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After winning new powers, Erdogan must now deliver

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waved to supporters following his reelection Sunday.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan waved to supporters following his reelection Sunday. (KAYHAN OZER/afp/getty images)

ANKARA, Turkey — With his victory in Sunday’s elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken his place among the world’s emerging class of strongman rulers, nailing down the sweeping powers he has insisted he needs to address Turkey’s numerous challenges, at home and abroad.

Now, all he needs to do is deliver.

“He won on a knife-edge,” said Ugur Gurses, a former banker who writes for the daily newspaper Hurriyet. “But now he has in his lap all the problems.”

Erdogan is contending with an array of economic troubles, an increasingly disgruntled populace, and deteriorating relations with Turkey’s Western allies. Among the many problems Erdogan faces is one fundamental roadblock: His foreign policy is fighting with his economic needs.

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His increasingly authoritarian, nationalist and anti-Western bent is alienating foreign investors, which is hurting the Turkish lira.

As the currency plunges, domestic capital flees. And he is newly reliant on a nationalist party that enabled him to maintain his majority in Parliament but promises to reinforce all those tendencies, as well as his hard line against the Kurdish minority.

The lira briefly rose with the news of Erdogan’s re-election, and his most senior economic adviser posted a message on Twitter on Sunday night: “This sets the stage for speeding up reforms.”

The economy is Erdogan’s most pressing problem, but analysts express doubt that he will be able to perform the necessary surgery and introduce needed austerity measures with municipal elections looming in March 2019.

“Now the first challenge is the deterioration of the economy, and he has no means, no perspective to change the course of events,” said Kadri Gursel, a columnist for the newspaper Cumhuriyet, who was imprisoned by Erdogan for 11 months.

Gursel said Erdogan offered no ideas during his campaign to explain how he would lift the economy, except more of the same.

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“He could not offer a vision for the future,” Gursel said. “All he could offer was infrastructure projects and a bad representation of the past.”

After years of strong growth, the economy is languishing in recession, economists say, with rising foreign debt levels, double-digit inflation, the sagging lira, and paltry levels of foreign investment, compared with past years.

An increasing government role in the economy has led to charges of cronyism and corruption, with critics complaining of insiders becoming fabulously wealthy on government contracts and sweetheart deals.

As the election results underscored, Erdogan still maintains the strong backing of the newly prosperous Islamists who were long marginalized under the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; people who, like Erdogan, as historian Soner Cagaptay has written, were “born on the wrong side of the tracks.”

The transfer of power and wealth to those newcomers over the past 15 years represents a transfer of capital that is permanently changing Turkey, said Bekir Agirdir, director of the polling firm Konda.

Economists say Erdogan needs to cut public spending, including expensive subsidies for gasoline and electricity. Turkey borrowed heavily in recent years on international markets, and now faces a bill of $250 billion a year to finance the debt and the country’s current account, which is also deteriorating. This could force it to seek help from the International Monetary Fund.

But few say they think he will take the necessary measures. “Erdogan must do a surgical operation on the economy,” Gurses, the Hurriyet correspondent, said.

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