Mevlana in the Turkish neighbourhood of Mulheim at Cologne, Germany, is teeming with people a day before the run-off to the Turkish Presidential elections. There is perceptible levity in the air. A waiter helpfully explains the reason. “Recep Erdogan will win the Presidential polls tomorrow. That is why his supporters are celebrating.” The next day, expectedly, the results were declared, and Erdogan’s supporters won by a handsome margin.
In Germany alone, which has a large population of Turks - 2 million - he bagged 67 per cent of the votes and his close rival, the reticent Kemal Kilicdaroglu, only 32 per cent. In Turkey, the contest was closer, with Erdogan winning 52 per cent of the votes and his rival 47.8. It is known the urban areas and women voted against the 69-year-old leader.
Many believed that Turkish elections could be the most significant elections in the world. Though a member of NATO, the United States made it amply clear that it would be happy if Erdogan gets voted out. Its Ambassador’s meeting with the opposition Presidential candidate was resented. Quite astutely, the wily Turkish leader projected himself as a leader whose government exercised strategic autonomy in its foreign policy even when it is a member of the NATO bloc of countries. Despite this contradiction, Turkey also has excellent relations with Russia, endeavouring to be an honest broker between Russia and Ukraine to end the war. Despite being prevented from ending the war as early as March 2022, Erdogan remained a good friend of Moscow and President Putin, who helped him to fight off a coup attempt in 2016. There are also reports that Russia parked some $58 billion with the Turkish government in the event of a crisis stemming from the complicated war with Ukraine. Due to all these reasons and more, Washington wanted to see the back of Erdogan.
Besides threatening to get out of NATO, Turkey also was using the refugees from Syria very cleverly. Managing what is called the “warehouse of Syrian refugees”, Ankara always kept the European countries on tenterhooks on how many refugees it would release to look for refuge in the continent if they did not pay up for their upkeep in his country. Erdogan also got substantial investment from the Syrian expatriates in his own country. He played this clever game that allowed him freedom from criticism from the EU and the US about his strong-arm tactics and smothering dissent.
In 2016, the Erdogan government arrested thousands of followers of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based religious head, for conspiring to overthrow him. Not too long, it was with the support of Gulen that he managed to break the hold of army generals who defended secularism as conceived by the architect of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk.
While its relations with Saudi Arabia took a mighty hit after Turkey blamed Saudi royalty for allegedly assassinating journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2016, other countries more than made up for it. Iran, for instance, drew close to Ankara even when the US and Israel were breathing fire at it. Qatar, which was estranged from Saudi Arabia for alleged proximity with the Muslim Brotherhood, found a friend in Erdogan. In this very complex world where tribal loyalties clashed with geopolitical compulsions, Erdogan managed to emerge as the uncompromising leader of the Islamic world. It is this image that found trenchant opposition in India.
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Despite all these problems between the two countries, the return of Erdogan would encourage the Indian PM to follow some of his strong-arm ways to return to power. Unlike Turkey, there are parts of the country where the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party would have little sway. Also, as the elections in India would not be presidential, there is plenty of scope for anger against local representatives to soil the copybook of the party’s mascot.
Erdogan won by dominating the narrative and keeping the opposition leader out of TV and print media. Similar attempts are made in India, too. The friendly media only attacks the opposition and never asks any questions from the party in power. Modi has been allowed to go scot-free by the media, even when he has not addressed a single press conference. Erdogan talks to friendly media but keeps the rest in jail. At least in India, dissenters lose jobs and are not incarcerated.
Though there are many similarities, the Indian elections are far more complicated than the presidential polls. And if Modi manages a third term - there will be plenty for other authoritarians to learn from him.
Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.