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Why is Erdogan still popular?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Ermine Erdogan, greets supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied by his wife Ermine Erdogan, greets supporters at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara, Turkey.


By many measures, things aren’t great in Turkey right now.

Inflation is at 44% (down from 85% in October), and analysts say it’s likely higher than official numbers suggest. Meanwhile, the lira, Turkey’s currency, is tanking, having fallen 76% during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest term in office (since 2018).

That’s to say nothing of the 1.5 million people left homeless by February’s devastating earthquake, which killed 50,000 in the country’s south and exposed the depths of Ankara’s cronyism and corruption. The list goes on.

The rules of democratic politics are pretty simple: When the economy is hurting, the incumbent gets punished. But Sunday’s poll shows that Erdogan remains the most popular figure in Turkish politics. The longtime leader reaped 49% of the vote, just below the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, which he is expected to win on May 28. He defied polls that had him playing second fiddle to his rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, a technocrat leading an alliance of six opposition parties. So what explains Erdogan's enduring appeal?

Populist moves are popular for a reason. A savvy populist dating back to his days as Istanbul’s mayor (1994-1998), Erdogan has long understood that bread-and-butter issues motivate Turkish voters above all else. In many ways, he’s been a modern populist pioneer, with his rallying against the global order and espousal of populist-driven economic policy – dubbed Erdonomics – having inspired similar styles by leaders across the Western world (though notably they haven’t replicated his approach of keeping interest rates low to fight inflation).

Indeed, Erdogan’s penchant for handing out free money to woo voters also helps explain his popularity. Over the past year alone, he has made cheap housing loans a central tenet of his domestic policy and implemented a debt-relief program for millions of Turks. What’s more, six months before the election, he passed a law allowing more than 2 million Turks to retire immediately.

Boosting wages has also been an electoral priority for Erdogan, a strategy that’s resonated in a country where more than 40% of workers earn minimum wage. He hasn’t forgotten those in urban areas either, having also raised the minimum wage for the private sector by 94% year-on-year in Jan. 2023.

Voters tend to care less about rampant inflation and currency crises when they are getting free money.

A pragmatic Islamist. Over the past two decades, Erdogan has managed to appeal to conservatives in the heartland who felt isolated by the secular elite that governed the Turkish Republic since its founding in the 1920s.

A proponent of political Islam, he succeeded where many failed by putting democratic reforms at the top of his agenda to comply with EU regulations and to help integrate Turkey’s economy with the West, while at the same time also reversing the republic’s ban on Islamist education and Islamic dress.

This delicate dance has been a winning strategy in a country where more than a third of Turkish women covered their heads but where adherence to strict religious customs is also slipping.

While other would-be Erdogans have been relegated to the dustbin of history (Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi is a case in point), Erdogan has managed to skillfully integrate Islam into mainstream politics without imposing it on secular Turks.

Things are far from perfect in Turkey. But for many Turks who have seen the Middle East go up in flames since the Arab Spring, Erdogan represents stability, diplomatic clout, Islamic values and economic fruition … and in a tumultuous neighborhood that counts for a lot.


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