Sarah Stern: Good afternoon, and welcome to yet another extremely topical, extremely timely, and informative EMET webinar. After a brutal reign of 20 years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has finally faced a bit of opposition. Erdoğan has been a brutal human rights violator, arbitrarily imprisoning opposition leaders, journalists, intellectuals, professors, and gays. Under Erdoğan, the Turkish parliament has passed draconian laws to restrict and curtail freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and an independent judiciary. Although Turkey is a member of NATO, in 2017, Turkey purchased the all-powerful, or extremely powerful S-400 missile defense system from Russia, and has managed to dance a rather delicate balancing act on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Historically, Turkey and Israel had enjoyed extremely warm ties. Turkey was the first Muslim-majority nation to recognize the establishment of the state of Israel back in 1949.
However, after Erdoğan came to power, things began to go south. Although I have to say, in March of 2022, diplomatic ties were re-engaged between Ankara and Jerusalem, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog did visit Ankara for the first time since 2007 when President Peres had visited Ankara. In August of 2022, diplomatic ties were restored between Turkey and Israel, yet we remain extremely concerned about President Erdoğan’s real attitudes towards the Jewish state.
For example, on May 8th, President Erdoğan tweeted, we strongly condemn Israel’s heinous attacks against our first qibla or the Al-Aqsa Mosque that are unfortunately being carried out every Ramadan. And in his UN address on September 22nd, 2020, President Erdoğan wrongly accused Israel of extending its “dirty hand over Jerusalem” and “occupation and oppression in Palestine” prompting Israel’s UN envoy to walk out of the General Assembly hall.
Ankara hosts and has regaled the importance of Hamas. Turkey has been grappling lately with wide-scale inflation and a very devastating earthquake which killed approximately 50,000 of its people. Last Sunday, many of us had reason for hope. Six opposition parties coalesced around the opposition candidate, and I know I am going to butcher this name, Kemal Kilic… Sinan, help me out here. CHP Party. Okay, how is the name pronounced?
Sinan Ciddi: It’s Kılıçdaroğlu.
Sarah: Kılıçdaroğlu. Thank you. However, unfortunately, the results of the election were much too close. In order to win, a candidate has to obtain 50% of the vote. Runoff elections are now scheduled for May 28th. So now, we are in a bit of a cliffhanger. We are extremely honored to have with us today, from the wonderful Foundation for Defense of Democracy, an expert on Turkish domestic and international affairs, Sinan Ciddi. Sinan also is an Associate Professor of National Security Studies at the Marine Corps University, and he was the Executive Director of the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University. He continues to serve as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Sinan has written one book on Kemalism in Turkish Politics: The Republican People’s Party, Secularism and Nationalism, which focuses on the electoral weakness of the Republican People’s Party, and has written scores and scores of articles. Sinan obtained his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2007 in the field of political science. He continues to author scholarly articles, opinion pieces, and book chapters on contemporary Turkish politics and foreign policy, as well as participate in multiple media appearances. Sinan, it’s an honor and a pleasure to have you with us today.
First of all, if you can, please explain to us who the opposition party leader is and what he represents to a very large segment of the Turkish population.
Sinan: Well, first of all, Sarah, thank you for having me. I know we’ve communicated a lot to get the schedule, so I appreciate everybody’s hard effort to get this on the books and also in in-person, live. I appreciate everybody basically listening to this. And you’re right, it is a cliffhanger, what’s going on in Turkey. At least the only thing I can say in Mr. Erdoğan’s favor is he keeps it interesting.
The first thing that we can actually say in terms of who he’s up against, who Mr. Erdoğan has been facing off against for the last while, is this interesting person, Mr. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who is 74 years old, although he is quite spry and can be energetic and an interesting personality. By training and experience, he is a bureaucrat. He used to run the country’s Social Security Administration before he joined the Republican People’s Party which goes by the acronym of CHP, which also is the founding party of the Republic of Turkey, or the one that was created by Atatürk back in the 1920s. It’s literally the founding party of Turkey, and he is the most recent chairman of it since 2010, so he’s been in that role for quite a while and has been a lifelong member of that party, and he’s tried to essentially go up against Erdoğan for several successive elections. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have the magic sort of touch, so to speak, or to unseat him. But then again, nobody seems to have.
Mr. Erdoğan has been in power or has led this country one way or another either as Prime Minister or as President since 2003. I actually remember when I was a graduate student in my first year in 2002, the night that the Justice Development Party Mr. Erdoğan was elected for the first time on November 3. And we were at the BBC Studios in London at the Turkish Service covering the night of the elections. And I do remember one of my colleagues asking, because he was an unknown quantity, Erdoğan and his entire team who just won their election for the first time, standing on a balcony and waving at the crowd that was jubilant, saying to me, who are these people? The response basically came back with another colleague just looking at both of us saying, I don’t know, but we’re about to find out.
And basically, 21 years have passed since then, and Erdoğan doesn’t appear to be any weaker, at least politically, than he has been. But Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu is essentially a bureaucrat coming into politics later on in the game, and he will face up against Mr. Erdoğan in just under 2-weeks’ time, again on a Sunday. It is unprecedented, to the extent that Turkey has never had this sort of runoff election before. Turkey, until 2017, was a parliamentary system of government whereby voters chose their parliamentarians. The parliament maintained the privilege of being the legislature from which a cabinet belonging to the largest majority party or coalition would be basically from the executive branch of the government, with a Prime Minister. And it would gain a good vote of confidence, essentially, and execute the business of government.
With the installation of the presidential system in 2017, Turkey has really changed its system of government. Now, we have an all-powerful president. And that president is not constrained by much. The institution of checks and balances has basically all but disappeared. And let me put it to you this way. How does this work?
President Erdoğan, or whoever is the next president, could literally wake up tomorrow morning and decree that every citizen in the country has to wear a yellow vest. And that would have the full force of law. It could not be rescinded by an act of parliament or any veto, it could not be annulled by the courts, including the Constitutional Court. And that’s it.
Or conversely, Parliament could legislate and pass a law or a bill. If the President didn’t like it, they could veto it and send it back down. So, the office of the presidency has become extremely powerful under Erdoğan since 2017. And Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu basically campaigned on this notion of, enough is enough. Our main intention is to essentially run a campaign such that we are going to reinstitutionalize democratic governance in Turkey which would look like the reinsinstitutionalization of a parliamentary system.
That is not likely to happen, unfortunately, because on Sunday, what just happened is although no one candidate won the outright presidency because they failed to achieve 50% of the vote, the actual Parliament seats have been distributed. The parliamentary elections are confirmed. And right now, the majority of seats in the parliament go to a coalition between Mr. Erdoğan’s party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party, which means that the opposition is in no position to pass a constitutional amendment that could change the country back to a parliamentary system. And on top of that, what we’re looking at is on May 28th when the runoff does happen against Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, it is more likely, although not confirmed, or certain, it is more likely, though, I would say, that Mr. Erdoğan does win the presidency for a third term in office, which would give him, again, total control of the Turkish government. Which is not what his critics and international partners and allies in Turkey were hoping for. But unfortunately, that’s what it is essentially looking at. So, just by way of starting off.
Sarah: Oh, horrific. The Economist recently wrote that if Erdoğan wins this time, Turkey will become “a full-blown dictatorship”. And by the way, it was impossible to find a copy, according to my friends in Ankara, of this article from The Economist. How far, if reelected, do you believe Erdoğan will slip into this autocracy?
Sinan: Sarah, that’s a really good question. I think people are justifiably worried for the worst because there is nothing that can constrain him. I mean, he has led a pretty vicious electoral campaign that was predicated upon divisiveness and polarization. He’s really sort of dug deep into these sort of polarizing positions of identity, which have really inflamed voters, but it seems to have resonated with 1 out of 2 voters. Erdoğan got almost 49.5% of the vote with one of the highest turnouts in Turkish electoral history, 90% of people turned out to vote. Eligible voters.
And that platform was essentially pretty anti-Western, pretty anti-LGBTQ, it was anti-immigration, anti-inclusiveness, and really sort of dug deep into the fault lines of Turkey’s divisions, against Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign which was based on unity and democratization and reinstitutionalization of the rule of law. And how far will Mr. Erdoğan go down this? It’s hard to say. We’ll have to see if he wins, what that will essentially look like in terms of what his priorities are going to be.
One of the big worries is basically that he could use this as a pretext, upon taking office for a third term, to essentially really sort of circle the wagons on eliminating the last vestiges of independent media, critical thought. Some of this is still alive in Turkey, believe it or not. There is a vibrant independent media. A lot of this is sort of web-based, some of it is TV channels, as well as radio. There are widespread worries that that could essentially be completely terminated. I’ve heard on the private that many journalists as well as businessmen and the business community are planning a possible exodus out[?] of the country because they feel that individual freedoms, liberties, and lack of rule of law means they don’t really have breathing room.
On the other hand, one of the big constraining factors going forward for Erdoğan will be, look, the economic situation is in a pretty bad state. The country’s inflation is amongst the top 3 highest inflations in the world. Inflation, unofficially, is probably somewhere hovering around 100 to 130%. Officially, it’s just below 50%, but it’s really high. The middle class, as a result of that, and their incomes have basically eroded. Turkey may experience a high level of balance of payments issues because the government and the treasury is indebted to numerous external entities and countries, and the treasury’s empty. The government has spent billions of dollars daily to essentially stabilize and prop up the Lira.
So, immediately upon taking office, Erdoğan will have to basically really address the economic concerns if he’s to have a stable country. So, rather than go down this road of authoritarianism and autocracy and really circling wagons, to what extent will he focus his message and his government on economic orthodoxy or economic sort of management and prudence, we’ll have to see. But I think going forward in the medium term, absolutely, he will use this, I think, in my estimation, to really sort of dig down into trying to entrench, solidify, and consolidate this authoritarian rule to the extent that there aren’t many things standing in his way to prevent it.
But I should also say, before taking the next question, is he does appear to be not as spry and as in good health as he once was. The sort of thundering Erdoğan that we’re accustomed to seeing on TV, on international outlets, and in conferences and summits when he sort of blusterers at people. He had a big health scare during this election where he was taken off the election circuit for about 48 hours. It seemed to be pretty serious. We’ve heard all sorts of rumors from the fact that it was a heart attack, epilepsy, to a possible minus stroke. Who knows? It wasn’t released. But he was off the trail for 48 hours. And if you see his complexion and his persona now, he doesn’t look well.
So, one of the things that we could be anticipating is yes, he wins the election possibly and goes forward as President, but he might be looking to name and basically groom a successor, should that happen. And I don’t know necessarily who that would be, because Turkey, again, has no experience in this realm. It’s never groomed a successor. We just historically have elections, and there has always been a peaceful transfer of power, and the elector’s choice has been respected.
So, I’m not sure how successful he could be in that endeavour, but I think he’s going to have to find a way to continue what he wants to do as a government, but also hopefully pass that onto somebody else, because I don’t think he’s in a physical condition to be able to stay under this sort of lens of immense pressure going forward.
Sarah: Wonderful. Or not so wonderful. Can you explain Turkey under Erdoğan’s relationship with NATO and its relationship with Russia?
Sinan: Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. And historically, even up until recent times has been credited with being a very functional member of NATO. It’s always been sort of proactive. It was very active in peacekeeping operations such as Kosovo, but also supported NATO actions in Afghanistan, as well as just being a good actor within it historically. It has troops, it has willpower, and it has had a historically positive sway within the organization.
Recently under Erdoğan, though, particularly since 2015, I would argue, with the rise of the Islamic State threat in the region and the divergent goals and the falling out of the relationship between Turkey and the United States, Erdoğan’s use of and behavior within NATO has been a tool to leverage its own interests.
What do we mean by that? Well, for example, Erdoğan, like every other NATO country, should have welcomed the application and inclusion of Sweden and Finland, which basically desire to become members of NATO because of the perceived Russian threat following the invasion of Ukraine, but Erdoğan held that up and is still holding up Sweden’s membership. He’s not ratifying, he’s not approving it. He said in principle he’s in favor, but in practice, he’s saying that he has some security concerns which he would like those countries to address before he approves and ratifies their membership.
What are those concerns? Well, he’s basically saying Turkey has concerns over these “countries harbouring Kurdish terrorists”. Finland has never essentially been at crosshairs with Turkey over the Kurdish issue, and there was a lot of pressure put immediately on Turkey, saying, look, Finland has nothing to do with anything just to approve their membership.
Sweden, historically, has welcomed people of all different stripes and colors as well as political persuasions, including Kurdish dissidents, but also members of the separatist PKK entity, which has found sort of a domicile inside of Sweden. And Turkey is essentially holding this over NATO by preventing their membership. But the message is more intended towards the United States. Saying, look, you’re not giving me what I want in my part of the world, which is Turkey would like to buy new fighter aircraft from the United States, F-16 fighters. It would like to upgrade its present fleet, and this has been blocked by Congress. And the administration here would like to help Turkey out, but looking to Congress saying, well, I can’t do anything unless you come through for us. So, it’s this sort of tit-for-tat.
And then, Mr. Erdoğan’s saying, well, fine, that’s fine. And in turn, he’s used the blocking of finishing Swedish membership of NATO in his electoral campaign. He has fired up his base of voters at home saying, see, we don’t kowtow and bow to the unreasonable requests of the West, especially in the United States, when they don’t respect our security concerns, and I’m not going to ratify their membership until I’m satisfied.
That has given him a huge bump. People believe him to be a strong leader, a decisive leader. A person who tells it to the West, who shows them that he’s not going to just bow down under Western pressure.
So, what we’re expecting is essentially after the election on May 28th, Turkey is likely to ratify Sweden’s membership because, at that point, it will cease to be an election issue.
Now, the second part of your question, this also is part and positive of Turkey’s relationship with Russia. So, Turkey’s also leveraging its position. Its relationship with Vladimir Putin, as a means to sort of ensure that the West doesn’t really sort of strike against Erdoğan hard by imposing sanctions or imposing further punitive measures on not selling Turkey fighter planes. Since the Ukrainian war started, Turkey immediately has said, well, look, we’re up against a problem here. Nominally, we respect Ukraine’s independence and feel for their fight, and we support their brave campaign to be rid of foreign invasion, but we’re also not willing to back the full barrage of Western sanctions against Russians because if we do, we would be disproportionately economically hurt.
Turkey derives approximately 40 to 50% of its natural gas needs from Russia. It relies on a huge amount of tourism revenues from Russia, to the tune of about 10 to 20 billion dollars a year. Turkey’s agricultural sector exports somewhere to the tune of 10 billion dollars worth of produce to Russia on an annual basis. So, Mr. Putin could cut this off should he feel that Erdoğan is crossing him.
On the other hand, Mr. Erdoğan’s said to the West and NATO, well, look guys, I can’t back the full barrage of sanctions, but here’s what I’ll do. I will sell the Ukrainians our latest TB2 military drones, which have been very decisive in undermining Russia’s military capabilities in the war. They’re now selling them also the Turkish version of Bradley armored personnel carriers which helps the Ukrainians in maneuver warfare on the ground. Turkey has also essentially proved extremely useful in facilitating and mediating an agreement between the Russians and Ukrainians, that has allowed the shipment of Ukrainian grain to find international markets, which is no small feat because if the Ukrainian wheat doesn’t find its way onto global markets, they were estimating there could be a famine that could affect 100 million people across the world, especially in the Middle East. In effect, Turkey is playing both sides here.
And so, Erdoğan has basically, as a result of this, ensured that the United States, the Congress hasn’t taken further punitive measures against Turkey, because they feel they need Erdogan with the Ukrainian campaign, even though– Sarah, you mentioned at the beginning, in 2019, Turkey purchased a weapon system from the Russians, which NATO, the United States, Turkey’s allies across the world saying, what the hell is happening? Why would you purchase a Russian missile defense system that can target and lock onto Allied NATO aircraft when you could have bought the American version? When you could have brought the European version? You weren’t tied down to one particular platform of missile defense technology, but you certainly should not have purchased the Russian system.
