Turkey’s new president, is he the right man for the job?
By : Mahir Zeynalov
Raising Turkish flags and honking their cars, youth celebrated the rise of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the presidency in Istanbul and across Turkey.
According to unofficial results, Erdogan, who has served the country as a prime minister for three terms, sealed another five years as president amid deepening and perilous polarization in a country of more than 80 million people. With Sunday’s election, in which the prime minister garnered around 52 percent of the vote, Turkey has become a country where both the heads of the government and the state are popularly elected. While this presents a set of challenges in handling the government’s affairs, a largely loyalist prime minister could allow the ruling elite to easily tackle the problem.
The opposition candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu conceded defeat late on Sunday and described the percentage of his votes as a “success.”
On the other side of the equilibrium, critics of Erdogan said that the election of the prime minister was already a foregone conclusion and slammed the nearly five million voters who didn’t vote. Sunday’s turnout was close to 70 percent, one of the lowest in modern Turkish history.
Disappointment prevailed among critics because most believe that they had the necessary potential to stop Erdogan’s ascent to power
In Ankara, crowds cheered as Erdogan promised a “New Turkey” and vowed to be the “president of everyone” from the balcony of his ruling party’s headquarters, a long tradition. His combative speeches over the past year already indicate that the new president will go after his critics to establish his absolute rule.
On Sunday night, dozens of pro-Erdogan protesters gathered outside the Samanyolu TV headquarters in Istanbul, one of the few TV channels that practiced independent reporting and survived the government’s crackdown on the media, to protest against it. The protesters carried a huge poster of Erdogan and chanted at times profane slogans against the TV network, according to my sources.
Political confrontation in Turkey is very distinct in its nature as love and hate for Erdogan among his fans and critics is extreme.
Relief among Erdogan’s fans
To understand the support for Erdogan in a country where only a few leaders could gather more than half of the votes, some observers point to a preceding decade dominated by chaos, killings, political instability and financial crises. Fed up with nearly 10 governments in a decade, many Turks reaped the harvest of Erdogan’s single-man rule when political stability increased investors’ confidence.
No one in this modern Muslim nation wants to return to those days they describe as the coalition era. Erdogan could solidify his electoral base by constantly reminding people that his alternative means returning to dark days of the 1990s. Despite ruling the country for 12 years and consolidating power, supporters of Erdogan flocked to streets to mark the prime minister’s landslide victory. Some celebrated the victory in cafes, where people gathered to watch the outcome as the ballots were opened for counting. It was as if it was a first-time victory for Erdogan. Although many gave Ihsanoglu’s win a slim chance, Erdogan’s victory came as a huge relief for his fan base as the new president had kept portraying himself as a victim and as being under attack from supposed dark national and international circles.
Disappointment prevailed among critics because most believe that they had the necessary potential to stop Erdogan’s ascent to power and that a miscalculated campaigning strategy resulted in the defeat. “Turkey needs a completely different opposition mentality in this shifting political environment,” an outspoken journalist tweeted after the results showed Erdogan was winning the first direct presidential elections.
Erdogan’s popularity runs very high in Turkey, but a deeply polarized society will likely unleash a new wave of confrontation. Unless, of course, Erdogan chooses to back down in his rhetoric and embraces the entire society.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today’s Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov