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The global consequences of the reelection of Turkey's combative, populist leader


We begin with the big development in international politics over the weekend. That's the reelection of Turkey's combative populist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His victory in a closely watched runoff has global consequences since Turkey's one of NATO's largest members. And after holding power already for 20 years and sometimes jailing his critics, Erdogan's win intensifies concerns about what was once considered a model democracy in the region. NPR's Fatima Tanis joins us now from Istanbul. Hey there.


SUMMERSS: So first, can you just tell us, how did Erdogan do this? A few weeks ago, it was really looking like he could lose.

TANIS: That's right. He's been criticized for a lot of the country's problems. The economy is in terrible shape, and the government mismanaged the response to deadly earthquakes in February. But Erdogan is still seen as a champion for many people who were neglected by previous governments, you know, working-class conservative and religious voters. He promised to make Turkey a global power independent of foreign influence, and that's something that's really important to many Turks. And he also took advantage of his sweeping powers and government resources, mostly shut his opponent out of getting airtime and blocked their campaign text messages.

SUMMERSS: OK. And when you look at the situation, are there lessons that we can draw, even beyond Turkey, from how he campaigned?

TANIS: Certainly there are. Erdogan used divisive language that we've seen in other places as well. He accused the opposition, for example, of being tied to terrorists and said that they would undermine the country's culture by allowing more LGBTQ rights. I spoke with Daron Acemoglu. He's an economist at MIT who follows Turkey and co-authored the book "Why Nations Fail." He said the strategy that Erdogan implemented has a lot in common with what the leaders of India and Hungary and also Donald Trump have all used.

DARON ACEMOGLU: It polarizes. It uses nationalist feeling. It demonizes the opposition. It leverages misinformation.

TANIS: And he says the worst news out of Turkey, in his opinion, is that it showed this strategy is still very potent.

SUMMERSS: OK. And, Fatma, what does this tell us about the future of Turkey as a democracy?

TANIS: So analysts note that Erdogan already has a solid hold on the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media, and he's also jailed some of his opponents, as you mentioned earlier. But on the other side, we saw that the election really energized people's commitment to democracy. There was a really high voter turnout, 84% this round. Yesterday, I was at a polling station in Istanbul, and I met two young women who had just voted in their first elections and were also volunteering as poll monitors. They both supported the opposition but said they were determined to keep democracy alive no matter the outcome. Also, rights groups and activists have said that they would step up their work to protect minorities and civic rights.

SUMMERSS: OK. And what about Turkey's pivotal role in the world, what does this all mean for that?

TANIS: Well, we can continue to expect to see Erdogan walking a fine line between east and west. He provides weapons to Ukraine and also helped ensure that vital Ukrainian grain gets shipped out and feeds many around the world. This is something that's important to NATO and the U.S. But Turkey does not impose Western sanctions on Russia, and Erdogan has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's blocked Sweden's entry to NATO, which the U.S. sees as important to counter Russia. But some analysts think he might soften his stance on that now that he's reelected. Today, President Biden called Erdogan and congratulated him on his reelection. The two leaders agreed to deepen cooperation between the two countries.

SUMMERSS: That's NPR's Fatma Tanis. Thank you.

TANIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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