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Erdogan survived the biggest test of his political career. What’s next?

<i>Chris McGrath/Getty Images</i><br/>President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures to supporters at the presidential palace after winning the presidential runoff in Ankara
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures to supporters at the presidential palace after winning the presidential runoff in Ankara

By Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

(CNN) — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday emerged as winner of the country’s presidential election, proving himself resilient against the opposition bloc as he extends his rule into a third decade.

Official results showed Erdogan winning with 52.1% of the vote, while opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu emerged with 47.9%.

Despite a deadly earthquake and a plummeting local currency, Erdogan’s victory once again showed the leader’s durability, which analysts say is rooted not only in the ways in which he consolidated power over the years, but also shows the enduring loyalty of his core support.

“Considering the wear and tear that comes with 20 years in power, this is a significant achievement. It also signifies the failure of the opposition bloc,” said Can Acun, researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a pro-government think tank in Ankara.

Opposition warns of ‘hard days ahead’

As preliminary results showed Erdogan in the lead, the leader already began celebrating his triumph as Kilicdaroglu warned of “hard days ahead.”

Analysts say that Erdogan’s winning margin may be a deciding factor in how he chooses to move forward.

The leader won with “neither a landslide nor a narrow margin,” said Soner Cagaptay, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which he says will likely mean business as usual.

In the Turkish context, he said, this means Erdogan is likely to double down on his unorthodox economic policies and a continued crackdown on the opposition, especially since he will look to regain popularity in Istanbul and Ankara – two crucial cities that he lost to the opposition.

Murat Somer, a political science professor at Koc University in Istanbul, expects a hardened approach by Erdogan towards the opposition and his critics.

“[Erdogan is] likely to continue his unorthodox economic policies because these actually serve his interests,” Somer told CNN. “But he will have to combine them with some orthodox measures to solve the currency crisis.”

The Turkish president has previously called himself the “enemy of interest rates,” which he sees as the cause of inflation.

The Turkish lira sunk to near record lows on Sunday as Erdogan claimed his victory, hitting 20.05 to the dollar, close to its 20.06 record low on Friday, Reuters reported.

Somer also warned of the consequences to Erdogan’s victory, saying it may embolden other leaders around the world who undermine democracy.

“The populist autocrat who broke every democratic rule and norm during the campaign won and the opposition who united to rebuild democracy lost,” he said.

Korhan Kocak, an assistant professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, worries about Erdogan’s moves after the election.

“For over ten years, Erdogan has made it clear that he has a majoritarian sense of democracy: those who don’t belong to — in his view — the ‘virtuous’ majority are entitled to neither say nor consideration,” Kocak told CNN.

Others who have been at the forefront of Erdogan’s political crackdowns have also expressed concern.

Speaking to CNN before the election results came out, Ceylan Akca, a Diyarbakir parliamentarian for the Green Left Party, under which candidates of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are running, expressed fear for her party if Erdogan wins.

The HDP had been struggling to survive long before Erdogan’s Sunday victory.

Akca said that, if Erdogan wins, it is very likely that he would amplify his crackdown on the HDP and the Kurdish community.

It is yet to be seen how Erdogan will handle the opposition, but Acun said that “Erdogan has always been a pragmatic leader, not one driven by revenge.”

The strongman is likely to focus on the economy, he added, but the fight against what he termed as terrorism “may intensify.”

Profound polarization

Analysts say the election results across the two rounds demonstrate the country’s growing polarization.

“Turkey has been a profoundly polarized society for at least the last 40 years or so, and only increasingly so,” said Judd King, a senior adjunct professorial lecturer at the American University in Washington, DC. “The ultra-secularist people would never in their lives consider voting for Erdogan, any more than the anti-secularists would ever vote for the secularist party.”

And while many of Erdogan’s critics are aggrieved, others saw no viable option besides the president.

Erdogan has over the years earned the loyalty from the country’s conservatives, especially in the early days of his rule, King said.

His support base is diverse, he said, adding that it is broadly sympathetic to religion, but ideologically ranges from nationalists to those who actively oppose secularism.

Many of Erdogan’s supporters were happy with his early achievements, especially those that gave religious rights and freedoms to the country’s Muslim majority.

The Turkey Erdogan inherited in 2003 espoused a form of secularism that was stricter than that of most Western states. The role of religion in public was minimized, with the Islamic headscarf for women banned in universities, government institutions and parliament. Religiously observant women who sought a higher education thus had to either give up the hijab or go abroad for university.

Upon taking power, Erdogan gradually lifted those restrictions. While he didn’t challenge the country’s constitutionally enshrined secularism, religion began to play a bigger role in public, as well as his own rhetoric.

His moves towards an official acceptance of religion were seen as a restoration of the dignity of Turkey’s conservatives and earned him a large, die-hard support base.

Even those who did not see Erdogan’s appeal at the beginning, King said, “really came to value him” as he won loyalty with “with years and years of providing all these services.”

The election results may also be a blow to Western allies who hoped a post-Erdogan era would see Turkey pivot back to its traditional allies in the West, especially amid the president’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

King said that despite his disagreements with the West, Erdogan’s recent foreign policy moves may have given Turkey a kind of independence that many of his supporters appreciate.

“For these voters, they feel there is recognition for their country that was overdue for a very long time and didn’t seem that it was going to be achievable. And Erdogan is the man that delivered that to them.”

Cagaptay said that Erdogan’s foreign policy is unlikely to change.

“[Erdogan’s] transactional foreign policy, where it pits Russia and the US against each other to get what he wants” is likely to continue, he said.

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