Türkiye & the Erdogan-Kilicdaroglu Sunday showdown

Erdogan is one of the foremost representatives of a multipolar world, along with Xi and Putin.

| Updated: 13 May, 2023 4:27 pm IST
Turkiye president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (left) and leader of main opposition party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

As Türkiye prepares for its most important event in recent times — the 14th May twin presidential and parliamentary elections — many of us around the globe wonder how the result will affect the already complex global equation.

International relations watchers from India, especially nationalist Indians, have little regard for President Erdogan due to his stance on Kashmir or his continuous support for Pakistan on various issues, which seems to be aimed at reducing New Delhi’s room to maneuver. India, a country severely affected by Islamism and Islamists, while respecting the secular fabric of Turkish society and appreciating its cosmopolitan population, has traditionally been wary of an Erdogan-led Turkish state.

Over the years, Erdogan has managed to alienate many countries and blocs in a similar manner. A section of the Middle East distrusts him due to Ankara’s shadowy relations with ISIS during the Syrian War and his views on the Kurdish question. The EU remains wary of him for leveraging the issue of Middle Eastern illegal immigrants to extract mostly financial benefits. The average European dislikes him for what they perceive as pushing an Islamist agenda in mainland Europe. NATO members have multiple issues with his veto votes concerning Sweden and Finland and his recent friendly relations with Russia.

Across the Atlantic, the USA has serious reservations about Erdogan, and the global audience witnessed the climax of this sentiment during the failed coup attempt in 2016. US-Türkiye relations have never recovered since then.

His challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, represents the party formed by the more famous Kemal Ataturk about a hundred years ago. Although his party’s history and credentials remain favorable among the secular Turkish population, people remain wary of two things: A) Kilicdaroglu’s promise to represent all factions that have come together to form his present coalition, and B) the USA showing a disproportionate level of interest in this coalition. A 2019 survey revealed that 73% of Turks held a negative view of the USA, which is a strong indicator.

Nevertheless, the average urban Turk remains concerned about Türkiye’s recent departure from its democratic structure due to the sweeping changes implemented by Erdogan, the current economic woes gripping the country, and the government’s lack of competence in handling domestic priorities. Rural Turks, especially those from the Asian/Anatolian provinces, have several reasons to support Erdogan, with the recent earthquake and the government’s poor disaster response being the only dampeners.

Outside of Türkiye, proponents of multipolarity are rooting for an Erdogan victory for several reasons.

Erdogan is one of the foremost representatives of a multipolar world, along with Xi and Putin. He has continuously and successfully advocated for Türkiye’s strategic autonomy, which intensified after the 2016 coup attempt against him. Particularly since Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, Erdogan’s relationship with Putin, following the initial incident of a downed Russian jet and subsequent apology, has strengthened. Ankara has consistently resisted NATO’s attempts to shift its recent interests and involvement away from the global South. Türkiye maintains decent relations with China and has recently expressed unconditional support for normalizing ties with Syria, as announced by Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu just three days ago on 10th May. With Russia and Iran in the equation, this would not only contribute to the acceptance of Syrian territorial integrity but also the restoration of transportation and logistical links between the two countries.

Türkiye’s earlier wariness about Russia – stemming from the old Ottoman hangover – is nonexistent since the fall of the USSR; the two nations no longer share a common border. With the Caucasus region acting as an ‘insulator’ between them, Türkiye has learned to move away from its pre-WW mindset of reservations about Russia. As a result, its economy has come to rely on Russian energy supplies.

This is not something subject to Western pressure – the USA has learned that at the cost of one of its most expensive failures in the form of the BTC pipeline. A recent addition to this is the recently announced $20 billion nuclear plant in Akkuyu – a Russian initiative – to meet Türkiye’s energy demands. Even if Türkiye decides to drop the S-400 as a favor to NATO, it would not respond to the power plant in the same manner, unlike European nations that remained mute spectators as their source of cheap energy (Nord Stream pipelines) got destroyed in February. Additionally, China remains Türkiye’s second-biggest trading partner after Russia.

Given its geographic location, it is in Türkiye’s best interest to balance between the East and the West for as long as necessary. Erdogan understands this keenly, and one expects his electoral adversary to exhibit the same awareness. However, the concern that hangs over Kilicdaroglu is how capable he would be in warding off Western pressure on his coalition.

Coalitions, by their nature, are tricky affairs, and the US-UK duo has already demonstrated the kind of pressure they can exert. They recently pushed the entire Europe into an economic disaster just to support a geopolitically inconsequential country like Ukraine. If they can do that to the people they consider ‘their own,’ imagine the kind of pressure they can put upon an ‘outsider’ like Türkiye – a state that has the potential to impact Russia, China, and the Middle East all at once.

So, while the average Turkish voter tomorrow remains concerned about the issues that affect them, most of the rest of the world will remain concerned about how the average Turkish vote impacts the future of a large stretch of the Eurasian landmass.

(Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own.

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