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Erdoğan re-election as president would be boon to Islamists, say Turkish policy experts

The Turkish president’s agenda includes “supporting Islamist organizations and groups worldwide,” Mehmet Efe Caman, visiting professor at Memorial University, told JNS.

The flag of Turkey. Credit: Markus Pfaff/Shutterstock.
The flag of Turkey. Credit: Markus Pfaff/Shutterstock.

Following a record-high turnout in last week’s Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is facing a runoff—his biggest political challenge since assuming office in 2014.

Michael Doran, senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute, has described Erdoğan’s re-election as a certainty. In fact, he called him the most consequential leader since the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Erdoğan belongs to a group of leaders who represent “popular nationalism,” which includes India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Doran told JNS. 

“They seek to defend national traditions from internationalist elites who, in their view, seek to transcend and transform the nation,” said Doran.

Erdoğan has tilted increasingly towards nationalism and away from Islamism over the years due to a number of factors, including an alliance begun in 2015 between the AKP (Erdoğan’s party) and the MHP, a nationalist party shaped by Islam. The independent candidate Sinan Oğan, who secured just 5.17% of the vote, has endorsed Erdoğan, which will reinforce this trend, according to Doran.

“They seek to defend national traditions from internationalist elites who, in their view, seek to transcend and transform the nation.”

Michael Doran, senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East at Hudson Institute

“In addition to the party coalition factor, these include an official deal between Erdoğan and the security services and military, according to which foreign and security policy, with the exception of a few portfolios, is not in Erdoğan’s hands,” Doran said. “This shift we have seen towards Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and away from the Muslim Brotherhood, is part of that arrangement, and it is unlikely to change as a result of the election.”

Experts on Turkish politics told JNS last week that an Erdoğan victory would likely lead to improved Turkish-Israeli relations. Other experts are saying, however, that the re-election of the autocratic leader, who has supported Hamas, would empower Islamists in Turkey.

‘Hezbollah terrorism to become active again’

Mehmet Efe Caman, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, is a Turkish politics specialist. He told JNS that Erdoğan’s alignment with the Free Cause Party (HÜDA PAR) would be a boon to Islamists inside of the country.

“HÜDA PAR joining with Erdoğan’s coalition is undoubtedly in line with the Islamist-nationalist orientation of the current regime,” he told JNS.

The party, which is Sunni Islamist, is the legal wing of a Hezbollah terror group operating in Turkey. The latter is not connected to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist and research fellow at the Philos Project, told JNS.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Turkish Elections
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in August 2022. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

“Many people joined Erdoğan’s election rallies waving HÜDA PAR flags,” she said.

Caman added that the Free Cause Party joining Erdoğan’s coalition “is a worrying development that will cause Hezbollah terrorism to become active again in Turkish Kurdistan.”

Doran disagrees with the assessment that HÜDA PAR is unable to impose its ideology on Erdoğan.

“HÜDA PAR is a Kurdish Islamist Party. It is best understood not as an Islamist party imposing a strong ideological direction on Erdoğan, but more as a mechanism by which non-PKK Kurds express their hostility to the PKK,” he said. “The PKK is formally banned in Turkey, but HDP [the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party] draws support from voters who are sympathetic to it.” 

The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Marxist-Leninist Kurdish separatist group that Turkey and the United States deem a terrorist organization.

‘Used Islam as an ideology’

If re-elected, Erdoğan would most likely also continue his strong support for Islamist groups outside the country, including Hamas in the Gaza Strip and groups linked to Al-Qaeda, said Caman. He noted that Erdoğan sympathizes with an ideology that reflects antisemitic, anti-Western, Islamist and jihadist components.

“Erdoğan will continue to support terrorist organizations, like Hamas, considering he hosted Hamas leaders in Turkey in the past, declaring that he sees such organizations as ‘Muslim brothers’ at every opportunity,” Caman said.

He predicted that a re-elected Erdoğan would also continue to support the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front in Syria.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in March 2023. Credit: Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi via Wikimedia Commons.

“Turkey has a regime that has adopted and used Islam as an ideology. That is why organizations like Hamas have always supported an autocrat like Erdoğan,” Caman said. “Erdoğan and his ideology significantly threaten Turkey, the Middle East and world peace.”

Turkey’s Supreme Election Council—abbreviated “YSK” from the Turkish language—declared on May 15 that Erdoğan received 49.51% of the vote. Turkish law requires a candidate to exceed 50%, so a runoff is scheduled for May 28. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu came the next closest with 44.88%.

Experts predict an Erdoğan win, which would likely be for another five-year term.

Bulut warned that Erdoğan owes much of his political support to his alliance with domestic Islamist groups such as Turkey’s Hezbollah.

During the 1990s, Turkey’s Hezbollah kidnapped, tortured and murdered many civilians in the country, she said. By 2012, it had rebranded as the HÜDA PAR political party, whose Turkish abbreviation also suggests the Arabic for “Party of God.”

“Because of this alliance, in the upcoming period, actual Hezbollah supporters will become members of the Turkish parliament,” Bulut predicted.

An Erdoğan victory is unlikely to change the leader’s relationship with Hamas in any significant way, and it will not have a major impact on Islamist groups inside and outside of Turkey, according to Doran.

“Islamism peaked in Turkey a decade ago. Since 2015, Erdoğan has been on a trajectory away from Islamism in the direction of nationalism,” Doran said.

The Turkish president has championed issues, such as the fight against the PKK (and U.S. inclination to support the Kurdish party) and support for Azerbaijan, which in Turkey is a nationalist rather than an Islamist cause, according to Doran. 

“The country is bigger than Erdoğan. Whatever Islamist sympathies he has in his heart, he knows that the voters, particularly young voters, have other priorities,” he said.

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