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Turkish elections have a regional and international flavour

April 5, 2023 at 11:32 am

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [Mustafa Kamacı – Anadolu Agency]

Turkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is campaigning across the country to encourage voters to re-elect President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Campaign meetings have no songs or music out of respect for the bereaved families who lost loved ones in the devastating earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people in Syria and Turkiye.

The AK Party may hold quiet election events, but they are making a big noise across the globe. Erdogan has turned Turkiye into a country heeded by world leaders and states. The party has governed the country for 21 years and Erdogan is seeking a third term as president in the poll on 14 May. Presidential and parliamentary elections are being held on the same day.

The enemies of Turkiye have been trying to get rid of Erdogan for years, but he has a solid popular base and has introduced successful economic and managerial reforms that are turning Turkiye into a superpower. This all makes Turkiye’s elections interesting for friends and foes alike.

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Although they are NATO allies, the US does not view Turkiye as a friend because of the Islamic roots of the AK Party. “What I think we should be doing,” said Joe Biden before he became US president, “is taking a very different approach to him [Erdogan] now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership.” Biden added that Erdogan has to pay a price for his policies.

Like others in the West, Biden would like to see secularists return to dominate the Muslim country. The West should encourage the opposition to defeat Erdogan, he told the New York Times in 2020. As president, he sent his ambassador to Ankara Jeff Flake to sit with Erdogan’s main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and presidential candidate for a bloc of six opposition parties. Flake claimed that the meeting was “part of continuing conversations with Turkish political parties on issues of mutual interest between our two countries.”

This move was criticised by Erdogan as foreign interference in the Turkish elections. “We need to teach the United States a lesson in this election,” he said on Sunday.

A strong Muslim country in the Middle East is viewed by Washington as a threat to US interests in the region. Despite the disunity among Muslim countries, such a state might encourage them to unite and turn their back on the US and the West.

The return of secularists, who are not interested in any kind of unity with other Muslim countries, would guarantee that Turkiye will never become a superpower. When the secularists rule a Muslim nation, they depend on foreign support to keep them in power. In Turkiye, this means that they would be puppets of the US and its allies. This explains the international interest in Turkiye’s elections.

Arab and Muslim states and leaders are also interested in these elections. They have complex relations with Turkiye’s rulers. Some maintain a kind of buffer zone in their relations with Turkiye so that they have room to manoeuvre no matter who wins the presidential election next month.

The mainly Muslim people in the Middle East, though, want to see a successful democracy in Turkiye as one of the leading Muslim countries. They want to see Turkiye’s success have a positive influence for change in their own countries.

Palestinian, Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Turkiye are waiting eagerly for the results of the elections. Most want to see another Erdogan win because he respects and deals positively with them; the secularists are campaigning to send refugees back home. Kilicdaroglu, for example, has said that he would send Syrian refugees back to war-torn Syria, which is still ruled by the same regime which destroyed the country. Turkiye hosts about four million Arab refugees, mainly — 3.5 million — Syrians.

Under Erdogan, Turkiye has become a safe hub for tourism, residence and investment. Arabs generally will not be happy to see him lose. “The Arab nations are the friends of the Turks” he has said. “The same thing with our brothers in Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus, and other parts of the world.”

Unlike the secularists, Erdogan defends Palestinians and their cause, which is the central issue for Arabs and Muslims (if not always their governments). This is yet another reason why they want to see an Erdogan victory next month.

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“Recently, Erdogan has become a person with international impact,” Turkish political analyst Mahmet Ajet told Al Jazeera. “In addition to his domestic record, he has a very long record on foreign policy and in the international arena.” He pointed out that Erdogan put Turkiye on the same level as the superpowers in terms of farming, industry and hydrocarbon fuels, as well as defence.

Earlier this year, US Envoy Flake incited a number of Western ambassadors to close the consulates in Istanbul in order to reflect an unstable image and damage the flourishing tourism industry. In February, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu slammed the US ambassador after Washington had warned Ankara about the export of chemicals, microchips and other products to Russia. “Take your dirty hands off of Turkiye,” said Soylu. “I am being very clear. I know very well how you would like to create strife in Turkiye. Take your grinning face away from Turkiye.” Every US ambassador who arrives in Turkiye tries to find out how to make a coup succeed in our country, he added.

Major regional and international players are keeping an eye on Turkiye’s elections because the results will either consolidate Islamist rule and make it fully independent of the US and the West. Or they will turn the country over to the secularists so that it is ruled from Washington and other Western capitals. The regional and international flavour could leave a bitter taste.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.