Turkish elections: What if Putin loses Erdogan?

Mohamad Hasan Sweidan, The Cradle, May 8 2023 —

While an Erdogan defeat in Sunday’s elections could shift Turkish foreign policy westward and strain Ankara’s relations with Moscow, pervasive anti-US sentiments across Turkiye will remain a challenge for the opposition.

During a 27 April ceremony marking the delivery of Russian-made nuclear fuel to the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkiye, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his support for his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the hotly-contested, upcoming 14 May presidential elections.

The two heads of state participated in the event via video conferencing, during which Putin presented Erdogan – who faces his toughest election ever – with this generous pre-polls gift. But despite the rare endorsement, does Putin have much to lose even if Erdogan is defeated?

Back to the American bosom

For more than a year, Turkish opposition leaders have been making friendly overtures toward the west. The six-member opposition coalition manifesto openly stresses the importance of restoring “mutual trust” with the US, achieving full EU membership, and a desire to return to the multi-nation F-35 fighter jet production program from which Turkiye was expelled in 2019 after its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.

Despite this western outreach, a presidency helmed by opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is unlikely to significantly shift the foreign policy differences between Ankara and Washington on some critical issues, including Turkiye’s restoration of relations with Syria and its recognition of the Republic of Cyprus.

From Washington’s perspective, the election of a Turkish president who shares the same vision as the US on key issues is crucial, especially in the context of its Great Power competition with rivals Russia and China. In this respect, the Turkish opposition has indicated its intention to improve Ankara’s relations with NATO and the EU, which may adversely impact the close Turkish-Russian relations built up by Erdogan over the past few years.

Anti-west sentiments

Some observers predict that if Erdogan loses the vote on 14 May, the most significant change in Turkiye will be related to security and defense policies. The Turkish opposition is expected to focus on better aligning these policies with the requirements of Turkiye’s membership in NATO, which will lead to a more inclusive role for Ankara within the alliance. This includes approving Sweden’s accession to NATO, participating more actively in the deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, and developing a missile defense structure compatible with NATO.

However, the opposition’s biggest challenge may be that the majority of the Turkish electorate harbors negative views of the US. This sentiment has helped Erdogan mobilize and maintain his voting base through his adoption of anti-western rhetoric that challenges Washington.

In one recent example, on 4 May, at a rally in the Black Sea city of Giresun, Erdogan denounced the opposition’s support for liberal causes, stating: “We are against the LGBT,” adding that “family is sacred to us. A strong family means a strong nation. No matter what they do, God is enough for us.”

According to a poll conducted by the Turkish Gezici Foundation in January, around 90 percent of Turks consider the US an enemy, while 72.8 percent favor good relations with Russia. If the opposition comes to power, their efforts to improve relations with the west will be hindered by the difficulty of shifting deeply ingrained anti-western sentiments within Turkish society – much of this due to the successful populist rhetoric of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its strong mobilization capabilities.

Potential shift in Turkiye-Russia relations

If Kilicdaroglu wins the polls, there may be a noticeable change in Turkiye’s relations with Moscow. The opposition’s main objective is to strengthen ties with the west, which is currently in conflict with Russia in various areas.

However, it will be important for his coalition to proceed cautiously in its rapprochement with the west and NATO. A collision with a superpower that most Turks view as a friend to appease another superpower that most of them see as an enemy is the last thing they will want.

But the Turkish opposition will also be under considerable, non-stop western pressure to choose a side, align with NATO, increase pressure on Moscow, and close all possible loopholes in US-led sanctions against Russia.

One potential flashpoint between Ankara and Moscow may be the opposition’s decision to abandon the Russian S-400 missile defense system in an attempt to appease the west and restore Turkiye’s role in the American F-35 aircraft program.

In response, Moscow may apply pressure tactics to hinder the opposition’s western-oriented drive, using its leverage over gas supplies to Turkiye which financially benefits from the transit of Russian gas, the Russian-operated nuclear power plant, Russian tourism, and agricultural imports from Turkiye.

Will Ankara abandon its eastern tilt?

As the competition intensifies between Washington and its allies on the one hand, and Moscow and Beijing and their allies on the other, Turkiye’s increased alignment with the Atlanticists could have negative implications for the Eurasianists.

Kilicdaroglu and his team are fully aware of the potentially high cost of antagonizing countries such as China and Iran. China is a major economic power that is actively promoting its investment projects worldwide, and Turkey – like all rising states in need of investment capital – would not want to be bypassed by Beijing.

Meanwhile, Iran is Turkiye’s direct neighbor with whom it has strong cultural, religious, economic, and social ties. Perhaps this is the main reason the Turkish opposition coalition declined to mention Iran in its electoral platform.

Regarding Syria, the opposition is keen on restoring relations with Damascus to help resolve the Syrian refugee crisis and its severe domestic economic impact. An opinion poll in Turkiye showed that 56.1 percent of Turks believe that the country’s biggest problem is the deteriorating economic situation.

Therefore, it is natural that the first step of the new government would be to start improving the economic situation by moving quickly to resolve its differences with Syria. Moreover, the normalization of relations with Damascus – essential now, given the Arab League’s 7 May vote to welcome Syria back to the Arab fold – leaves the door open for a positive relationship with both Russia and Iran.

Putin’s concern over an Erdogan loss

The speeches given by Putin and Erdogan at the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant ceremony were filled with expressions of friendship. The two leaders have also shared a personal relationship that has proved beneficial for both of their countries over the past two decades, thanks to what is often referred to as “leadership diplomacy.”

This close relationship has resulted in significant gains for the two nations, including increased economic cooperation, Russia’s support for Turkiye after the failed coup attempt in 2016, Ankara’s moderate position over the Ukrainian conflict, its refusal to comply with western sanctions against Russia, and the Putin-blessed transformation of Turkiye into a Eurasian gas hub – a longtime Turkish geoeconomic aspiration.

Putin realizes that these gains may dissipate if his “dear friend” Erdogan loses the presidential elections, which is why the Russian president emphasized that “the successes that have been achieved in Turkey would not have been achieved without Erdogan’s presence in power.”

It is safe to say that the outcome of the election on 14 May will not be an ordinary event for the superpowers. All eyes will be on Turkiye, as the results could lead to a major shift in the foreign policy of one of the most prominent regional powers in West Asia.

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