ISTANBUL — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection in a runoff Sunday, following a nail-biter first round two weeks earlier. Having secured another five years, Erdogan now faces a host of domestic challenges in a deeply divided country, from a battered economy to pressure for the repatriation of Syrian refugees to the need to rebuild after a devastating earthquake.
Here’s a look at the challenges ahead.
Economy: How much longer can Erdogan’s unorthodox policies be sustained?
Inflation in Turkey hit a staggering 85% in October before easing to 44% last month — although independent experts think the latest figure still masks how severe the cost-of-living crisis is in a country where people are having trouble paying skyrocketing rents and buying basic goods.
Critics blame the crisis on Erdogan’s policy of keeping interest rates low to promote growth. Economists generally recommend raising rates to combat inflation.
Despite a faltering economy, Erdogan won the election, in part by softening the effects of inflation with public spending that experts say is unsustainable, including minimum wage and pension increases.
“The Turkish economy has been partying for a long time and well beyond its means. And I think in the period after the election, this is when we are going to pay for the feast that we consumed,” said Selva Demiralp, professor of economics at Istanbul’s Koc University.
Moving forward, the government will need to decide whether to stick to low rates, as Erdogan has promised, make gradual hikes, or combine small increases with other measures. All will be bring an “unavoidable slowdown” in the Turkish economy and higher unemployment rates, according to Demiralp, but the question is whether it’s a controlled slowdown or a sudden stop.
The Turkish lira plunged against the dollar Monday, though stocks rallied.
Earthquake: Erdogan has vowed to rebuild — but at what cost?
Erdogan’s overwhelming victory in the provinces hit hardest by the Feb. 6 earthquake that killed some 50,000 people came despite criticism that the government’s response was slow and ineffective.
Voters in nine of the 11 provinces affected by the quake backed the president, including in especially hard-hit Hatay. In his victory speech, Erdogan said rebuilding efforts would be a top priority for his government.
The World Bank estimates that the earthquake caused $34.2 billion in “direct damages” — an amount equivalent to 4% of Turkey’s 2021 gross domestic product. The recovery and reconstruction costs could add up to twice that much, it said.
Erdogan’s two-decades in power have been marked by a huge boom in construction. Despite criticism that the lax enforcement of building codes contributed to the deadliness of the quake, many of his supporters believe he has shown that he can rebuild. But geologists and engineers have warned that a speedy construction campaign could also pose risks.
Syrians: Erdogan under pressure to send refugees home
Erdogan is deeply aware that sentiment has soured on the 3.4 million Syrians who fled violence at home for Turkey, especially as the country grapples with an economic downturn.
In his victory speech, Erdogan said some 600,000 refugees had already voluntarily returned to Syria, where his government is creating so-called “safe zones” in northern areas that it controls. An additional million would follow thanks to a joint resettlement program with Qatar, Erdogan said, without providing details.
But Emma Sinclair-Webb from Human Rights Watch said Syria is still not safe for many refugees — while the polarizing discourse in Turkey is also creating a dangerous situation for them.
Rights and freedoms: Erdogan signals crackdown to continue
Erdogan’s presidency has been marked by a crackdown on freedom of expression and increasing hostility toward minority groups: Mainstream media is pro-government, internet censorship is widespread, new social media laws could limit expression online, and he has frequently targeted members of the LGBTQ community and ethnic Kurds.
In the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup attempt that Turkey blames on a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, the government used broad terror laws to imprison those with links to the cleric, pro-Kurdish politicians and members of civil society.
Sinclair-Webb, the human rights campaigner, said Erdogan’s victory speech was a “taste of what’s to come” when he targeted the imprisoned pro-Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas, as crowds chanted slogans for capital punishment.
He similarly used another victory speech to stir up anti-LGBTQ sentiment.
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Erdogan once called the mistreatment of gay people “inhumane” but now refers to members of LGBTQ community as “deviants.” Since 2015, his government has banned pride parades, as officials have increased the use of discriminatory language while trying to strengthen their conservative base.
Erdogan’s government has also withdrawn Turkey from a landmark European treaty protecting women from domestic violence, bowing to conservative groups that claimed the treaty promoted homosexuality.
Anti-gay rhetoric only escalated during Erdogan’s campaign.
“Mentioning it again at the first opportunity in the balcony speech on victory is a chilling reminder of how he’s really putting LGBT people at great risk,” said Sinclair-Webb, the human rights campaigner.
Turkey’s oldest LGBTQ association, Kaos GL, said that Erdogan’s win would not silence them.
“Even though they promise to shut us down, we came out once and we are not going back in,” the organization and others said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.