Turkish presidential election and foreign policy

From a geopolitical perspective, the Turkish presidential election on Sunday may appear to be one of the most crucial non-violent political events of this year, notes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.

In the surcharged polarisation of “West versus Rest” in international politics, western media is rooting for the defeat of incumbent President Recep Erdogan so that one of the leading proponents of multipolarity and strategic autonomy in the emerging world order who is setting a horrible example for the Global South, walks into the sunset.

Truly, the importance of Erdogan is that unlike many self-styled proponents of the Global South, who have mushroomed lately, he practices what he preaches.

The Western media’s excitement stems out of a simplistic notion that Erdogan, a charismatic “strong man” who has been riding the wings of his immense popularity and astuteness to exploit the fragmentation of Turkish electoral scene is meeting his nemesis in the unified opposition candidacy of Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan is a man of history with a formidable track record in power in consolidating civilian supremacy in a working democracy. Kilicdaroglu, on the contrary, has nothing to show and never held an elected post. Yet, if Western capitals are dreaming about a Kilicdaroglu victory, it underscores the high stakes in Sunday’s election.

However, the paradox is, even if Kilicdaroglu is the winner, western powers shouldn’t expect an outright alignment of Turkish foreign policies with western demands. Kilicdaroglu himself remarked recently that Turkish foreign and defence policies “are managed by the state” and are “independent of political parties.”

Make no mistake, Kilicdaroglu is an old-world “Kemalist,” a social democrat passionately devoted to the ideological foundations of the Turkish state that Ataturk created, who believes in the core principles of nationalism, secularism and “statism.”

The Western hope is that given the alchemy of the rainbow coalition that may propel Kilicdaroglu to victory, he will be leading a weak government — unlike Erdogan’s assertive, stable government. 

Indeed, the West does have immense experience in manipulating weak allies and partners in directions that suit the requirements of western hegemony. But, as current happenings in the West Asian region testify, especially in the Gulf, the US’ erstwhile vassal states are resisting being pushed around and are asserting their strategic autonomy and are systematically plotting the advancement of national interests from a long-term perspective.

The Saudi-Iranian detente; Saudi-Emirati reconciliation with President Bashar Al-Assad; the nascent peace talks over Yemen and Sudan — these show that regional states are perfectly capable of navigating their national interests, and the exclusion of Western hegemony can actually have productive outcome rather than perpetual conflict and strife.

When it comes to Turkiye, the foreign policies are rooted in its history, geography, national interests and the ethos of a classic “civilisational state”. Ankara largely followed a non-aligned independent foreign policy with accent on preserving its strategic autonomy in the highly volatile external environment that surrounds it.

The bottom line is, of course, the close, friendly, mutually beneficial relationship that Erdogan forged with Russia. Now, this has an old history. The new kids on the block do not know that Ataturk himself was on friendly terms with the Bolsheviks. In the Cold War era too, Ankara, its NATO membership notwithstanding, maintained a certain non-alignment. Succinctly put, Erdogan has only reverted to that past but openly, and built on it rapidly, being in a hurry to position Turkiye optimally in the emerging multipolar world order.

The Turkish neutrality in the Ukraine conflict cannot be understood as a “stand-alone” issue. In reality, geoeconomics has been a driving force in Turkish-Russian relationship. Whether Kilicdaroglu may or may not have uses for the Russian S-400 anti-missile system is a moot point, but he certainly cannot do without the $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia’s Rosatom is not only constructing but will also be operating in future.

Turkish economy is partly built on the “German model” — Turkish companies use cheap energy from Russia to produce industrial products at competitive prices for the European market. Why would Kilicdaroglu emulate the folly of the present “trans-atlanticist” leaders in Berlin to terminate cheap long-term energy supplies from Russia at the cost of de-industrialisation?

The raison d’être of Turkiye’s dual orientation – eastward and westward – corresponds to an old tradition in Turkish foreign policy. Turkiye has its own understanding of Russia, borne out of a long, difficult common history. Therefore, the great deliberateness and congruent interests involved in Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, who are complex personalities each in his own way, taking such pains to understand each other and work together, cannot be viewed as an aberration, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar.