Erdogan Makes Comeback in Turkish Polls. Opposition Sends Mixed Signals on Russia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, still very much alive, is making up ground quickly in the polls ahead of the May 14 elections.

Back in early March, Erdogan was running roughly ten points behind. One poll conducted on March 6-7 by Alf Research showed opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at 55.1 percent and Erdogan at 44.9 percent. Here’s another:

Of course those public opinion readings were coming only one month after the devastating earthquakes that hit the country in February. Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu are now in a virtual tie.

A poll conducted by Al-Monitor in partnership with data and analytics firm Premise Data between April 18 and April 24 found that support for Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu stood at 45.2 percent and 44.9 percent, respectively. The Istanbul-based pollster TEAM released its April report over the weekend, which showed Kilicdaroglu at 47.4 percent and Erdogan at 44.4 percent.

Here are some recent developments in the run-up to the vote:

  • The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) decided at the end of March not to run its own candidate or join with the Nation Alliance. The HDP has 8-13 percent of the vote, which will go to Kilicdaroglu and the opposition. Six opposition parties (the center-left Republican People’s Party, the Felicity Party, the nationalist İYİ, Democracy and Progress Party, the Future Party, and the Democrat Party) are joining forces to oppose Erdogan.
  • The Erdogan government recently launched an anti-Kurdish operation, arresting more than 100 people, including Kurdish politicians, journalists, lawyers and artists. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party called it “an operation to steal the ballot boxes and the will of the people. This operation is an open intimidation and threat to society and its political preferences.”
  • Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkish intelligence forces killed the leader of the Islamic State in Syria, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi. Washington, likely not wanting to give Erdogan a win ahead of the election, is refusing to confirm the claim.
  • Ankara and Moscow recently celebrated the loading of fuel into the first reactor at the Russia-built Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkiye.  It was a major milestone for the country, which joined the ranks of countries with nuclear energy. At the virtual gathering, Putin noted that completion of the plant would mean Russia exporting less natural gas to Turkiye. He added: “But Turkiye will enjoy the advantage of a country that has its own nuclear energy, and nuclear energy, as you know, is one of the cheapest.”
  • On April 10, Turkiye unveiled the world’s first aircraft carrier meant to be used primarily by unmanned aircraft, making it one of the few countries in the world with a domestically built aircraft carrier. (The ship was originally meant to carry F-35s, but the US kicked Turkiye out of the F-35 program.)

The problem is all of these well-orchestrated rollouts meant to bolster Erdogan ahead of the election don’t do much for his two main liabilities: the economy and the Syrian refugee situation. The primary concern for voters is inflation. From Al Monitor:

The opposition’s electioneering has focused on the cost-of-living crisis, the main factor behind Erdogan’s sagging popular support. Consumer inflation stood at 50.5% in March after peaking at 85.5% in October, and soaring prices remain the chief grievance of most voters.

With food inflation hovering around 70%, the opposition has made onions the symbol of how the government’s economic policies have failed after the price of the humble staple went through the ceiling earlier this month. To change the subject, team Erdogan has been emphasizing successes such as the discovery of gas off Turkiye’s Black Sea coast and the construction of large-scale infrastructure, including suspension bridges, airports and motorways.

Last week, Erdogan promised 25 cubic meters of free gas monthly for households over a year as he led a ceremony for the first arrival of gas to an onshore plant from the Black Sea reserves.

The Erdogan administration has followed an unorthodox economic policy in recent years and continued to cut interest rates despite the record-breaking inflation. Dissatisfaction with the economy contributes to frustration with the more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Türkiye, which has helped strain the country’s budget.

Turkiye’s normalization talks with Syria continue. Moscow hosted more talks at the end of April with defense ministers from Turkiye, Syria, and Iran. Türkiye, as part of its turn east, has abandoned the US-led effort to topple Assad, and Russia began leading the detente efforts last year after more than a decade of hostility between Syria and Türkiye.

Russia is trying to pressure Assad to move past Erdogan’s participation in US efforts to overthrow him and normalize ties. That looks unlikely – at least ahead of the election.

The opposition block, for its part, is in favor of normalizing its relationship with Syria, and for that it will need a good working relationship with Russia.

That is the big question with Kilicdaroglu who has sent mixed signals on what his policies would be regarding the West and Russia. As the saying goes, however, actions speak louder than words. And to spend part of the campaign season visiting the US and the UK, as Kilicdaroglu did, is a loud statement. Kilicdaroglu made a six-day visit to the US in October, which was a bit of a head scratcher considering recent public opinion surveys in Türkiye show the public there views its NATO “ally” as the biggest threat to Türkiye.

Beyond stops at MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and a meeting with World Bank executives and “digital industry stakeholders,” it’s unclear who else Kilicdaroglu met with. He mentioned that he would also be visiting with NGOs, think tanks, investors, and human rights groups.

The trip opened Kilicdaroglu to attacks that he’s a Washington stooge. Turkish media do not tire of replaying Biden’s declaration during his 2020 election campaign that Washington should help the Turkish opposition “take on and defeat Erdogan.”

Speaking at John Hopkins University during his trip, Kilicdaroglu said, “we will develop our relationship with Russia but we want to stand with the West. There is no logic in fighting against Russia.”

It’s hard to see how he would accomplish that with the West’s current with-us-or-against-us attitude. After receiving criticism for meeting with investors in London in November, Kılıçdaroğlu said, “yes, I visit foreign countries and hold talks. Don’t get concerned. I have already found the clean money.”

Again, this opens Kilicdaroglu to easy attacks from Erdogan.

“We ousted the International Monetary Fund in 2013,” Erdogan said recently at a campaign event,  “[whereas] the opposition is busy making backroom deals with money lenders.”

Kilicdaroglu’s hopes for foreign investment are also unrealistic barring some sort of sweet deal in return for policy that benefits the West. From Al Monitor:

…the opposition leader hopes that a return to economic orthodoxy and the rule of law will restore foreign investor confidence and bring up to $300 billion in foreign capital flows to Turkiye. Loss of foreign investments has contributed to Turkiye’s foreign-currency crunch and the lira’s dramatic depreciation in recent years as Erdogan pursued a controversial low-rate policy at the expense of fanning inflation. Government officials have dismissed Kilicdaroglu’s pledge, noting that the total of foreign investments over the past two decades was only $250 billion

Additionally, Kilicdaroglu’s coalition platform makes clear that, at the very least, they would take a step back from recent close ties enjoyed by Erdogan and Putin. ​​In the bloc’s “memorandum of understanding on common policies” the alliance states it will do the following:

We will conclude contracts with new source countries to reduce the risk of dependence on certain countries/companies in natural gas imports and reduce the cost of natural gas imports. We will renegotiate existing high-priced natural gas contracts.

It’s pretty clear who they’re talking about here as Türkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia (and a quarter of its oil). Erdogan and Putin are also discussing expanding their energy relationship, which would allow Türkiye to increase its transfer fees when sending gas to Europe – if they want it.

The opposition alliance also pledges to “take initiatives” in order to make it possible for Türkiye to be reaccepted to the F-35 fighter jet program. The memorandum does not expand on this, nor does it mention why the US expelled Türkiye from the program in the first place. The reason was that after years of ignored requests for the US Patriot system, Türkiye purchased the arguably superior Russian system in 2017. Would Kilicdaroglu and the Nation Alliance get rid of the S-400? Would they make amends in other ways in order to rejoin the F-35 program? It remains unclear.

Lastly, the Nation Alliance vows to review the contract for the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.

An opposition official recently told Middle East Eye “We won’t do things like buying another S-400 system from them or throwing them another contract for a nuclear power plant, but we will be balanced.”

Another said that should Kilicdaroglu win, Ankara would continue to uphold the Montreux Convention that governs the passage of vessels to the Black Sea and deny the transit of all warships to there.

The sources also revealed that a Türkiye under Kilicdaroglu would not join western sanctions on Russia. To do so would be problematic due to both public opinion and economic interests. A December poll by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8 percent of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. Compare that to the nearly 90 percent who think the US is a hostile country.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Ankara and Moscow have developed or strengthened arrangements that benefit both economically. Turkiye helps Russia bypass sanctions and profits from being the middleman.

Turkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia and a quarter of its oil, and unlike its neighbors to the west, is not blowing holes in its budget trying to avoid shortages. Russian tourism to Turkiye has gone through the roof since the war in Ukraine and western sanctions started. There’s also the aforementioned nuclear power plant.

What do the US and Europe have to offer? Turkiye only has to look at the Europe that rejected it to see a collection of countries going against their own economic interests, sacrificing themselves at the altar of American hegemony. Joining that fiasco would almost certainly result in a short time in power for Kilicdaroglu and friends.

