In the historic Presidential elections on 24 June last week, Recep Tayyib Erdogan was re-elected with 52.6 percent votes. He will serve as 13th president of the Republic of Turkey. Erdogan defeated his nearest rival of Republic People's Party (CHP), Muharrem Ince, by whopping 11 million votes.
Though some commentators questioned the elections on the grounds that authorities had jailed some opposition leaders, Erdogan's victory, however, was hailed by none other than his competitor Ince, who, responding to critiques of Erdogan, said emphatically: "This is an absolute win. If you don't accept that what will you accept? This is disrespectful to democracy. This is disrespectful to the will of the nation. I am not for that. Ok, there is a winner. There is nothing more we can do. If you are not going to congratulate when there is a winner, then don't join the race."
Ince was right. After all, the total voting percentage in the election was far better than what is usually witnessed in western democracies.
June 24 elections was historic and one of the toughest in Turkey's modern history, and it will determine the future of the country of 8o million people. It was historic in the sense that the government system was remodelled with the President wielding more powers than before.
Erdogan was first elected in 2003, and within a few years he rose to prominence in the Muslim world with his charismatic appeal and economic policies. His growing influence, especially in the last five years, has unsettled some regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Liberation Authority and Jordan.
Born in Istanbul in 1954, Erdogan's early forays into politics was through National Turkish Student's Union. In 1994, he went on to become the Istanbul Mayor, initiating major infrastructure and administrative development in the cosmopolitan city during his tenure.
People in Turkey describe him peoples' president. Even his detractors do not mince words in accepting the fact that he has established a strong bond with common man on ground. He has owned peoples' problems as his own.
At a time when AK Party won majority in Turkish parliament in 2002, it was a prime-ministerial system in vogue and Erdogan donned the cap next year after court clearance. The AK Party promised development, economic, social, educational and health related welfare measures which were missing on ground after successive military take-overs ever since Kemal Ataturk set to "modernize Turkey".
In sixteen years of AK Party rule, Turkey rose to become part of the top 20 economies of the world – G20. It is a major economy in the Muslim world and a leading investor in African countries.
At a rally just a day before June 24 elections, I asked a participant, who was in early 50s, what makes Erdogan's rule different. He replied, "whenever I or my family had medical emergency, we had to wait in queue for hours together to consult a doctor. Erdogan has brought every facility to our door steps. Isn't it a difference."
"Now, [outside] people take us [Turks] seriously," he added, referring to Erdogan's global posturing, be that in Syria or Myanmar."
However, Erdogan has his share of critiques, both inside the country and beyond. Some call him "dictator" others label him as "conservative". As Mustafa Ayol wrote in The New York Times on June 29, "Turkey is bigger than Erdogan, just as it was bigger than Ataturk". Despite these opposing voices, his stature in Turkey and around the Muslim world has grown considerably—some view him as a modern-day Salah Uddin, the great Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders in the battle for Jerusalem in 1187.
In terms of his geo-political moves, Erdogan has led two successful operations in Syria. On humanitarian level, under his leadership, Turkey opened its borders to over 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Though one-time ally of Erdogan, Saadet Party, has been critical of AK Party for "strengthening un-Islamic" capitalist economy model, Turkish economy has consolidated over the years. Previously, hijab-clad females were barred from entering educational institutions, but Erdogan lifted the ban on Hijab.
During an after-Tarawih chit-chat last month, a top official of a university told his students, "Building Masjid and offering prayers inside a university was possible only after Erdogan came to power." He was responding after listening to the ordeals of students from East Turkistan—what China calls Xinjiang province.
Turkey has over 96% literacy rate. Hundreds of Universities have been established in the last 15 years and a world class infrastructure has been put in place. A cursory look at statistics show that number of foreign students has risen from mere 10,000 in 2004 to 117,000 in 2018. In the last address to Congress of Foreign Students in May, President Erdogan announced the two-year mandatory working visa to foreign students to establish stronger relations.
Though AK Party under Erdogan looks strong, some observers believe the party has to reshape its policies viz-a-viz the young voters. Before calling for the snap elections, Erdogan's government brought down the age for voters to 18 years.
"The trouble was that when the youngest voters in the age range of 18-24 were included in the general electorate, the AK Party came at a disadvantage. To rejuvenate its electoral support base, the AK Party must, therefore, return to the visionary projects that reconnected young people with the latest developments in the world. Without sharing their passion for science and technology, it is possible to miss out the invaluable opportunities that the digital space provides for such a rapprochement," said Ihsan Aktas, who leads an Istanbul based socio-politico research institute – GENAR.
The 27th parliament has increased number of female legislators – a historic first in modern history. The right to run for elections was granted to Turkish women in 1934 and in 2018, Turks sent 103 female lawmakers to 600-member parliament, most from AK Party thus belying those claims which cast a "conservative" image of Erdogan.
In the new executive presidential system – which came in to existence after popular 2017 referendum – Erdogan will have powers to select his cabinet and it is not necessary that the cabinet members come from the elected parliament. A cabinet member can be from business, civil society or any other sector which has given hope to international investors for further strengthening of the economy.
The president can run for second term when this five-year term ends in 2023. He is powerful to propose a budget and initiate new measures which necessarily require consent of parliament where AK Party enjoys full majority in alliance with along with nationalist MHP.
Ince's defeat-conceding statement concords Erdogan's election campaign banner: Vaktiye Turkiye – It is time for Turkey, so let it be!
(Riyaz ul Khaliq is associated with Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Turkey.)