It's anything but a surprise, given the weakness of the opposition and an election played out in advance: Recep Tayyip Erdogan won after the first round of voting in Sunday's presidential election — the first ever in Turkey by direct universal suffrage.
Erdogan thus perfects a political career marked, for 20 years, by one electoral success after another. Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, prime minister since 2002, there he is now president of a republic he plans to fundamentally remodel. Such longevity make him, already, one of the most influential political leaders of modern Turkey.
If he manages to remain in power until 2023, he can hope to join Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — founder of the republic in 1923 — at the pinnacle of the nation's history.
“Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,” Lenin said. The “new Turkey” Erdogan calls for is essentially economic growth plus Islam. Since 2002, Turkey’s GDP and income per capita have practically tripled. As for the AKP (Justice and Development Party), of which Erdogan is the absolute ruler, it’s an Islamic-conservative formation which intends to control all of the apparatus of the republic, and replace the previous Kemalist secularism.
Ultimately, Erdogan’s style, booming and populist, helps explain his successes. He never hesitates to provoke, to appeal to their patriotic or religious instincts: Against his former allies turned sworn enemies, like the followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, against traitors, Jewish, Armenians, women or journalists ... With his traditional electorate — Anatolian, conservative, nationalist and undereducated — those types of rant hit the mark every time.
But to strengthen his grip on the country, the new Turkish president also preferred rule by political isolation. Within the AKP, dissidents were brushed aside. The restrained cabinet with which he leads is more and more huddled up on itself and troubled by the obsessive fear of plots to undermine the leader. Following the disclosure of the resounding corruption scandals in December 2013, Erdogan now only trusts his children, if even them.
Erdogan’s radical positions have emphasized the polarization within the Turkish society. One in two Turks supports him blindly. For his opponents, he leads the country backwards with an authoritarian government and a police regime, whose 2013 repression against Taksim Square's protesters set the tone.
Erdogan only really speaks to the 20 millions of devoted Turks who follow him with eyes shut. He’s cut off from the liberal, urban and Europe-oriented Turkey which had initially supported him.
“Democracy is like a bus ride. Once I get to my stop I’m getting off,” he once said in the 1990s, back when he was mayor of Istanbul. It remains to be seen if the presidential election actually was that stop.