predicted continuing strains between the West and Turkey, as well as between the Ankara government and its domestic rivals. “Turkey will continue on its security-centric approaches to the Kurdish question,” he said. “We can also expect further Turkish cross-border military action not only in Syria but in Iraq. Ultimately I think we will see a further deterioration of Turkish-E.U. relations. In terms of relations with the U.S., the current relations can best be characterized by turbulence and pragmatism. We will see more of that.”
Voters showed up in droves throughout the country, with both supporters and opponents of Erdogan recognizing the huge stakes in the election. Deniz Burat, a 23-year-old student of fine arts, said he voted for the leftist Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, which managed to clear a key 10 percent hurdle and enter parliament with 11.4 percent of the vote. “All the parliamentarians of the HDP have been arrested by the government without any reason,” he said. “We think this is undemocratic.”
“We are not being governed in a good way,” said Alihan Irmakkesen, a 56-year-old retired training consultant in the Beyoglu district of Istanbul, and a supporter of Ince. “We don’t feel safe in this country. They are destroying the city with their projects.”
Emine Filizoglu, 54, and her daughter Emine, 24, were among the rare Turks to switch parties, with both abandoning the MHP for the newly formed Iyi Party, which was formed by Meral Aksener, the sole woman running for president. “People are afraid to say what they think anymore,” said Hazal. “People are afraid to say they are against the government.”