So, Turkey is essentially, since 2019, had a limited amount of sanctions placed upon it that prevents them from procuring military technology, but it has also been kicked off the F-35 program which Turkey was a part of in the manufacturing process. And as a result, this is why it’s demanding F-16s from the US because its present Air Force fleet is aging and requires significant upgrades.
Sarah: Okay. Since the beginning of March, fault lines have emerged throughout the Middle East. Certainly, since Beijing brokered its agreement between Tehran and Riyad. Could you describe the relationship that Turkey under Erdoğan has with many of our GCC countries in the Middle East?
Sinan: That’s a good question. Turkey right now is in the midst of a sort of reset, a u-turn in its relationship with GCC countries, but a large part of the Arab world. Erdoğan did his best in the last, I would say, decade to burn a considerable number of bridges with many Arab regimes and governments. Egypt, right? He basically called Sisi a dictator and essentially cut ties. UAE, he’s very much sort of crossed hairs with them. Saudi Arabia, he’s been at loggerheads with historically. You also mentioned at the beginning, Turkey essentially sort of really ripped apart its relationship, its strong relationship with Israel going back to the late 2000s. It’s kind of hopscotching back to some sort of livelihood since then. But Erdoğan essentially has isolated himself in the region.
He thought he was going to have a greater voice in the region and really establish a Sunni arc, if you want to call it that, of Sunni-minded governments that he essentially was going to have an outsized voiceover. And his focus of doing that was basically going to be spearheaded by toppling the Assad regime in Syria and hopefully installing a like-minded sort of Sunni regime in place of that, which Turkey would’ve gotten to control and essentially manage. Now, that hasn’t happened. And as a result of that, what’s going to happen is basically he’s going to have to eat his own words. And right now, he’s essentially figured out that whilst he’s been trying to strong-arm Turkey’s position into the region, and because that has not worked, he’s now basically going around on a mea culpa and trying to shake hands and reinvent himself in the region such that Turkey cannot be isolated anymore.
He’s talking to the Assad government. He’s met with Egyptian president, Sisi. You mentioned that he’s already sort of welcomed and had a dialogue with the Israeli president and government. He’s also tried to sort of shake hands with the UAE leadership. We’ll see where that goes. Whether he’ll be able to achieve any meaningful reestablishment of ties and relationships. But if he doesn’t, this is going to come to hurt him even more because Israel has, since the Abraham Accords, really sort of broken out of its, I would say, uniqueness in the region by establishing greater relationships with Arab partners and Muslim partners, which it didn’t have before. It’s entered into delimitation of maritime borders over natural gas rights with different powers, as well as Cypress and Greece.
Turkey’s very much alone here at this point. And throughout late 2022 and going into this year, and certainly before the election cycle began, Erdoğan initiated a whole series of charm offensives, I called it, in terms of where he could get with this. We’ll see where that goes, but you’re right. You drew attention to another one. Recently, with the escalation of violence inside of Israel, Erdoğan sort of, in a phone call with the Iranian president, said, it is incumbent upon us to basically take a stand and unify a position against Israel despite the sort of establishment of ambassadors and whatnot.
But what’s interesting about that is he said that during his election cycle when, again, that sort of message really resonates with his base voters. Anti-Israeli rhetoric does resonate with his base voters. But he also said it at a time when the Israeli government is most distracted. It’s got its own political democratic protest inside of Israel, but it’s also facing an escalatory level of violence inside the country from Hamas and whatnot, which he felt presented him with an opportunity to take a political hit, knowing full well that the Israeli government and authorities were too distracted.
Now, if he is reelected, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t pursue a path of continued normalization or wanting to keep up increased ties with Israel diplomatically because none of what he has said and done has broken Turkey out of its regional isolation. And he’ll have to continue that if he wishes to have a successful foreign policy going forward.
Sinan: All right. Now, it’s my complete honor and pleasure to hand it over to my wonderful colleague, Hussein Aboubakr Mansour, who will read some of the questions that have come in and perhaps pose some of his own. Hussein?
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour: Thank you very much, Sarah, and thank you very much, Sinan, for such a timely presentation. And thank you very much for all our audience who tuned in to our webinar or who sent us questions. Please continue to send us questions through the Q&A function through Zoom.
Sinan, we’ve received a number of questions. Some of them are recurring, so I’m going to try to combine many of them. We received a lot of people, or many questions asking about the Kurds or the Kurdish issues. What are exactly the different positions of each of the candidates regarding the Kurds? Which candidate do you think is better for the Kurdish minority? And what is the current political behavior or electoral behavior of the Kurds in Turkey?
Sinan: Well, thank you for that question. So, going into this election, the Kurds or the Kurdish mainstream political movement that was represented by the Left Green Party, which is the new name of the Kurdish political movement given itself in Turkey right now, the YSP. This party and the Kurdish political movement, which is pivotal because it has the ability to motivate a huge vote bank towards a particular candidate. And they certainly weren’t in favor of challenging that vote to Mr. Erdoğan. The Kurds had no interest in essentially voting for Erdoğan, not least all, because Erdoğan is jailed most of the political leadership of the Kurdish political movements, right? [inaudible] has been in jail since 2017 because Erdoğan sees him as a political threat.
