Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan celebrates his victory in the presidential election next to wife Ermine in Ankara August 10, 2014. Photo by Reuters
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After more than 11 years as prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the first directly elected president in the history of the almost 100-year-old republic, something he sees as a victory of the people over the former elites that once controlled their destiny. For Erdogan and his followers, today ushers in the new Turkey, one that he aims to transform during the next nine years – until the 100th anniversary of the Republic in 2023.

While this narrative convinced 52 percent of Turkish voters to cast their votes for Erdogan, it does not change the fact that until constitutional changes are in place, the office of presidency will remain mostly ceremonial. However, even if Erdogan’s AKP party does not have enough seats in the parliament to make the necessary changes, few doubt that he will continue to have the final say over every major policy decision, implemented through an obedient prime minister which he is set to appoint. An upcoming 2015 parliamentary election victory by his party will be crucial to keep his plans on track.

Erdogan perhaps would have preferred a larger margin of victory. Nevertheless, the two opposition candidates only made a dent in his popularity, which has been consolidated through a strong economy, widespread investment in infrastructure, and media control. In fact, the discrepancy in airtime the two other candidates received in comparison to Erdogan highlighted one aspect of an unfair race. But despite this, it is clear that Erdogan’s strength also has a great deal to do with the opposition’s weaknesses.

Rather than running separate candidates, the two main opposition parties, the secular CHP and the right-nationalist MHP, joined forces and nominated Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, an academic who until recently served as the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Even if his candidacy was an innovative choice, especially since he is also a religious conservative, an oddity for many of the CHP voters, his chances of winning were slim. First, he is 70 years old, and secondly, he refused to hold massive political rallies. In short, a young leader, perhaps a woman, who could rile the masses, would have provided a real alternative to Erdogan, and could have surpassed Ihsanoglu’s 38 percent of the vote.

Unlike Ihsanoglu, the mostly Kurdish-leftist bloc HDP made impressive gains. Over the last month of campaigning, Selahattin Demirtas gathered momentum, raking in almost 10 percent of the vote, which was a success for a party set on passing the parliament’s 10-percent threshold in future elections. Demirtas was an opposite from Ihsanoglu, young and dynamic – he is 41 years old, married with two young girls. Further, his call to bring social change to Turkey attracted a whole array of voters – among them active LGBT support. With the Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation process moving forward, Demirtas’s relative success will provide extra strength in negotiations and raise the bar on social issues in the future.

While both Ihsanoglu and Demirtas ran a respectable campaign for the most part, Erdogan’s was filled with polarizing defamation. For Erdogan, Ihsanoglu was a “foreigner” due to the fact that he was born in Egypt; Demirtas was a “Zaza,” a member of a minority Kurdish community; while the CHP opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, was an “Alevi,” a member of Turkey’s Muslim minority. In other words, in order to capture the majority Sunni Muslim conservative vote, Erdogan used the “ethnic-religious” card over and over again.

Erdogan’s words were no less offensive to some of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. Just days ago, denying claims he was of Georgian descent, Erdogan claimed he had uglier accusations thrown at him, such as being called an “Armenian.” This shocked Turkey’s Armenian minority, some of whom have openly supported his bid in the past. And, while he has not aimed his spite at Turkey’s 17,000-strong Jewish minority for the current of round of Israeli violence in Gaza, his constant comparing Israel with Hitler came at a time when Turkish Jews were facing threats and a wave of anti-Semitism in some of the pro-government press, increasing their fears. 

During the campaign, Erdogan also continued his crusade against the Gulen movement, followers of the religious cleric Fethullah Gulen, once a staunch ally of Erdogan. In fact, Erdogan has promised that one of the first things he will do is “eradicate” them from the state structure. Just weeks ago we saw the first wave of arrests of Turkish police believed to be affiliated with the movement, whom he accuses of taking part in a “judicial coup,” or what most know as the massive corruption charges which were directed last December at high-ranking members of Erdogan’s government and family. In the near future, more arrests are likely within the police and will most likely spread also to the judiciary.

Turkey is not only polarized when it comes to its domestic front; during the last year, Erdogan’s influential foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policies in the Middle East have all but collapsed. Its regional limitations are most evident in its inability to play a more active role in bringing a quick end to the Israeli incursion in Gaza, and the fact that the Islamic State (IS) continues to hold Turkish hostages who were kidnapped from its consul in Mosul over two months ago. Not to mention its strained ties with Egypt and its complicated role in Syria. In short, in place of leading the Middle East, Turkey is increasingly seen as a divisive force in regional politics.

In other words, Erdogan’s victory comes at a heavy price. Turkey is more divided than ever – something evident in the fact that he was only barely able to pass the 50 percent mark with a relatively low voter turnout. Further, his victory leaves us with more questions than answers. Will Erdogan continue the trend of consolidating powers, leading Turkey to a more authoritarian system, or will he lead Turkey to a more democratic future? That is the million-dollar question.

If we judge Erdogan on his performance during the last year, however, such as the harsh crackdown of the Gezi protesters, his violent outburst against a protester in Soma following the mine disaster last May, or the steps he has taken at controlling media and silencing social media, the future does not look promising, without even addressing his government’s recent foreign policy failures.

For Turkey’s sake, let us hope that Erdogan’s skeptics are wrong. If not, Erdogan’s victory could spell difficult days ahead for the Turkish republic.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and writes on Turkish, and Israeli/Palestinian affairs. His upcoming book is on Ottoman Palestine. He has lived most of his life between the U.S., Israel, and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter:@IstanbulTelaviv. He blogs at: http://louisfishman.blogspot.com