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Turkey elections: Would Kilicdaroglu surrender Ankara's independence?

The opposition leader's urge to please the US, EU and Nato would not bode well for the region
Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is pictured at a rally in Canakkale, western Turkey, on 11 April 2023 (AFP)

In the small hours of 16 July 2016, the fate of Turkey’s president was unknown. Sections of the armed forces had staged a violent coup. Fighter jets had bombed parliament and there was gunfire outside the headquarters of Turkish intelligence, but the fate of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last seen in his holiday villa, was unclear.

Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian television anchors were up all night with gleeful minute-by-minute commentary claiming that their nemesis, who had supported the Arab Spring, was either dead, or had fled the country.

True to the playbook used when Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed in a military coup, then US Secretary of State John Kerry refused to call the events in Turkey a coup. He hoped instead for “stability, peace and continuity”, which was code to the military coup leaders that they could do what they wanted.  

The Guardian ran an editorial, thinly disguised as news analysis, about the demise of a man it described as an authoritarian Islamist. It asserted that Erdogan had brought his end on himself. It was titled: “How Recep Tayyip Erdogan inflamed tensions in Turkey”.

Needless to say, the headline had to be swiftly changed when Erdogan rose from his prematurely dug grave to hold a news conference at the Istanbul airport, his plane having played cat-and-mouse with fighters in the air all night.

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This year, on 14 May - or more likely two weeks later, in a second round of voting - Erdogan could indeed lose power, this time by constitutional means. This election is going to be the closest race he has run in 22 years. Unlike the sham exercises held in the Middle East, this is a real election.

Much has changed in the country. If Erdogan falls, it will be on issues such as inflation and the cost of living. It will be another case of the Clinton dictum: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Asked in 2018 whether they wanted change or stability, most Turks voted for stability; now it’s the other way round.

No neutral bystander

As in 2016, the western world today is no neutral bystander. Erdogan’s dealings with western leaders have been lively, to say the least. 

While former US President Donald Trump described him as a world-class chess player, Joe Biden said the Turkish leader had to pay a price: “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership,” Biden said before assuming the presidency.

He has been described by the vice president of the German Bundestag, Wolfgang Kubicki, as a sewer rat. And Erdogan himself said that French President Emmanuel Macron needed “some sort of mental treatment” over his treatment of Muslims. 

Erdogan's removal would doubtless be greeted with the sound of champagne corks popping all the way from Berlin to Washington

Worse than that, in the eyes of western leaders, Erdogan has held up the succession of Sweden to Nato, while allowing Finland through. He has made the unpardonable error, in their eyes, of keeping good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and his troops are interfering all over the Middle East and Africa, from Syria, Libya and Iraq, to Qatar and Somalia.

The last flashpoint came in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. Western officials pointed the finger at Turkey for mounting a drone strike on a convoy targeting the Syrian Kurdish leader General Mazloum Abdi, commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which Ankara says is an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Three US bodyguards were in the convoy. Turkey has denied the claim.

Erdogan’s removal would doubtless be greeted with the sound of champagne corks popping all the way from Berlin to Washington. That much is clear, but would his disappearance from the regional stage be good for Turkey, or indeed the Middle East?

To answer that question, I met with a series of officials from the government and opposition. Some were former ambassadors.

The opposition’s joint presidential candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has made a series of announcements to capture headlines. He promised visa-free travel in Europe within three months of taking office. He threatened Greece with armed intervention. He made a point of visiting Washington, the UK and Germany.

Clear direction of travel

Probe a bit, and his promises need heavy qualification. When pressed, a senior Turkish opposition official admitted that Kilicdaroglu’s vow to get Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Schengen countries in three months was “very optimistic”. Even if the new Turkish government meets all the EU benchmarks, there is the small matter of Cyprus. 

If there is doubt about the specifics, the direction of travel is clear. Unal Cevikoz, a retired ambassador and chief adviser on foreign affairs to Kilicdaroglu, told MEE that the new government would be determined to normalise its relations with the international community, the European Union and Nato. 

Cevikoz said the new foreign policy would be based on “non-intervention of domestic affairs of neighbours, impartial foreign policy and adherence to international norms”. He criticised Erdogan’s use of hard power in Libya, promising that Turkey would be an “honest broker” in Libya by talking to all sides. This, again, is easier to say than to achieve.

Turkey elections: All you need to know about the opposition’s foreign policy
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In Syria, the opposition has promised three things simultaneously: to send all 3.7 million Syrian refugees back home, to engage with President Bashar al-Assad, and to correct the policy of taking sides in the civil war.

What, I asked an opposition official, would happen to Assad’s opponents, whom Turkish troops are protecting in Idlib? “That is a good question,” he replied with a grin.

He admitted it would take a long time for the government to both gain the trust of Damascus and disentangle itself from Idlib. “We will have to re-engage with local people in Idlib, and win them back to society,” the official said. “But we cannot do it alone.” 

