By Ece Toksabay and Daren Butler
ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters on Monday celebrated an election win extending his rule into a third decade while Turkey’s opposition, once optimistic of winning, braced for “difficult days” against an increasingly autocratic government.
His opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu said it was “the most unfair election in years” but did not dispute the outcome, which gave Erdogan a mandate to pursue policies that have polarised Turkey and strengthened its position as a regional military power.
The election had been seen as Erdogan’s biggest political challenge, with the opposition confident of unseating him and reversing his policies after polls showed a cost-of-living crisis left him vulnerable.
But he prevailed with 52.2% of the vote, to Kilicdaroglu’s 47.8%. It reinforced his image of invincibility in the deeply divided NATO-member country, whose foreign, economic, security and foreign policy he has redrawn.
Pro-government newspapers, part of an overwhelmingly pro-Erdogan media landscape that supported his election campaign in the nation of 85 million people, cheered his victory.
“The man of the people won,” the Sabah newspaper headline said. “We opened the door to the Turkish century.”
“Victory is Erdogan’s again, the winner is Turkey,” said the Hurriyet daily alongside a photo of the huge crowd which gathered outside the presidential palace in the capital Ankara overnight to hear his triumphant speech.
“The winner is our democracy,” Erdogan told the crowd. “Now is the time to put the disputes and conflicts of the election period to one side and unite around our national goals.”
The lira slipped to a record low of 20.065 against the dollar. It has lost 90% of its value in the last decade, buffeted by currency crisis and rampant inflation.
Its most recent losses were driven by uncertainty about what an Erdogan win would mean for economic policy. Critics have blamed his unorthodox, low interest-rate economic policy, which the opposition had pledged to reverse, for the currency’s woes.
Erdogan said inflation, which hit a 24-year peak of 85% last year before easing, was Turkey’s most urgent issue.
The prospect of five more years of Erdogan rule was a harsh blow to an opposition which accused him of undermining democracy as he amassed ever more power – a charge he denies.
Though he called for unity, Erdogan maintained a major theme of his campaign and accused Kilicdaroglu and the opposition of siding with terrorists, without providing evidence.
Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party, parliament’s third largest, was among the opposition parties opposed to Erdogan and is accused of links to Kurdish militants, which it denies.
“For the opposition, very difficult days are ahead,” said Atilla Yesilada, analyst at GlobalSource Partners, forecasting more judicial moves against the Kurdish party and saying it was not clear whether the opposition alliance would remain intact.
Kilicdaroglu’s defeat will likely be a cause for concern among Turkey’s NATO allies which have been alarmed by Erdogan’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who congratulated his “dear friend” on his victory.
U.S. President Joe Biden wrote on Twitter: “I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges.”
U.S. relations with Turkey have been impeded by Erdogan’s objection to Sweden joining NATO as well as Ankara’s close relationship with Moscow and differences over Syria.
Erdogan’s victory extends his tenure as the longest-serving leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago – a politically potent anniversary to be marked in October.
Erdogan, head of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, appealed to voters with nationalist and conservative rhetoric in a divisive campaign that deflected attention from the economic woes.
“The victory is ours, how happy it is for us. Bye-bye, Mr. Kemal (Kilicdaroglu). Thank God, Islam has won,” said Erdogan supporter Banu outside the presidential place.
Kilicdaroglu, who had promised to set the country on a more democratic and collaborative path, said the vote showed people’s will to change an authoritarian government. “All the means of the state were laid at the feet of one man,” he said.
Erdogan’s performance wrong-footed opponents who thought voters would punish him over the state’s initially slow response to earthquakes in February, in which over 50,000 people died.
But in the first round of voting on May 14, which included parliamentary elections, his AK Party emerged top in 10 of the 11 provinces hit by the earthquakes, helping it to secure a parliamentary majority along with its allies.
(Additional reporting by Yesim Dikmen, Can Sezer, Ezgi Erkoyun, Burcu Karakas, Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul and Nevzat Devranoglu in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer, William Maclean)