On the other hand, you would think, well, that’s a natural ally for Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu and the alliance of six political parties that is facing off against Erdogan. Well, they never asked or included the Kurdish party to join that alliance. And the reason is, well, they were afraid that if that was part of the formal alliance, Mr. Erdogan would say, see, Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu and the Alliance is in bed with terrorists, the Kurdish terrorists. So, this sort of trepidation, this fear of being formally allied with the Kurdish political mainstream movement has hands strung the opposition’s ability. That being said, despite that sort of being kept at arm’s distance by Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu, the Kurdish political movement, nevertheless, quite astutely backed Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s presidency.
And if you look at the southeastern provinces which are historically Kurdish, or most Kurdish, but dense population, overwhelmingly supported Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign, right? And they really did vote for him as president. And that’s never really happened before, right? I mean, the Kurds don’t typically vote for the party of Atatürk or its candidate, but they did. I had a big problem with this simply because, as in a problem is like, I had a problem with Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu not adopting or formally taking on the Kurds as a part of his alliance because of his fear of being labelled a terrorist “lover”.
And the reason I had a problem with it was like, Mr. Erdogan, regardless if the Kurds were allied with Kılıçdaroğlu or not, he still accused him of being terrorists or loving being a terrorist. And my main point would’ve been, if you are a professional politician seeking office, if you don’t take the risk of maximizing your vote and explaining to the electorate why Kurds are not terrorists, or the mainstream political movement inside of Turkey is nothing to do with terrorists, and you don’t embrace them, you won’t get anywhere.
Now, you look at Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s vote tally, he got just under 45%, let’s just call it, he got 45% against Mr. Erdogan, almost 50%. If the Kurds didn’t vote for him, I would guess that his vote share would probably be under 40%. Almost definitely. So, the Kurds are in this bind because going forward, they’re damned if they do damned that they’re damned. They probably know at this point that Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s presidency is not going to happen, but they also don’t know what to do given that Mr. Erdogan is going to become president because I can’t necessarily see Mr. Erdogan sort of reopening negotiations with the Kurdish political movement to find a negotiated settlement because he is basically so much demonized the Kurds going into this election cycle. Hussein, you might be muted.
Hussein: Thank you. We received also a number of questions basically asking you to try to summarize to us what are the main concerns that are driving the electoral behavior in this election. Is it the economy? Is it jobs? What would you say are the main concerns that are driving the results?
Sinan: I think that’s a good question. I think the postmortem on the initial election results still has to be completed in time. It’s a little raw at the moment. So, my hunch is this, the country’s facing record inflation, the original middle-class incomes to the point that it’s just ridiculous. People are finding it difficult to buy basic household staples, such as onions and potatoes. Going out to eat, whatever the average person in Turkey has essentially become a dream at this point. The level of corruption is widely known in Turkey under the Erdogan government, nepotism, cronyism that has all gone into this. Everyone’s basically aware of this. Plus the earthquake lay to bear, just what the results of that corruption could be in the sense that the non-enforcement of city codes, building ordinance, and whatnot, has laid to bear to waste millions of people’s homes, like 10 million people were made homeless after the February earthquakes.
So you would think that going into this election cycle, that the foremost things on people’s minds would be these bread and butter issues. That doesn’t seem to be the case, right? In the sense that at least one out of two voters seems to suggest that despite everything, that Mr. Erdogan’s message and his persona is the person to lead the country going forward, and Erdogan didn’t necessarily campaign on an economic bread and butter issues based platform, he campaign on a very divisive sort of identity-based issues. He’s been on the stump, basically, going forward and saying, if you vote for the other guy, then what you’re going to see is they’re going to close down our mosques. If you vote for the other guy, they’re going to allow same-sex people to marry and destroy your family values. If you vote for the other guy, Kurdish terrorists are going to roam free throughout the streets. So, one out of two voters seems to have bought that message, right?
Whereas Mr. Kilicdaroglu, he really has campaigned on rule of law, democratization, but also bread and butter issues. Little late in the game, he started that, but he, nevertheless, he did touch upon it. He did get 45%, which does seem to say to you, the country is divided over this issue. Half the country, maybe economically depressed or whatever. But they believe this message of like, if I vote for the other guy, even though I’m hungry, I might not be able to go to the mosque. So, it’s quite unprecedented because it’s hard to say, but my guess is identity-based issues were at the forefront of this election cycle. That would be my initial guess.
Hussein: I’m going to take a prerogative and ask my own question here. And it might be completely off the mark. But it seems what you are suggesting is that the catalyst of the kind of political rivalries right now in Turkey is more akin to the cultural war. How much do you see, from your experience, that this is becoming something global, not just in the US and not even just in Turkey, because sometimes, it seems to me that there is some sort of a cultural war that maybe started in the Anglo-American world, but now it’s kind of being globalized in many other political contexts.
Sinan: That’s a good question. I think one of the things that came into my mind when you were asking this was, it’s the sort of authoritarians playbook.
Sinan: A lot of these authoritarian, or would-be authoritarian, they don’t necessarily have a strong sort of unifying message or a positive message to unify voters around like a set of ideals into what a better society looks like or what it should look like. You know, what are aspirations? Are they the city on the shining top of the shining hill? All that sort of stuff. Instead, they play upon people’s fears and grievances. And that seems to resonate with a lot of authoritarian leaders and their base photos. So in Erdogan’s case, until– this is the first election, I would argue, that he has gone into. When the country’s not economically growing, or voters feel economically better off and upwardly socially mobile than they did before, Erdogan has always campaigned successfully on a strong economic record and economic message and a growth cycle.