But should he win, Kilicdaroglu would have broad powers due to the country approving the creation of an executive presidency in 2017.  Those constitutional changes eliminated many checks and balances and resulted in the accumulation of more power in the hands of the president and his inner circle. The opposition parties have signed a joint declaration to restore the parliamentary system and strip the powers of the president if they win 2023 elections, but that’s often easier to say when not in power.

Before making that decision, Kilicdaroglu and his coalition first need to win the election, and that’s looking more difficult by the day.

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  1. Chris Iq

    Turkey wasn’t denied the Patriot system, it was denied it’s demand for technology transfer and co-production which are (smart) Turkish conditions for major purchases. TK then took the Russian system (without these conditions) after flirting with the Chinese close of the S-300.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      Additionally. Erdogan wanted a missile system he could trust and that would not be used against him should there be another US inspired attempted coup against him. A Patriot system would be liable to subversion by his US backed enemies.

    2. tevhatch

      I suspect Aegis also had Erdogan upset, as US helped Greece put them on islands where they can bottle up Turkey. Patriot is nearly useless against cruise missiles, but Turkey could have modified the crappy parts to make the system more functional. A system that could take Aegis out from the get-go would be best, and it appears he’s got one now.

  2. The Rev Kev

    This all sounds like that if Kilicdaroglu was elected, that he would throw away his promises and align with the west no matter the damage done to his own country. That trip that he made to places like ‘MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and a meeting with World Bank executives and “digital industry stakeholders’ was an own goal. You would have to ask yourself who else he met with while there. Why was such a trip necessary when he knew that there was an election coming up and that it would lead to charges of being a “Washington stooge.” Erdogan must think himself lucky with his enemies.

  3. Not Again

    Beyond stops at MIT, Harvard, John Hopkins University, the Washington Post, and a meeting with World Bank executives and “digital industry stakeholders,” it’s unclear who else Kilicdaroglu met with.

    If he had a fundraiser in a wine cave, he could be Pete Buttigieg

  4. Dan

    As a longtime visitor to Turkey, I have been distraught that Kiliçdaroğlu insisted on running, rather than yielding to a younger and more electable candidate like Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş, or even the (odious to me) Meral Akşener. Kiliçdaroğlu has been leader of the opposition CHP for a decade and has done little to renovate the party’s image as the bastion of wealthy Europhile snobs (though the reality is of course more complicated). His ego, and Turkish tendencies to defer to the Leader, are getting in the way of the country’s benefit.

    Erdoğan is finally weak, and beatable, and the opposition runs a truly uninspiring candidate who frankly deserves the label of Western stooge. Truly crazy-making!

    1. m-ga

      İmamoğlu was subject to trumped up accusations by AKP, preventing him from running. The same happened to several other high profile CHP politicians who presented a threat to Erdogan. The tactic has been to portray criticism of Erdogan or AKP as sedition. Some of this was barely reported outside Türkiye. I’ve not been following recent events closely enough to gauge how Kiliçdaroğlu emerged as the opposition candidate.

  5. Matthew G. Saroff

    How much of this turn around in the polls stems directly from elements of Turkish society who have come to loathe the United States?

  6. Dida

    Putin noted that completion of the plant would mean Russia exporting less natural gas to Turkiye.

    In other words, Russia is going to lose from this project, but they are making this sacrifice willingly for the benefit of the Turkish people! Breathtaking hypocrisy.

    The Akkuyu nuclear plant is being built by a daughter company of Rosatom under BOO conditions (Build-Own-Operate). For the moment Rosatom owns 75% of the shares, although ‘the Russian side reserves the right to sell a project share of not more than 49% to other investors’, thus keeping the controlling interest of 51%.

    Putin is being hypocritical, because first, the Russian state company will profit financially from this deal for a very long period of time, secondly the plant will increase Turkey’s strategic dependence on Russia, which is the obvious problem with the BOO model of project delivery. Actually, Akkuyu is expected to be the first build-own-operate nuclear power plant in the world; it doesn’t surprise me that the opposition might want to review the contract.

    When China buys entire ports for BRI and Russia builds-to-own nuclear plants in other countries, they are both playing by the same neoliberal playbook that the West has invented, even if the conditions of the deals are marginally better. I know they are supposed to be the good guys in the current conjecture, but it drives me crazy, because I don’t see the neoliberal model ending with anything else long-term but dispossession and loss of sovereignty for the smaller states that are alienating their major infrastructure and productive capacity.

