Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won the presidential election on Aug. 10 — defeating rival Ekmeleddin Ihsangoglu with 52 percent of the votes and a difference of 13 points. Despite a December corruption investigation and massive protests last year, the leader has won his ninth consecutive election since coming to power in the early 2000’s. His time in office has been marked with considerable economic growth and questionable regard for freedom of speech and transparency.
“Today is the day we open the doors to a new beginning, the day we establish a new Turkey,” Erdogan vowed in a victory speech that referred often to new cooperation opportunities among old political foes.
But one concern the opposition has already voiced is that the Turkish presidency has traditionally been a ceremonial office with limited power, and Erdogan has already promised to be an active president. Should the Justice and Development Part, to which Erdogan belongs, regain control of Parliament, a new constitution could emerge with increased presidential powers.
Critics, who often compare Erdogan to Russian President Vladimir Putin, see this proposed expansion of power as another example of Erdogan’s authoritarianism. His opposition would suggest his politically active presidency would conflict with Turkish law mandating the president act impartially without partisanship.
In May 2013, 3.5 million Turks partook in demonstrations throughout the country, protesting the governments limits on civil rights and environmental issues stemming from construction projects. Police reacted with tear gas and water guns in the Gezi Park protests, for example.
Yet, as evidenced by his election, Erdogan remains popular among a significant portion of the Turkish people. This popularity is largely due to the economic growth Turkey has experienced with Erdogan’s leadership. The Turkish middle class grew twenty percent from 2002 to 2011 and the Gross Domestic Product per capita rose to almost US$11,000 – freeing millions of Turks from the clutches of poverty.
The Turkish economy grew steadily since Erdogan’s first term with only a slight setback in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Erdogan, with sharia law’s ban on usury in mind, enacted policies centered on lowering interest rates.
The lower rates have fostered consumer spending that led to immense growth, but have also, according to certain economists, risked an economic bubble as this spending requires the Turkish population to increase its debt. The growth also depends on a steady influx of foreign capital, which has faltered recently as investors have begun to doubt whether Turkey can sustain its economic growth.
Analysts consider Erdogan’s future popularity at risk as younger generations, accustomed to a steadily improving national economy, question his leadership in a slowing economy. While Erdogan promises to grow the Turkish economy from the 18th to the tenth largest in the world within the decade, observers contend his power will peak with economic growth.
Still, Erdogan remains the most powerful man in Turkey, with the a positive economic track-record and widespread popular support. To balance power and democracy while addressing faults in the economy, will be the new President’s challenge for the world to watch.
– Erica Lignell