By Neyran Elden and Henry Austin - NBC News
ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won re-election Sunday after overcoming the biggest challenge he has faced in his 20-year rule and will remain in power for five more years after winning Sunday's presidential runoff election.
"I want to express my gratitude to my people, who have made us live this celebration of democracy," the president said after learning the result. "We will deserve your trust," he said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters at the presidential palace after winning re-election in a runoff on May 28, 2023 in Ankara, Turkey.Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Voters returned to the polls after the president and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the opposition Republican People's Party, failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round on May 14.
The current president finally won with 52% of the vote, compared to 48% obtained by his rival.
"The only winner today is Turkey," he proclaimed to his supporters, "we will continue to lead this struggle until real democracy comes to our country."
Erdogan's victory coincides with the centenary year of the Turkish Republic, in one of the closest presidential elections in recent times. Although Turkey is a NATO ally and holds elections, the country of 84 million people has veered toward authoritarianism with Erdogan's rise to power and forged close ties with countries such as Russia.
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Kılıçdaroğlu, the joint candidate of an alliance of opposition parties, had vowed to reverse the country's trend away from democracy. It was a chance for change in a country where Erdogan's AK Party has been in power since 2002. Erdogan became prime minister the following year and began serving as president in 2014.
He had fallen behind in the polls after a campaign dominated by the aftermath of this year's devastating earthquake in February that killed more than 35,000 people and the country's economic turmoil. In the end he led the results of the first round of the elections, and remained on the verge of absolute victory.
The pronounced cost-of-living crisis and the rejection generated by the presence of millions of Syrian refugees also occupied much of the electoral spectrum, as both candidates sought to bolster their nationalist credentials ahead of the runoff.
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Kılıçdaroğlu has led the Republican People's Party (CHP) since 2010. He had previously stated his intention to repatriate refugees within two years to create favourable conditions for their return, but subsequently promised to send all refugees home if elected president.
Erdogan, meanwhile, courted and won the support of nationalist politician Sinan Oğan, a former academic who was endorsed for the presidency by an anti-migration party but eliminated after coming third in the first round of voting. During the campaign, Oğan said he would consider forcibly returning migrants if necessary.
Before the first round, Erdogan raised wages and pensions and subsidized electricity and gas bills in an attempt to win support at the polls, and led a divisive election campaign in which he accused opposition members of being "drunks" who colluded with "terrorists." He also attacked them for defending LGBTQ rights, which he called a threat to traditional family values.
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Turkey also held legislative elections on May 14, and Erdogan's alliance of nationalist and Islamist parties won a majority of the 600 seats in parliament. Some analysts suggested that would give him an advantage in the runoff, because voters were unlikely to want a divided government.
Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, built a reputation as a bridge builder and recorded videos in his kitchen to talk to voters.
His six-party National Alliance vowed to dismantle the presidential executive system, which was voted on by a narrow margin in a 2017 referendum. Erdoğan has centralized power in a 1,000-room palace on the outskirts of Ankara, and from there Turkey's economic and security policies and its domestic and international affairs are decided.
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In addition to returning the country to a parliamentary democracy, Kılıçdaroğlu and the alliance promised to establish the independence of the judiciary and central bank, institute checks and balances, and reverse the democratic backsliding and repression of freedom of expression and dissent under Erdoğan.
The results will have multiple ramifications outside Turkey, which enjoys a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Despite being a member of NATO, the country has maintained close ties with Russia and blocked Sweden's entry into the Western military alliance.
Turkey has NATO's second-largest armed forces after the United States, controls the crucial Bosphorus Strait and is believed to harbor U.S. nuclear missiles on its soil.
Together with the United Nations, Turkey mediated a vital deal that has allowed Ukraine to ship grain across the Black Sea to parts of the world struggling with hunger.
Neyran Elden from Istanbul and Henry Austin from London