    1. Conor Gallagher Post author

      I’m not sure I’d call such an arrangement “neoliberal.” Rosatom is a state corporation after all. While the plant does likely increase Russian influence in Turkiye, the West had its opportunity to do the same. Turkiye has been trying to get a nuclear power plant built for 50-plus years. Back in the 90s Ankara had bids from Westinghouse + Mitsubishi, AECL, and Framatome + Siemens but had to cancel because it was going to cost more than the Turkish government could afford at the time. Turkiye sought the BOO model because it was an arrangement Ankara could afford.
      Indeed, Russia financed, built, and is delivering the fuel to Akkuyu. Obviously, they’re not going to do it for nothing, but is it really such a bad deal for Turkiye?
      “TETAS will buy a fixed proportion of the power at a fixed price of 12.35 ¢/kWh for 15 years. The proportion will be 70% of the output of the first two units and 30% of that from units 3&4 over 15 years from commercial operation of each. The remainder of the power will be sold by the project company on the open market. After 15 years, when the plant is expected to be paid off, the project company will pay 20% of the profits to the Turkish government.”
      Turkish nuclear engineers are also receiving training from the Russians. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says: “Given the costs for the construction, operation, and maintenance of the plant, as well as for the management and transport of the waste, this was considered ‘an economically well-negotiated agreement’ by nuclear energy policy experts. In short, it was a good deal for Turkey.”
      Regardless, the Turkish parliament ratified the deal back in 2010. Trying to rework the contract 13 years later as soon as the project is finished is not a great way to do business.

  7. kemerd

    Most pollsters in Turkey are not serious, they tell whatever the boss wants to hear. Erdoğan is around 40% all the other candidate started to go down and voters unite on Kılıçdaroğlu, who seems to get at least 53% of the votes
    Erdoğan is finished, the only question is whether he will accept results and there are many signs that he won’t

  8. Xiaolei Mu

    There’s an interesting argument for the BOO model found in an article by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. Won’t put the link here, because it has Greek letters which I’m not sure the comment function can handle, but the title is “The Akkuyu NPP and Russian-Turkish Nuclear Cooperation: Asymmetries and risks – Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Eliza R. Gheorghe.”

    As a think tank of the EU, most of the paper is critical of the project. But as a contributor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the author Eliza R. Gheorghe had this to say about the topic of nuclear proliferation:

    In fact, the Akkuyu NPP’s BOO scheme cannot facilitate any nuclear military ambitions Ankara may harbor. In normal circumstances, nuclear power plants can serve as a cover for a military nuclear program. Nuclear reactors require steady fuel supplies, and states may invoke unreliable foreign suppliers as a reason for acquiring their own enrichment or reprocessing plants. But in the case of the Akkuyu NPP, Russia signed a Build-Own-Operate contract with Turkey, which means that Rosatom is not simply in charge of building the nuclear power plant; it also provides the fuel for the plant, which it owns and operates. In addition, contract also foresees the return of the nuclear waste to the Russian Federation, a service most other suppliers are unwilling or unable to offer. The BOO scheme thus deprives Turkey of a reason to build the enrichment and reprocessing facilities, without which it is impossible to build nuclear weapons.

    Considering how Western powers have pulled the WMD card to justify their destructive foreign interventions, this might’ve been part of the calculus of the Turkish government.

  9. kemerd

    All these contradicting voices come because opposition is not a single block with shared ideals. But, we know the following because Kilicdaroglu said so:
    1. Turkey will not join western sanctions
    2. Turkey will mend ties with Syrian government and clean northern Syria of terrorists
    3. Turkey will not open Black Sea to NATO warships
    4. Turkey will be an enthusiastic participant of of Chinese new silk road project
    5. Turkey will coordinate its actions to form permanent peace with Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

    Obviously, quite some of it contradicts with some of what he himself said but they will learn; Kilicdaroglu is not an expert on foreign affairs and also takes advice also from Western leaning experts.

    I am almost certain that Turkish policy will be even more favourable to Russia once he and his cadres learn about how the things actually are.

    It might seem contradictory but Erdogan has been the most pro-western politician in Turkish history perhaps on par with Menderes who sent Turkish soldiers to Korean war.

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