Turkey Briefing

Latest Turkish-Greek war of words linked to electoral campaigns

Turkish Greek bickering continued apace this week with Erdogan repeating his stock threats about descending on Turkey’s foes “unexpectedly in the night,” spurring further overwrought takes on how the two NATO allies might slip into war.

Our conclusion: It’s mostly about vote chasing ahead of elections in both countries, as Nazlan Ertan and Barin Kayaoglu explain.

Erdogan came out in support of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to block natural gas sales to Europe, saying that the EU had basically asked for it. This was followed by suggestions during his joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (Andy Wilks has an excellent backgrounder on his Balkans jaunt) that the West had “provoked” the war against Ukraine and not the other way around. Putin’s assertions that Ukrainian wheat was mostly going to “rich countries” were justified, Erdogan said, and more Russian wheat needed to find its way to international markets. “Don’t take Russia lightly,” Erdogan warned.

Is Turkey gradually edging away from the West over the war in Ukraine, veteran commentator Sedat Ergin asks in a solid analysis for Hurriyet. (The English translation isn’t great.) We are likely to hear more anti-Western rants from the Turkish leader when he joins fellow autocrats at the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Summit in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand on Sept. 15-16.

Opposition wobbles as race to nominate presidential candidate heats up

The opposition alliance against Erdogan is starting to fray. Meral Aksener, the leader of the Right wing nationalist Iyi or Good Party, said her group would never “sit at the same table” as the largest pro-Kurdish bloc, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Her comments came after a lawmaker for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) suggested that the HDP could be given a few ministerial posts in a future government. Her words were echoed by numerous Iyi Party officials on social media.

The HDP’s initial reaction was muted, as I reported. But as Iyi members continued to spew bile, the HDP spokesperson riposted that not only would her party not sit at the same table as Aksener, “we would not even drink a glass of tea with you!”

Aksener’s outbursts may well be calculated to put the kibosh on CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s ambitions to be nominated the opposition’s candidate to run against Erdogan. Support from HDP Kurds, who hold the swing vote, as demonstrated in the 2019 municipal elections, would be critical in securing his victory.

Kilicdaroglu has been reaching out to the Kurds in recent months, with trips to the heavily Kurdish southeast, and through an open line to the HDP leadership. The balancing act appears to be paying off. Recent opinion polls suggest that after trailing far behind Erdogan for years, Kilicdaroglu could beat the president by a margin of around five points in a run-off.

At the same time, Kilicdaroglu has been bending backwards to accommodate Iyi’s nationalist sensibilities, by keeping the HDP out of opposition’s six party alliance against Erdogan.

Had Aksener been rooting for him, she might have dismissed the CHP lawmakers’ remarks with milder language. So, what is going on? Sources who have access to Aksener tell me she does not believe Kilicdaroglu stands a chance. He is an Alevi and though he’s never said so, is probably Kurdish too, both distasteful to the Sunni Turkish nationalist hardcore.

The sources insist that Aksener favors Istanbul’s CHP mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, a pugnacious Sunni from the Black Sea region, who consistently ranks as the second most likely candidate to win against Erdogan. Polls show him beating Erdogan by as much as 25 percentage points in a second round of balloting. He’s retained this lead despite recent missteps which many predicted would knock him out of the race. Tellingly, Aksener paid a visit to Imamoglu at his headquarters on Wednesday, where she was received like a head of state, with a red carpet, municipal guards and all.

But if Aksener’s chief worry is to come up with a name that can beat Erdogan, why not plump for Mansur Yavas, the CHP mayor of Ankara, who has the strongest lead over him of all? I am told it’s because she sees him as a potential rival for the uncontested leadership of the nationalist right. (Devlet Bahceli, the septuagenarian leader of the Nationalist Movement Party from which both Aksener and Yavas originally hail, is melting in the polls as a result of his alliance with Erdogan.)

Moreover, if Yavas were to run — and win — Aksener’s plans to become prime minister might run into trouble.

I haven’t spoken to Aksener so I have no way of verifying these claims. There’s little doubt, however, that she’s upped her nationalist game. Her grotesque scheme for sending back some 3.7 million refugees, as I reported, speaks for itself.

Meanwhile, opinion is split on whether the Kurds would ever vote for Yavas, because of his overtly Turkish nationalist past. A swelling club of complacents seem to believe that the Kurds are so desperate to get rid of Erdogan they would vote even for Mickey Mouse. As the Middle East Institute’s Gonul Tol pointed out on Twitter, the Turkish opposition needs the HDP “not only to secure victory against Erdogan in presidential elections but also to capture a parliamentary majority to return to parliamentary democracy.”

The key takeaway from the week’s wrangles is that Kilicdaroglu has not bagged the candidacy as previously thought. The race has moved into higher gear and the risk of it busting the six party alliance is higher than that of any war with Greece.

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