This is the first time he’s gone into it when Turkey’s just economically melting down. And hence, as a result of that, this is the first time that is overwhelmingly campaigned, I would argue, on a negative and cultural war type of message that you’ve mentioned, really playing along the fault lines of church’s society and really sort of driving a dagger into this and trying to maximize. Has it worked? I would say it’s worked pretty well for him. I think it’s gotten him what he wants because there was no way for him to campaign on an economic message. He said things like, he’s acknowledged that inflation’s a problem, but they’re the best ones to handle it. But in the meantime, look, if you don’t vote for us, they’re also going to let the crazy gay people, as he calls them. He calls the LGBTQ movement in Turkey, this sort of botched movement. We might be economically not doing well, but if you vote for these guys, your families will be destroyed. See?
So I think in the absence of strong, unifying economic messages that they can campaign on, I think what global populist such as Erdogan or authoritarian or would-be authoritarian leaders, really sort of jump onto these fault lines and polarizing issues of identity, which seems to resonate with a lot of voters.
Hussein: Touching on the issue of populism perfectly way to the next question. So, Erdogan also has been known to capitalize on a global Islamist populism and entering himself in his career as this populist, charismatic Islamist leader, or at least an inspiration for Islam groups and networks globally, and that had played a major role during the Arab Spring and also in the disputes between many Arab states in Turkey. Were Kilicdaroglu to win in the runoff, how would that affect Turkey’s position in the network of global Islamist influence? Will that be an end to Turkey’s role that Turkey played within the world of Islamism?
Sinan: That’s a good question. So, Mr. Kilicdaroglu is on record, saying, if he becomes president, that he would work very quickly to mend Turkey’s relationship with its, I would say, Western partners or Western Anchor. He said, our aspiration, our momentum is towards the west. We will [inaudible] with our European partners as well as NATO, as well as the United States. That he’s on record for saying that. And I think he firmly believes it. I think if he was to become elected, I don’t think he’s necessarily going to turn his back onto the Muslim world or the… But I think Turkey’s withdrawal from sort of closer relationships with trying to establish sort of Muslim brotherhood type of entities and governments would basically come to an end.
I think Turkey could essentially find a way to find an amicable relationship with the Egyptian government as well as regional Arab states. But I think Turkey’s going to basically withdraw its footprint from trying to be a player in the region, so to speak, and really do focus its efforts on essentially working to remain its relationship with its Western partners. And that’s not just an ideological preference, it’s also from a perspective of numbers and money and dollars or cent. It makes sense. 60% of Turkey’s entire foreign trade is with the West. Turkey’s entire security infrastructure architecture is within NATO as well as the Western hemisphere. It’s easier to basically get reengage with that than it is to essentially sort of go down these rabbit holes of, do I have a dominant voice in who gets to govern Syria going forward? The answer is no. Would he be interested in going out on these sort of, what I would call, Looney Tunes sort of adventures into thinking that he can co-opt the Syrian government to give him exactly what he wants, where to settle Arabs and where to settle Kurds inside of Syrian territory? No, I think Kilicdaroglu wants out of this. And he could do that quite easily in the sense, not easily, but he could do it by saying, look, the previous foreign policy exploits of the Turkish government, or my predecessor, and I don’t campaign on, then I don’t believe it. So, I want to withdraw Turkey’s military footprint in Syria, but in return, here’s what I would like, et cetera.
And basically, withdraw Turkey’s sort of belligerent stances in Syria, in Libya, it’s belligerent stance also in the eastern Mediterranean. But I think you would see a much more sort of visibly and rhetorically pro-western approach if Kilicdaroglu was to be elected.
Hussein: On that note, and the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and another Islamic group, what will be the long-term political and security implications of the election of Hezbollah members, the Huda Par, to the Turkish parliament from the ranks of the AKP?
Sinan: That’s a good question. So, let me just preface this. Huda Par does affiliate itself with Hezbollah, but it has nothing to do with the Hezbollah that you see in Lebanon or the region, right? It’s a Turkish branch of Hezbollah. It does have sort of linkages to Iran to a limited extent, but don’t get me wrong, this is no sort of cuddly toy. This is a pretty nefarious entity, which is historically carried out assassinations of law enforcement officials, and they’re on record for essentially saying, we don’t want to just discuss the imposition of Sharia-based law in Turkey, we want to bring Sharia to Turkey. Many of Erdogan’s allies and proponents were shocked, go into this election cycle when Erdogan decided to include Huda Par, this Hezbollah-affiliated party, into his alliance, because he said, oh my God, this is a horrific entity. Decided they have nothing to do with anything. They’re just a good right-wing party.
Now that they have several members elected of the Turkish parliament, in and of itself, it’s not going to change anything in [inaudible]. But what it does say is the alliance of Erdogan, his MHP big ally partner, but also this French Party of Huda Par having seats in parliament, is a wider representation of right-wing extremism that’s been represented in Parliament going forward. That’s the more worrying thing. The Turkish parliament now is more representative of far right-wing, xenophobic, anti-western, anti-secular representation than has been in recent memory. So, this is quite worrying from that perspective.
Hussein: Okay, can you talk me a little bit through that human contradiction that the Parliament is increasingly, right-wing extremist increasingly leaning towards religious extremism, but Erdogan seems to be gaining less support than he used to have in the past?
