Kemalism vs Kemalism in Turkish elections

The Western powers are fantasising that by manipulating the right-wing, pro-western parties aligned with Kilicdaroglu in the Faustian deal to keep Erdogan out of power, they can bring the dour Kemalist to his knees.

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Turkish presidential election Sunday goes down to the wires [Image Credit: Getty Images]

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. But appearances can be deceptive in Turkish politics. 

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. 

Although Sunday’s election may seem too close to call, it may well produce a clear-cut victory for Erdogan in the first round itself (with over 50% votes) that would obviate the need for a runoff. The known unknown today is whether Kilicdaroglu’s eclectic brand of party politics that helped him clinch the presidential nomination and paper over ideological divides that are as much historical as cultural, would be sufficient to persuade enough voters to help him win the race. 

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.” 

What does he mean by that strange remark? 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. 

Typically, half a century ago, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit risked US sanctions and ordered military intervention in Northern Cyprus to safeguard the security and welfare of ethnic Turkish community. No successor government rolled back that decision and Turkiye learnt to live with Cyprus and Greece’s veto on its EU membership. 

Kilicdaroglu will adhere to Turkiye’s Cyprus policy (and strategy). Considering that President Biden is fully in the orbit of the influential Greek lobby in US politics (which lavishly funded his political career through decades), Kilicdaroglu will have no illusions while upholding Turkiye’s claims of maritime boundaries, special economic zones or exploration of gas reserves in East Mediterranean.

The single biggest impediment in Turkish-American relations is the trust deficit and that is largely attributable to Washington’s intentions toward Turkiye being a national security state. This is not only about the failure of the CIA-backed coup attempt in 2016 to overthrow Erdogan, but specifically, about Washington’s alliance with separatist Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq (who also have long-standing ties to the Israeli intelligence) that destabilise Turkiye (and Iran). 

Ironically, Kilicdaroglu himself is an ardent proponent of normalisation of relations with the Assad government. He would favour resuscitation of Adana Agreement (1998), which envisaged bilateral cooperation between Ankara and Damascus in counter-terrorist activities, something that will horrify Washington or Paris and Berlin. 

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?

Scholz has deep pockets and can probably afford to replace Russian piped gas under long-term contracts with LNG supplies from America at phenomenally marked-up prices, but Russia has proven to be a highly reliable source of abundant energy through pipelines that run just across the Black Sea to Turkiye. 

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. 

The Western powers are fantasising that by manipulating the right-wing, pro-western parties aligned with Kilicdaroglu in the Faustian deal to keep Erdogan out of power, they can bring the dour Kemalist to his knees. In reality, though, Erdogan too has largely followed a foreign policy rooted in the ideology of the Turkish state that Ataturk founded, including in the fetishism over secularism typical of an archetypal Kemalist like Kilicdaroglu. 

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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