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Turkey’s NATO deal may bring nationalist votes back to Erdogan

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 6/30/2022 Sinem Koseoglu
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a longstanding alliance with the nationalist MHP and its leader Devlet Bahceli, but nationalist support for the alliance has dipped [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a longstanding alliance with the nationalist MHP and its leader Devlet Bahceli, but nationalist support for the alliance has dipped [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Istanbul, Turkey – After weeks of back and forth, Turkey decided to drop its objections to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids, as the transatlantic defence alliance convened in Madrid on Tuesday.

With an agreement signed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said Ankara had “got what it wanted”.

Erdogan was able to have his concerns about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a designated “terrorist” group in Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, and that has fought a war against the Turkish state since 1984 – addressed.

Finland and Sweden also agreed to stop any assistance to the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the first time a NATO candidate has promised to do so, considering the YPG has been seen by Turkey’s Western allies as the main tool in the fight against ISIL (ISIS) in Syria.

The agreement with the two Nordic countries was even followed by a face-to-face meeting in Spain with US President Joe Biden, who has had fairly cold relations with Washington’s longstanding NATO partner as a result of various issues.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Turkish government and its supporters have portrayed the resolution of the Finland-Sweden dispute and the Erdogan-Biden meeting as the end of Ankara’s strained relations with Washington.

It is also seen as a victory for Erdogan and his ruling AK Party, as they prepare for a difficult election likely to come in mid-2023.

Political struggles

Erdogan has governed Turkey since 2001 but his support has dropped from above 50 percent to below 30 percent, according to recent polls.

The primary cause of this drop in public support is the country’s economic troubles, with the national currency, the Turkish lira, losing 44 percent of its value against the US dollar in 2021 alone and nearly 25 percent just this year.

Erdogan’s unconventional monetary policies and direct influence over the central bank have resulted in sharp interest rate cuts and increased inflation, which is now at 70 percent according to the national statistics bureau, but about 120 percent according to independent institutions.

Sanctions imposed by the US, particularly following Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 Russian air defence system, have also had an impact on the country’s economy.

The refugee question has also become a hot topic in the run-up to elections.

Turkey officially hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, despite the economic turmoil. However, unofficial figures show that the true number of Syrians may be much higher, along with refugees from other nationalities, which has fuelled nationalist sentiments in the country over the last two years.

The refugee crisis is seen by some, particularly supporters of Turkish nationalism, as a result of the governing party’s failed foreign policies, which has increased the risk of security threats.

As a result, many are wondering whether the win in Madrid will be an influential means of consolidating nationalist votes. a large demographic, around Erdogan ahead of the election.

Turkish nationalists divided

Turkish nationalists can broadly be divided into two camps, secular nationalists who largely support the opposition, and conservative nationalists, who largely support the government.

The AK Party has an alliance with the biggest nationalist party in parliament, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Following the Madrid deal, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, whose party is now polling below 10 percent, backed the agreement with Finland and Sweden, also arguing that Turkey got what it wanted.

Mustafa Destici, the head of another conservative nationalist party, the Great Unity Party (BBP), told Al Jazeera that Turkey’s gains from the deal cannot be underestimated.

“[It was] one of Turkey’s most important diplomatic achievements in recent times,” he said, emphasising that the “commitment” of Sweden, Finland, and other NATO members “to fight against the PKK and its affiliates has for the first time been recognised”.

But not all nationalists are toeing the same line, with opinions differing depending on their position towards the government.

Yavuz Agiralioglu, an MP representing the opposition IYI Party, told Al Jazeera the deal did not meet the demands of his country, and is a diplomatic vulnerability, rather than a victory.

“Our audience was all NATO countries, not only Finland and Sweden. We should have told our allies that we are against NATO members supporting terror groups designated by allies … We are not only protecting the rule of law here, but all NATO countries,” Agiralioglu said.

Nationalists in Turkey are enraged that the US kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet programme, which is paid for in advance, as well as the recent US military buildup in Greece.

According to Ahmet Yavuz, Erdogan’s victory in Madrid will have no effect on the elections.

Yavuz criticised the government’s approach, claiming that despite Turkey’s right to veto, the reality was that its power to carry out that veto and stop Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership was limited.

“All they wanted to do was make an impression,” Yavuz told Al Jazeera. “Turkey is not opposed to NATO’s expansion in general, but it should have considered Sweden and Finland separately.”

“The United States arms the YPG. Protests by PKK and YPG supporters are freely held in Germany and France,” he added. “These one-day struts only damage our country’s reputation.”

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