Sinan: Yeah, absolutely. So, Erdogan’s percentage of the vote, as well as his political party, the AKP, the Justice and Development Party has seen a fall-off in its vote compared to the 2018 and previous elections. There’s no doubt about that. They lost 7-8% points last time I checked. But it doesn’t matter. In the sense that in parliament, the majority of seats still go to the AKP, the MHP and the Huda Par Alliance. So, they will control just over 320 seats out of the 600 chambers, going forward.
The bottom line is, the takeaway is, yes, they’ve lost some seats and Erdogan has fallen in the percentage of votes. And contrastingly, historically, the CHP or the CHP candidate, Mr. Kilicdaroglu, since 1950, has never received a higher percentage of the vote. But again, it looks right now, the parliamentary majority is in the hands of the right-wing, I would call, extremists. And the presidency is increasingly looking likely to go to Mr. Erdogan. And in terms of governance, just practical data to governance, that is going to find a greater voice inside of Turkish parliament than the moderate, or let’s just say the more liberal democratic wing that the country has historically been accustomed to.
Hussein: And again, we received also a number of questions asking, okay, were Kilicdaroglu win, what would be his policy towards Israel?
Sinan: That’s a good question. So, unknown. Mr. Kilicdaroglu made a recent statement, saying, we would continue relations, but we’re not especially looking to build a close relationship with Israel. Which may come as a shock to some. My own hunch about that is to believe that that was election speak. I don’t think he wants to be on record for putting forward a pro-Israeli sort of stance right now where to be elected, because again, I think he feels vulnerable to the extent that Mr. Erdogan could hammer him, saying, not only is he in bed with the Kurdish terrorists, but he is also a big supporter of the Israeli Zionist calls. He lets Erdogan basically lead the narrative, the electoral narrative, and he’s always on the defensive trying to second guess how he might be labeled by Erdogan, rather than taking the strong sort of upper hand, so to speak.
If you look across the ranks of the CHP, his party’s political foreign policy team, some of them are like retired ambassadors, some of them are foreign policy professionals. They do espouse a pretty strong pro-Israeli relationship. So, for example, one of the senior candidates that was, I’m not sure actually if he won a seat, that retired ambassador Na’eh Eitan, who was also the former spokesman of the foreign ministry, but also Turkey’s former ambassador to Israel, right? I believe between 2000… I can’t remember when he was the ambassador to Israel. He’s a very strong pro-Israel, Turkey-Israel sort of relationship, and he was widely respected. He was also Turkey’s ambassador to Washington and was known to understand both Washington and Israel pretty well at the time.
He’s a senior candidate, he may want to see because he was in a very plump spot for parliamentary status. So, I think the CHP is more broadly representative of a strong relationship between Israel and Turkey. But also, domestically, let’s not forget, the CHP is typically the party which Turkey’s own Jewish voters vote for. Because the party of [inaudible] is historically been the guarantor of minority rights in Turkey. And the CHP has always had a very strong showing with Jewish support. So, that comes as no surprise. I just think going into the election cycle of Mr. Kilicdaroglu, being a religious minority himself, has basically chosen to tamp down his sort of pro-Israeli views if he has them, mainly because he doesn’t want to be shut down by Erdogan.
Hussein: Thank you. Repeat the question actually about the issue of the EU. Is there now any possibility of Turkey being admitted to the EU dead?
Sinan: Not in my lifetime, and I’m pretty young. Who knows? The accession process in Turkey is still formally on track. In practice, it’s dead-on arrival. There’s no movement, whatsoever. If Mr. Kılıçdaroğlu was to basically be elected, re-engagement with the European accession processes is something there that he can take advantage of, I think he’ll find quite a lot of friendly voices in Europe to essentially reengage with Turkey on that footing. But not necessarily any meaningful outcome because the European Union itself has a lot of diverse members now, not necessarily interested in including Turkey going forward. But that would at least put Mr. Kilicdaroglu in a stronger position to renegotiate the terms of Turkey’s existing relationship with the European Union. So, Turkey is not a member of the European Union, but unlike any other non-member, Turkey’s one of the most integrated members of the non-members into the EU.
For example, Turkey’s a member of the EU Customs Union, which means that Turkish businesses, you know, there’s free movement of goods and services between Turkey and the European Union. Turkey would like to expand that. It is one key element, which is not part of the customs union, which is agricultural product. Turkey would like to renegotiate the terms of the customs union so Turkey can export agricultural goods to Europe. Turkey would also right to negotiate a free movement of people, visa-less travel for its citizens into Turkey, which doesn’t exist, unfortunately, and Turkey is subject to visa controls. And so, if Mr. Kilicdaroglu would be elected, rather than full membership in the short to medium term, Turkey could re-engage more meaningfully to establish these two policy goals, which be a game changer for a lot of Turkey’s aspirations.
Hussein: Thank you very much. And again, I want to thank all our audience who send these questions. We’re going to ask the last question now, afterwards, alternate to Sarah. Syria. There have been talks between the Syrian regime and Turkey that were reported, to be held in Moscow. Can you tell us more about the future of Turkish policy towards Syria, whether under Erdogan or his opponents, especially after a serious reintegration into the Arab League?
