ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned away a challenger who sought to reverse his authoritarian-leaning changes, securing five more years to oversee the country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia that plays a key role in NATO.
Erdogan prevailed by winning more than 52% of the vote in Sunday's presidential runoff, which came two weeks after he fell short of scoring an outright victory in the first round. A majority of Turkish voters in the second round chose him over challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, showing their support for a man who they see as a strong, proven leader.
Voters were divided between loyalty to Erdogan, who has ruled for two decades, and hopes for the opposition candidate, who promised to return to democratic norms, adopt more conventional economic policies and improve ties with the West.
With his immediate political future secure, Erdogan must now confront skyrocketing inflation that has fueled a cost-of-living crisis and rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people.
In two speeches — one in Istanbul and one in Ankara — Erdogan thanked the nation for entrusting him with the presidency again.
“We hope to be worthy of your trust, as we have been for 21 years,” he told supporters on a campaign bus outside his home in Istanbul.
He said the divisions of the election are over, but he continued to rail against his opponent.
“The only winner today is Turkey,” Erdogan said outside the presidential palace in Ankara, promising to work hard for Turkey’s second century, which he called the “Turkish century.” The country marks its centennial this year.
Supreme challenges lie ahead, starting with the economy that has taken a beating from what critics view as Erdogan’s unorthodox policies. He also must tend to massive rebuilding efforts in 11 provinces hit by the Feb. 6 earthquake that leveled entire cities.
Kilicdaroglu said the election was “the most unjust ever,” with all state resources mobilized for Erdogan.
“We will continue to be at the forefront of this struggle until real democracy comes to our country,” he said in Ankara. He thanked the more than 25 million people who voted for him and asked them to “remain upright.”
The people have shown their will "to change an authoritarian government despite all the pressures,” Kilicdaroglu said.
Supporters of Erdogan, a divisive populist and masterful orator, took to the streets to celebrate, waving Turkish or ruling party flags, honking car horns and chanting his name. Celebratory gunfire was heard in several Istanbul neighborhoods.
His next term is certain to include more delicate maneuvering with fellow NATO members over the future of the alliance and the war in Ukraine.
Leaders across the world sent their congratulations, highlighting Turkey and Erdogan’s enlarged role in global politics.
Western politicians said they are ready to continue working with Erdogan despite years of sometimes tense relations. Most imminently, Turkey holds the cards for Sweden’s hopes to join NATO. The bid aims to strengthen the military alliance against Russia and is central to the continuity of a deal to allow Ukrainian grain shipments and avert a global food crisis.
“No one can look down on our nation,” Erdogan said in Istanbul.
Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Turkey was likely to “move the goal post” on Sweden’s membership in NATO as it seeks demands from the United States.
He also said Erdogan, who has spoken about introducing a new constitution, was likely to make an even greater push to lock in changes adopted by his conservative and religious Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
In his victory remarks, Erdogan said rebuilding the quake-struck cities would be his priority. He also said a million Syrian refugees would go back to Turkish-controlled “safe zones” in Syria as part of a resettlement project being run with Qatar.
Erdogan has retained the backing of conservative voters who remain devoted to him for lifting Islam’s profile in Turkey, which was founded on secular principles, and raising the country’s influence in international politics.
Erdogan’s rival was a soft-mannered former civil servant who has led the pro-secular Republican People’s Party, or CHP, since 2010. The opposition took months to unite behind Kilicdaroglu. He and his party have not won any elections in which Erdogan ran.
In a frantic outreach effort to nationalist voters in the runoff, Kilicdaroglu vowed to send back refugees and ruled out peace negotiations with Kurdish militants if he was elected.
Erdogan and pro-government media portrayed Kilicdaroglu, who received the backing of the country’s pro-Kurdish party, as colluding with “terrorists” and supporting what they described as “deviant” LGBTQ rights.
In his victory speech, Erdogan repeated those themes, saying LGBTQ people cannot “infiltrate” his ruling party or its nationalist allies.
In Ankara, Erdogan voter Hacer Yalcin said Turkey’s future was bright.
“Of course Erdogan is the winner … Who else? He has made everything for us," Yalcin said. “God blesses us!”
Erdogan, a 69-year-old Muslim, is set to remain in power until 2028.
He transformed the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office through a narrowly won 2017 referendum that scrapped Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance. He was the first directly elected president in 2014 and won the 2018 election that ushered in the executive presidency.
The first half of Erdogan’s tenure included reforms allowing the country to begin talks to join the European Union, as well as economic growth that lifted many out of poverty.
But he later moved to suppress freedoms and the media and concentrated more power in his own hands, especially after a failed coup attempt that Turkey says was orchestrated by the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. The cleric denies involvement.
In the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir, 37-year-old metalworker Ahmet Koyun said: “It is sad on behalf of our people that a government with such corruption, such stains, has come into power again. Mr. Kemal would have been great for our country, at least for a change of scene."
But he said everyone must accept the results.
Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Bela Szandelszky in Ankara, Turkey; Mucahit Ceylan in Diyarbakir, Turkey; and Cinar Kiper in Bodrum, Turkey, contributed to this report.