What about Ukraine? Soon after Kilicdaroglu said that Turkey “should stand by Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine war”, there was pushback from his own party, the CHP. Parliamentary group deputy chairman Ozgur Ozel emphasised that Turkey’s current policy was correct, noting: “Turkey cannot sacrifice either Ukraine or Russia.” 

This was confirmed by two opposition officials, who agreed that Ankara should continue its current, balanced approach by pursuing a position as a mediator. But they also said that Ankara should not join EU sanctions.

Regional retreat

Even if we make an enormous assumption that the disparate and previously warring political parties that make up Turkey’s Table of Six opposition coalition would hold together in government - and that is a big if - the one policy that unites them is a general retreat from the region and an outreach to the US, EU and Nato. 

I say outreach because the means to do it are not obvious. Of course, Turkey needs western knowhow on how to turn a startup into a business that can stand on its own feet. Startups have a hard time becoming businesses in Turkey because the owner has to do everything, from taxes, to customs, to cash flow. This means that talented university graduates have difficulty converting their ideas into successful businesses, finding few investors prepared to back them. Most investment is channelled into construction, where the returns are quick and guaranteed, and politicians are easily bribed. 

Around half of all Turkey’s exports go to the EU. A less caustic relationship with Europe absolutely makes sense, but membership of the EU is a long way off. At least seven other countries have joined the queue for membership since Turkey became a candidate more than two decades ago, and I doubt Kilicdaroglu will make faster progress than Erdogan tried to do, in the days before he jettisoned his liberal, pro-European identity.

Put it all together, and the urge to please the US, EU and Nato is clear. The means to do it are less obvious, without sacrificing Turkey’s vital interests.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Ankara on 24 November 2021 (AFP)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Ankara on 24 November 2021 (AFP)

Russia will continue building the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant in Turkey, no matter which government is in power. On the other hand, kicking Qatar out of a tank factory, after it financed 49 percent of it, as the opposition has vowed to do, could frighten other foreign investors, which Turkey desperately needs. 

But it is in the Middle East that regime change in Ankara would be felt most keenly. And here, I am not thinking only of the Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian exiles Turkey has hosted. 

I am referring to Turkey’s relationship with the very heads of state who were trying to rub Erdogan from the international stage seven years ago. 

One official in the Middle East put it like this: “You are taught in political science that foreign policy is formulated by big units - the military-industrial lobby, diasporas - and then refined by ever smaller units, like think tanks and ministries, until it is expressed by advisers and enacted by presidents,” he said. 

“In the Middle East, this pyramid is inverted. Foreign policy starts and stops with the man at the top. If you have a personal relationship with him, even if you then go to war with him, it’s only a matter of time before that relationship resumes.”

Pragmatic choices

These are wise words. Turkey has now got billions of dollars of investments from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who partially funded the attempted coup.

This is partly because the president of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, realised that the money he was spending on backing dictators in North Africa was not paying dividends. He changed tack. 

But it is also because Turkey made pragmatic choices, sometimes at the cost of jettisoning the very causes, like bringing the killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to justice, that Erdogan himself had championed.

Turkey is treated as a tactical ally in Moscow and in the Gulf precisely because it fought Russian troops in Syria, used its drones against the Wagner Group’s forces in Libya, and pushed back against the counter-revolution financed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

It is essential for the Middle East to have strong states prepared to exercise their independence. This is what,
for all his faults, Erdogan has achieved

No actor has undergone a Damascene conversion. “If [Saudi Prime Minister] Mohammed bin Salman could kill another Khashoggi and get away with it, he would,” another official told me. But the fact that Turkey is now treated as a player in the region with force to deploy to protect its allies, matters.

It is not only the direction of travel that Turkey would take if the opposition came to power that is concerning, but the timing. It is often said that Russia emerged from the Soviet Union at the worst possible time, when neoliberal theories about the beneficial effects of untamed markets and diminishing the power of the state were at their height. 

Russia knocked on the door of the West at a time when the US thought it was a good idea to destroy states and rebuild them as western clones. Had the Soviet Union collapsed two decades earlier, when Scandinavian-style liberal democracy was still in fashion, the result might have been different, or so the theory goes. 

Similarly, Turkey could be about to surrender the pillars of its independence at the very time when the US and Nato are gearing up for a full military confrontation with China. This danger is not lost on US allies in the Gulf, which are seeking to diversify their trade and their dependence on the dollar, and are cultivating China.

China claimed the credit for a thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is now offering to mediate between the Palestinians and Israel

It is in this very environment that it is essential for the Middle East to have strong states prepared to exercise their independence. This is what, for all his faults and his undoubted mistakes, Erdogan has achieved. To lose it now would be a disaster not just for Turkey, but for the region.

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

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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