Sinan: So, bottom line, Mr. Assad hates President Erdogan, and they hate each other. It’s understandable because up until 2007, or sorry, until the beginning of this Syrian civil war, Erdogan and Assad had really turned a leaf in terms of rekindling Turkey-Syrian ties, which historically are very fraught. Let’s not mistake Turkey. Turkey has historically been ambivalent towards Syria. During the Cold War, Syria was a very sort of close ally of the Iron Curtain, where Turkey was a NATO country. The border between Turkey and Syria was a landmine, which NATO removed back in 2007, 2008, right? That rapprochement between Syria and Turkey resulted in these border towns in Turkey really coming to life with hotels and shopping malls, which were flooded by Syrian tourists. They loved coming to Turkey.
And then the Syrian uprisings began, and you know, Erdogan and Assad fell apart because Erdogan blamed Assad for the butchering of his own people. And Erdogan, for the first time in Turkey’s history, engaged in a process of regime change, he really want, when Hammer and Tongues are trying to remove him. So, now that that’s not going nowhere, and our side is likely to stay in power, the Russians have really insisted that the Turks and the Syrians sort of shake hands and become friends, or at least tolerate each other. So, how is that going to happen? Well, we don’t know. Mr. Assad basically just is sitting on the sidelines before shaking a hand of Erdogan in a photo op, just to basically see who’s going to win this election. He’s in no rush to sit down and shake, and he really loads Erdogan. So, if Kilicdaroglu wins, he’ll be much happier.
But let’s say Erdogan wins, which is the more likely scenario at this point. I think they will still press ahead with normalization. So, they’ve each got a give. So, right now, Mr. Erdogan basically would have to remove Turkish troops out of Syria. And he would also have to stop backing these radical entities, which he has relied upon for the last number of years to fight against the regime forces in Syria. Okay? But he is not going to just do that for free. What he also wants is to be able to sort of face save– Erdugon wants to save face with his own population. Turkey has close to 4 million refugees, and the Turkey people want those people gone. Enough is enough.
So, Erdogan wants some sort of face-saving measure of at least, even if it’s symbolic numbers, tens of thousands of Syrian refugees being returned back to Syria. Assad’s got to say yes to that. I don’t think we’re ever going to see those millions of people return home because most of them set themselves up our life, a new life inside of Turkey. A new generation of Syrians has been born and raised in Turkey, going to Turkey schools. And they don’t want to go back to their native land for fear of being butchered by the regime. In addition, Turkey would also like guarantees from the Syrian state, saying that the Syrian Kurds will not seek to establish a home state for themselves inside of Syria or secede a part of Syria that they can lend use as a launching base to essentially attack Turkey for more of a secession cause.
So Erdogan would like some sort of arrangement where something called the Adana protocol, the Adana agreement, which existed between Syria and Turkey, is reinvigorated. That agreement basically says that Syria agrees to ensure that Kurdish insurgents don’t compromise Turkey’s sovereignty. And if they try, Turkey is authorized to launch a military offensive into Syrian territory, up to 10 kilometres, 15 kilometres, I can’t remember what that sort of thing was. But Turkey wants some sort of… And in return, what would they get? Well, the conflict would end. Presumably, over time, Turkey could play a hand in the reconstruction of Syria, because Turkey would like, or Erdogan would like to be in the contracts, building contracts, of rebuilding Syria, a lot of raw materials that would need to go into Syria would have to go through Turkey, right? Of course, Turkey, it’s a thousand-kilometre border. The Turkish border is absolutely essential for that.
So, I think what will happen is, let’s wait till the elections are over, and I think knowing who’s in charge, then the Russians will continue down this line of facilitating talks and essentially this sort of dance between two unwilling leaders who probably have to shake hands and move on.
Sarah: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Sinan. This was incredibly edifying. Thank you for your years and years of brilliance and wisdom that you’re able to use to enlighten us about this very critical nation that controls a vast amount of territory and is located in a very strategic area of the globe. So, I can’t thank you enough.
Those of you who are our listeners know that AMET does this every single week. If you enjoy what you’re hearing, we really can use your support. Please go to our website @www.ametonline.org, and know that every single day, we do much more than have our weekly webinar, but we have a very heavy presence on Capitol Hill where we consult with members of Congress and their staffers about Middle East policy issues.
And please, while you are at it, if you can support the wonderful work of FDD who is lending us Sinan City, go to fdd.org. We work together with them. They’re an amazingly wonderful think tank here in Washington DC as well, and they have a huge array of equally talented and well-versed experts on many, many subjects. So, thank you.
Sinan, did you want to say something?
Sinan: Yeah, I just wanted to say thank you for having me. It was a pleasure joining in and providing me the space. I would also say, if you’re interested in Turkey’s elections, FDD tomorrow has an event on what just happened at Turkey’s elections. You can basically watch that; it’s going to be streamed live. You can just go onto fdd.org to just to sign up. It’s a panel between myself, my colleagues, Howard Eisenstadt, Stephen Cook, at this content of our relations, and another colleague [inaudible]. But it’s at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning, and you can just register and watch it online. It should be a fun event.
Sarah: Excellent, excellent. We really enjoy a very deep collaboration with so many experts and scholars at FDD, and it will be a pleasure. Anyway, thank you so much for joining us, we’re going to sign off now. And Sinan, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.
Sinan: Likewise. Thank you. Goodbye, folks.
A Dangerous New World: The Challenges Resulting from the Changing Geopolitical Landscape under President Biden Transcript
PRESS RELEASE: EMET Wishes to Express our Profound Gratitude to Speaker Kevin McCarthy for Cancelling a “Nakba” event in the House, and our Equally Profound Disappointment to Senator Bernie Sanders for Hosting the “Nakba” Event in the US Senate
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