The month of May has seen a replay of the past decade of both Turkish politics and the Western nations’ dealings with it: the old rivalry between Turkiye’s secularist body politic and its ‘Islamist’-inspired ruling party, the exaggeration of both by Western media, and the significant ultranationalist base underlying all sides and party alliances.
The dramatisation and polarisation of the elections was, like any major election throughout the democratic world, to be expected, as were the shifting alliances and uncertainty of the prediction polls’ accuracy. But Turkiye’s presidential and parliamentary elections of 2023 – a century since the founding of the Turkish Republic – had an element which most others do not: rampant foreign interference.
That is not to accuse any foreign nation or political force of directly or intentionally meddling in Turkiye’s elections, but some forms of indirect interference in the process were undeniable. The most prominent and obvious example was the slew of anti-Turkish government campaigns broadcast by many Western media organisations and figures.
First came the demonisation, presenting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an Islamist who curtails freedoms in the country and who is leading some supposed jihad against the Western world and the NATO alliance.
Then came the predictions which – although many were based on reliable polling organisations – were used by Western media outlets to wildly and inaccurately predict that Erdogan would lose to main opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
As Erdogan came out on top in the first round, yet still without the decisive 50 per cent necessary to win, and predictions this time favoured Erdogan’s chances for the runoff, those same outlets resorted to speculating what the re-elected president’s victory would have on the region and on the West, predicting the usual dark clouds and storms ahead if he remained in power.
In contrast, Kilicdaroglu was classed by the same Western media outlets as a “soft-spoken” and endearing political figure in comparison to the more boisterous Erdogan, with some giving the CHP leader flattering reviews and a polished profile to present him as a saviour of democracy in Turkiye.
Of course, such outlets noticeably gleaned over major details which would tarnish that democratic and peaceful facade, namely his vow to forcefully deport ten million Syrian refugees from the country – despite there only being around 3.5 million in Turkiye – and the adoption of broader anti-refugee and foreigner rhetoric.
The endorsement of such a political figure, first of all, represents one of the greatest double standards espoused by Western media to date, proving yet again the prevalence of the view that far-right authoritarian figures in the West are evil while those same figures abroad are acceptable or even preferable.
For years, media outlets in the West ran concerted campaigns against a figure like former US President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric and policies – most of which was hardly admirable – were nowhere near as racist and dangerous as Kilicdaroglu’s proposed policies were.
Similarly, other far-right political figures who begin to emerge on the European stage are condemned for any plan to deport refugees or migrants, and rightfully so. But for Turkiye, a figure explicitly more extreme was welcomed by the same “fake news” media, as Trump would put it.
Yet while the media adopted such an attitude, Western politicians have remarkably taken up a more conciliatory and flexible tone. Upon Erdogan’s victory, politicians and leaders of European states – both current and former – rushed to congratulate him, along with former US President Trump.
Even current American President Joe Biden, who only four years ago emphasised the need for Washington to “embolden” the Turkish opposition in order to defeat Erdogan, stated that he congratulated his re-election and discussed the furthering of talks for Turkiye to acquire F-16 fighter jets and work on Sweden’s accession into NATO.
Of course, such congratulations are to be expected as common diplomatic courtesy and procedure, but it is still a marked difference to the tone expressed by Western leaders and politicians upon Erdogan’s previous election victory in 2018, when animosity towards the Turkish president was probably at its height amid his government’s increasingly assertive foreign policy moves in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Attitudes are shifting, however, and the rabid anti-Turkiye sentiment that had pervaded Western press and politics has gradually subsided in the face of realities that demand the attention of Washington and European capitals.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war in that country are one such reality, with Erdogan and his government providing a mediatory and useful role. Although many in the West remain perplexed over Turkiye’s alliances and are vexed by its refusal to sanction Russia, Ankara has not denied some support to Kyiv and serves as a force which somehow counters Moscow diplomatically and stirs it toward peace talks.
We must also not forget that it is a key NATO member, and one that has previously and continuously brokered deals to facilitate the transport of Ukrainian wheat. Despite some fellow members questioning its right to remain in the military alliance by presenting it as some sort of Trojan horse, it is difficult to deny that Turkiye’s role as a NATO ally has been more positive than negative.
Regarding the alternate future in which Turkiye would have kicked out those ten million refugees under Kilicdaroglu, Western policymakers likely foresaw the tragic consequences that such a move would have had. It would not simply have been a humanitarian crisis by sending them to a terrible fate under the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, but their forced deportation could have sparked another influx of millions of refugees and migrants into Europe.
In an echo of the first refugee crisis which was seen in the last decade, that influx would certainly have risked the security of Fortress Europe or the “garden surrounded by high walls”, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell referred to the continent last year.
While Erdogan and his government have their undemocratic flaws – which his critics in the West have spared no effort in highlighting – such as cracking down on freedom of the press, increasingly centralising authority, and pressuring Syrian refugees to return, many see that he still represents the most balanced option.
His predictable Syria policy, his steady plan to facilitate a safe return of refugees to northern Syria, his mediatory approach to issues such as the Ukraine war, and his ability to counter Russia’s influence in the region all made Erdogan a preferable candidate even to the West.
There is also the possibility that he perhaps provides justification to deny Ankara a spot in the EU and reason to counter any Turkish moves viewed as unfavourable. Western governments and policymakers may not like a proactive and increasingly self-reliant Turkiye like Erdogan’s, but they recognise it as the safest option for now.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.