The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey (or Turkiye as its new official name) will be held on May 14. These upcoming elections are being touted as “the most crucial in Turkey’s history.” Political spectators from around the world are looking at this election with keen interest as two rival coalitions are keen to win political power in a nation that is now celebrating the 100th year of its foundation.
India, too, is keeping an eye on the electoral process in Turkey, for this nation could potentially emerge as an important partner of India in West Asia. In this region, the current dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen maximum diplomatic success.
In fact, India has successfully walked the diplomatic tightrope and strengthened alliances with ideologically adversarial nations like Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. However, despite this widespread diplomatic success in the region, India has continued to have strained ties only with Turkey due to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist Party (Adaltve Kalkimna Partis’s) overt support to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue at platforms like the United Nations. Turkey, under Erdogan, has also supported Kashmiri separatists, leading to enduring discord with India.
Interestingly, this election provides the rare opportunity to do a volte-face and reset the strained ties between India and Turkey and potentially turn them into allies/partners in the near future. The elections could also convert India into a decisive actor in perhaps the only space in the world where Pakistan holds a bigger say than India. But, the fulfilment of this goal will depend upon the electoral outcome of the incoming election and the defeat of the incumbent President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his right-wing coalition led by the Islamist party AKP. The chances of such an outcome do not look bleak as several odds are stacked against Erdogan this time.
The economy is in a downward spin, the Turkish lira is among the worst-performing currencies in the world, inflation has hit haves and have-nots alike, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has reduced foreign policy options for the country, and the response of the AKP government post-earthquake is being criticised for being both too little and too late. Coming from a humble and religiously conservative background, Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since late 2002, first as the Prime Minister of Turkey and then as its President (after dissolving the institution of the Prime Minister and converting Turkey into a presidential form of government from the earlier parliamentary form).
In the twenty years of his rule, Turkey has undergone a major transformation in its economy and polity. For instance, Turkey witnessed unprecedented economic liberalisation and political democratisation under Erdogan. In the early years of his rule, he gave several cultural rights to Kurds, the largest ethnic minority of Turkey that had faced persecution since the foundation of modern-day Turkey.
In the name of democratic reforms required to bring Turkey closer to EU membership, Erdogan made substantial efforts to curb the power of the army, a decisive and staunchly secular institution in Turkish polity that always had the upper hand and would intervene to take power upon itself whenever it felt that the most important foundational value of the Turkish state- secularism, was under threat by the activities of a democratically elected government or the masses.
His efforts to bring Turkey closer to the European Union (EU) by subscribing to greater democratisation were viewed by many as a ‘genuine attempt’ while some called them as merely ‘strategic’, intended to reduce the power of the secular army so that the Islamic agenda of the ruling AKP could be imposed.
However, his image as a democrat who could inspire other Muslim states to become ‘an Islamic democracy’ took a major hit in 2013 when the government came down heavily on protestors of Gezi Park protests. Since then, the country has witnessed an era of democratic retrenchment where the rights of common people have been curbed, and democratic institutions are facing an existential crisis. The Kurds have been subject to extreme government oppression in terms of military attacks in Kurdish-majority areas in the name of fighting against so-called terrorist groups like the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party).
In 2016, Erdogan’s government machinery and his supporters defeated a coup attempt by a section of armed forces. Erdogan alleged that Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic cleric who fled to the US after falling out with Erdogan, was behind the coup. This failed coup gave him the golden chance to seize all power to himself and become an autocrat. Critics of the government, including those belonging to civil society, including the media, academia, armed forces, and NGOs, have been arrested on frivolous charges, including that of terrorism. Several media houses in Turkey have either been shut down or have been taken over by the supporters of Erdogan. Erdogan has portrayed himself as ‘a neo-caliphate, the spiritual and political head of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and therefore has overtly extended support to Kashmiri, Palestinian and other Muslims related causes of the world.
However, he has turned into a mute spectator. He has not raised his voice ever (just like the OIC) to condemn the atrocities being committed against the Uighur Muslims by the Chinese state and its ruling party, the CPC, in the Xinjiang region of China. The opposition in Turkey is led by Kemal Kılıçdaroglu, a former bureaucrat who is fighting as a unity candidate for six opposition parties, ranging from his own centre-left party, the CHP (the party founded by the Father of Modern day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) and the nationalist Good Party, to four smaller groups, which include two former Erdogan allies, one of whom co-founded the AK Party. He also enjoys the support of the pro-Kurdish HDP. Although the electoral trends are favouring him, there are strong chances that Erdogan may misuse state, non-state machinery and other peripheral statist institutions to remain in power.
Prospects for India
On the contrary, if mild-mannered Kemal Kılıçdaroglu wins the Presidential elections, there are chances that he will attempt to reset his ties with India- an emerging global power, the host of the G20 summit this year, one of the fastest growing economies of the world and most importantly, the first major country to offer holistic support and assistance after it earthquake. India’s humanitarian assistance during the earthquake has projected India as a responsible and capable power within Turkey but also created a lot of positivity for the country among the common people of Turkey.
While Erdogan has traditionally projected himself as the leader of the neo-caliphate of Muslims and has raised the sensitive Kashmir issue at platforms like the United Nations in order to appease his domestic constituency, Kılıçdaroglu may try to soften the rhetoric and may attempt to create an equilibrium between Turkey’s historic relations with Pakistan and its need to strengthen diplomatic ties with India. In fact, both countries can also increase cooperation in the fields of agriculture, cyber technology, pharmaceuticals, space research etc.
It is noteworthy that commercial ties between India and Turkey have seen an upward swing in recent years, with bilateral trade between India and Turkey standing in excess of USD 10 million, with Indian companies being present in Turkey’s automobile, pharma, and Information and Technology sectors.
Given India’s expertise in managing HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief), and Turkey’s geographical vulnerability (Turkey is a seismically active junction and geographically positioned at a point where the Earth’s crust meets and grinds against each other), Turkey can gain a lot from India. India can also use its economic leverage in pursuing Turkey to not give space to anti-India elements that have recently found Turkey as their safe haven. Turkey can also help India capture several Kashmiri separatists who go to Turkey in order to gain financial and ideological support for their cause.
The G20 summit this year could provide an excellent opportunity for the leadership of both nations to engage with each other and necessitate a rapprochement diplomatically. However, the May election results will have a determining role to play in rewriting the political narrative. Everything will ultimately depend upon whether the entire election process remains as unbiased as possible and also upon the people of Turkey, whether they choose to go with the incumbent or decide to terminate the social contract with the incumbent AKP and President Erdogan.
(Pavan Chaurasia is a PhD candidate at the Centre for West Asian Studies of the School of International Studies (SIS), JNU)