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Turkey Elections: A Kilicdaroglu win could reset strained US relations

The man hoping to unseat President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to restore US-Turkey relations that soured over a host of issues, including Ankara's rights record.
Turkey election

WASHINGTON — Publicly, the Biden administration is not picking sides in the Turkish election pitting longtime president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, against Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of a diverse six-party opposition alliance. 

But behind closed doors, it’s safe to assume that many in Washington are hoping Sunday’s pivotal presidential and parliamentary elections bring an end to Erdogan’s more than two-decade dominance of Turkish politics. 

Turkey’s longest-serving leader is facing his toughest election challenge since the ruling Justice and Development Party swept to power in 2002. Polling suggests that Republican People's Party leader Kilicdaroglu has an actual shot at ousting Erdogan, whose campaign is squeezed by an economic crisis and public frustration over the government’s response to the February earthquakes.

An opposition victory would matter not just for Turkey, but for its relationship with the United States. Kilicdaroglu, a 74-year-old former civil servant, has pledged to restore Ankara’s tarnished democratic credentials and re-establish “healthy” ties with Washington after many years of strain. 

Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, says Kilicdaroglu would bring a different quality of diplomacy were he to be Turkey’s next leader.  

“I think it will have a huge impact,” Tahiroglu said. “The fact that Turkey will have a more democratic image will help the US defend that close relationship it has with Turkey.” 

The election comes nearly seven years after the failed July 2016 coup that saw more than 250 people killed in an attempt to overthrow Erdogan. Thousands were jailed in the crackdown that followed, including suspected followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. 

In recent years, Turkey has also rounded up scores of journalists, civil society workers and Kurdish activists. Kilicdaroglu, who once led a 280-mile "March for Justice" from Ankara to Istanbul, has repeatedly criticized Erdogan for using his influence over the judiciary to imprison government critics. He’s pledged to reinstitute judicial independence and has said jailed Erdogan opponents Selahattin Demirtas and Osman Kavala should be free. 

Also at stake Sunday is Sweden’s path to NATO membership, another point of friction in Turkey’s ties with the US. Kilicdaroglu appears more open to approving Sweden’s accession, which Erdogan has held up for nearly a year over concerns that the Nordic state is harboring Kurdish separatists and Gulen supporters. The Turkish parliament gave the green light to Finland's NATO bid in late March. 

If Erdogan stays in power, he’s likely to leverage Stockholm’s membership to secure a commitment for F-16 fighter jets from President Joe Biden when the pair meet at the NATO summit in July, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.  

“In the case of Erdogan, the Sweden-NATO accession move is going to come very slowly,” Cagaptay said. “Kilicdaroglu will align broadly speaking with the transatlantic community, whereas Erdogan is going to continue to be coldly and boldly transactionalist.”

The election could also have implications for Turkey’s future in the F-35 program. The Trump administration booted Ankara from the program in 2019 over its acquisition of the Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile system. The opposition has said it will “take initiatives” to rejoin the fifth-generation jet program, but stopped short of saying it would get rid of the S-400s. 

Those in Washington hoping a Kilicdaroglu victory would mean a total 180 in Turkey’s foreign policy will be disappointed. Both Erdogan’s government and the opposition are uncomfortable with US support for Syria’s Kurdish fighters known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), viewing them as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. No matter who is named president, Ankara’s security policies against the YPG are unlikely to change.  

Both candidates are are expected to normalize with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s long-shunned regime, despite US objections. Turkish officials see restored relations with Syria as a means to return some of the four million Syrian refugees hosted in Turkey. Kilicdaroglu has pledged to send them back within two years of the election. 

“We are not being racists, but we want these people to continue their lives in their own country, under better conditions,” Kilicdaroglu told the Wall Street Journal.

As Turkish voters gear up to cast their ballots, polls show Kilicdaroglu maintaining a slim lead over Erdogan. Most analysts, however, say it's too close to call. 

Should Turkey’s strongman prevail on Sunday, Gonul Tol, the founding director of the Middle East Institute's Turkey program, warned he will double down on his repression. 

“If Erdogan wins another term, Turkey will degenerate further into authoritarianism where this time elections will not matter,” Tol said in an Al-Monitor webinar. “Turkish voters, particularly opposition supporters, will lose faith in the electoral process."

Analysts have warned of the potential for Erdogan to subvert the vote if the results aren’t immediately clear Sunday night, and fears of post-election day unrest are growing as campaigning enters its final stretch. Turkish opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu was recently pelted with stones during a campaign rally in the eastern city of Erzurum. 

The Washington Institute’s Cagaptay said if there’s serious election meddling or violence among protesters, “given what transpired in the US on January 6, it would be impossible for the Biden administration to stay quiet.” 

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