ANKARA, Turkey -- After securing a strong new mandate in a runoff presidential election, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan could temper some positions that have irritated his NATO allies. But observers predicted that the country's longtime strongman leader is unlikely to depart from his policy of engaging with both Russia and the West.
Erdogan won reelection Sunday with more than 52% of the vote, extending his increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade. He must now confront skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis and rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and leveled entire cities.
After failing to secure victory outright in the first round of voting on May 14, Erdogan defeated opposition challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who had promised to put Turkey on a more democratic path and improve relations with the West.
A divisive populist and masterful orator who transformed Turkey’s presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office, Erdogan won in part due to the backing of conservative voters. They remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and raising the country’s influence in international politics while charting an independent course.
In the runup to the election, Erdogan held off approving Sweden’s entry into the NATO alliance — part of a Western effort to isolate Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine. Erdogan accused Sweden of being too soft on groups Ankara considers to be terrorists, and a series of Quran-burning protests in Stockholm angered his religious support base — making his tough stance even more popular.
With his immediate political future now secure, Erdogan may be willing to lift his objection to Sweden’s membership, which must be unanimously approved. Turkey and Hungary are the only two countries in the alliance that have not ratified the bid.
“Turkey will likely signal it is open to some form of rapprochement, such as by encouraging parliament’s ratification of Sweden’s accession to NATO,” said Jay Truesdale, who heads the geopolitical risk consultancy, Veracity Worldwide.
But that doesn’t mean Erdogan plans to abandon his relationship with Russia, on which Turkey relies on for energy and tourism revenue.
“Erdogan has successfully maintained a multi-vector foreign policy, which has enabled him to have constructive relations with Russia, China, and countries throughout the Middle East, even if this has been to the detriment of Turkey’s alliances with the West,” said Truesdale.
That has often put Turkey at the center of major international conflicts and debates: helping to negotiate a deal to restart Ukrainian grain exports and avert global food shortages, intervening militarily in Syria's civil war, engaging in controversial gas exploration in the Mediterranean, hosting millions of Syrians fleeing violence and then often using those refugees as leverage in negotiations with his European neighbors.
In a reflection of his global ambitions, Erdogan declared in his victory speech Sunday that, with the country marking its centennial this year, the world would see a “Turkish century.”
Erdogan's tendency to play both sides — such as purchasing Russian-made military equipment and refusing to enforce sanctions against Moscow while also providing drones for Ukraine — has often irked his allies.
But it also often makes him indispensable, as evidenced by the Western leaders who rushed to congratulate him, even as they remain concerned about his increasingly authoritarian turn — including crackdowns on free speech and rhetoric targeting the LGBTQ community.
U.S. President Joe Biden said in a message posted on Twitter, that he looked “forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges.”
Later, Biden said he’d called Erdogan to congratulate him but also raised some of the most contentious issues at stake.
“I spoke to Erdogan and he still wants to work on something on the F-16s. I told him we wanted a deal with Sweden. So let’s get that done. And so we’ll be back in touch with one another," Biden said.
He said he and Erdogan would talk more about Sweden and NATO next week.
Washington removed Turkey from the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program after Erdogan's government purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Turkey is now seeking to purchase F-16 fighter jets.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said his country and Turkey “have huge challenges to face together,” including a return to peace in Europe. “With President Erdogan ... we will continue to move forward.”
And in a sign that he is also important to the West's adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin attributed Erdogan’s victory to his “independent foreign policy.”
Those policies helped Erdogan maintain his popularity despite significant challenges at home, including an economy battered by high inflation and a devastating earthquake that led to criticism of his government. The Turkish lira plunged against the dollar Monday, though stocks rallied.
“Who else were we going to vote for but the man who brought our country to this point?” Hacer Yalcin asked during post-election celebrations. “He prepared everything, piled it all in the middle, and now someone else is going to come and eat it?”
Erdogan is likely to press ahead with recent efforts to normalize relationships with countries of the Middle East after fallouts with several regional powers, including Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Erdogan acknowledged in a recent television interview that certain Gulf States, that he did not name had given Turkey financial assistance that helped prop up the country’s economy.
Under intense domestic pressure to evict millions of Syrian refugees, Erdogan has also been trying to mend fences with Syrian President Bashar Assad — after years of backing opposition fighters seeking to depose him.
Erdogan’s government hopes that rapprochement with Assad can lead to the safe repatriation of the refugees. Damascus, however, has said Turkey needs to withdraw from areas in northern Syria that it controls.
While the U.S. and Europe are likely to seek Turkey's support on some issues, like Sweden's membership in NATO, observers said the relationship will be remain difficult in other areas, such as Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Those talks are stalled over democratic backsliding under Erdogan and are unlikely to be revived.
“Another five years of Erdogan means more of the geopolitical balancing act between Russia and the West,” wrote Galip Dalay, associate fellow at Chatham House in London. “Turkey and the West will engage in transactional cooperation wherever (Turkey's) interests dictate it — and it will compartmentalize its relationship.”
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Cinar Kiper in Bodrum, Turkey, contributed to this report.