JERUSALEM — The first-ever presidential runoff election in Turkey will be decided Sunday, and two competing visions for the important NATO-member country will affect relations between Ankara and Washington.
The current strongman, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for his brand of populist political Islam, squares off against his social democratic Republic People’s Party challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Kilicdaroglu hails from the largely secular party of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and is a bespectacled soft-spoken former civil servant.
Turks will celebrate the 100th year of the founding of modern Turkey this year and the famous slogan of Ataturk, “Peace at Home, Peace in the World,” remains an elusive goal for the Muslim-majority nation that straddles Europe and the Middle East.
Massive inflation has gripped the economy, and Turks are still recovering from a devastating earthquake that killed over 50,000 people in early 2023. The opposition accused Erodgan’s government of inertia and incompetence in response to earthquake rescue efforts.
Critics argue Kilicdaroglu has injected xenophobia into the charged election, declaring he will deport the more than 3 million Syrian refugees to their war-ravaged country.
“I am announcing here that I will send all refugees back home once I am elected president, period,” Kilicdaroglu recently said.
Turkey’s foreign policy is mired in an occupation of northern Syria and repeated attacks against Kurdish forces who fought with the U.S. to oust the Islamic State. The U.S. Congress has blocked sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey until Erdogan ratifies NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. Turkey recently green-lighted Finland’s entry, but Sweden’s admission is in limbo.
The U.S.-led North American Treaty Organization is a critical military alliance in the effort to stop Vladimir Putin’s jingoism in Europe, advocates of NATO argue.
Turkey wants Sweden to crack down on Kurdish opposition groups and dissidents in the northern European country who it says are part of the Turkey-designated terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Earlier this week Politico reported that National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said he was “not aware of any assurances one way or the other about” a post-election change in Congress about permitting the sale of 40 F-16s to Ankara. The military F-16 deal amounts to $20 billion.
Pro-Erdogan Turkish media outlets added their own interpretation to Kirby’s comments claiming he said “The president’s position has not changed. We still would like to move forward on that. My recommendation would be to maybe talk to Sen. (Bob) Menendez’s office or folks on the (Capitol) Hill to talk about what their expectations are.”
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, told Fox News Digital, “The biggest impact of the election on U.S.-Turkish relations is continuity. And if Erdogan wins — and it looks like he might because he is leading in the polls and also has incumbency advantages, including near complete control of media that allows to him write any kind of narrative that he likes. “
The Associate Press reported that Erdogan’s message and power are amplified by his tight control over the media. The state-owned broadcaster TRT Haber devoted more than 48 hours of airtime to Erdogan since April 1, compared to 32 minutes given to Kilicdaroglu, according to Ilhan Tasci, a member of Turkey’s radio and television watchdog.
“For example, the whole country is focused on how he has made Turkey a great military-industrial power, and there is no discussion of the earthquake, economic problems or human rights violations,” Cagaptay added. “For the U.S., Erdogan has embraced a transactionalist foreign policy in recent years, and the U.S. has responded to that.”
The margin of a Erdogan victory will likely determine Erdogan’s reaction to the U.S., said Cagaptay.
The Turkish expert continued that if Erdogan wins narrowly “he will lean more on Putin for financial flows that came before elections.”
A tight Erdogan triumph might mean he will not vote on Sweden’s accession to NATO, he noted. Cagaptay sees that the most “plausible scenario” is where Erdogan keeps a balance between Putin and Biden.
In early May, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told Fox News Digital Turkey “is a long-standing U.S. ally and partner. We will continue to work together with the government chosen by the Turkish people to deepen cooperation around shared priorities.”
Ghanem Nuseibeh, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and founder the of London-based Cornerstone Global Associates, told Fox News Digital, “Erdogan has proved that he is not fully aligned with NATO. For a country with such strategic importance to the U.S., Erdogan had demonstrated he is not a true American ally.”
“Erdogan has reached out to Putin and has made some deals that are contrary to the West’s interests. Regionally, he has supported Islamic extremists. And whilst American and Western pressure has forced him to reduce his closeness to the extremists, he remains a strategic threat.”
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish political analyst and research fellow of the Philos Project, told Fox News Digital, “For many years, the Turkish government has been an obstacle before the U.S. government’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
“Turkey is a NATO member and an EU candidate. But its foreign policy choices are far from being in line with the values and principles of Western nations or institutions. And his government’s foreign policy actions will continue to be in opposition to the U.S. values and goals in the region.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.