Turkiye’s election outcome and what it means for Pakistan
The 2023 presidential election in Türkiye has put the Eurasian country at the center stage of world attention. If Turkiye’s European neighbors are keenly observing the electoral process and results, this election has also been followed by audiences across the Muslim world and Pakistan, a key Turkish ally in South Asia.
The two nations have maintained extremely cordial and close ties since the independence of Pakistan. This friendship remains rooted in the support and mobilization by Indian Muslims for the Ottoman Empire during World War I and for the Turkish Republic during the subsequent Turkish war of independence. As both countries were in the Western camp during the Cold War, their ruling elites developed exceptionally close ties. The bilateral defense cooperation got a considerable boost as both countries entered regional security alliances such as the Baghdad Pact in 1955 and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1959. A shared interest in combating and containing communism made the two indispensable regional allies. This translated into a Turkish state policy transcending domestic political divides and a continued support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, but also on the Pakhtunistan issue vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Pakistan in turn fully endorsed Turkish military intervention in Cyprus and Turkiye’s perspective on the political future of the island.
This alignment continued during the Afghan war years and even as the end of the cold war changed regional geopolitics, both countries and their leaderships remained courteous toward each other. The joint visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller to a besieged Sarajevo in 1994 to show solidarity with Bosnian Muslims again affirmed a shared foreign policy outlook but also close personal chemistry between the two leaders. Even when both sides diverged on their Afghan policies, it didn’t result in a total fall-out. It was only after 1999 when a fracture appeared in bilateral relationship as Turkish Premier Bulent Ecevit was not keen to engage with the Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharaf and skipped Pakistan while en route to India. However, this downturn ended with the electoral defeat of Ecevit in the 2002 elections.
As opposed to the 1990’s when the Pakistani public and elites were exposed to a diverse set of political actors from Turkiye, in the last two decades they have only seen President Erdogan, who in popular imagination remains a larger-than-life figure
- Umar Karim
The political ascendance of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to power in Turkiye started a new era in the bilateral relationship, as now the Turkish foreign outlook became increasingly Muslim world-oriented. Turkish foreign policy toward Pakistan that had been traditionally rooted in a shared west-aligned foreign policy outlook and geopolitical interests was now also complemented by the bond of religion. As a deadly earthquake struck the Pakistan-administered Kashmir region in 2005, Turkish aid and relief teams were the first to respond and then PM Erdogan became the first foreign leader to visit the disaster-stricken area. On the political front, Erdogan’s consistent and unwavering diplomatic, political, and discursive support for Pakistan against India over the Kashmir issue has earned him respect and admiration from Pakistan’s polity.
Due to this unique stature of the Turkish leader as a great friend of Pakistan’s, he had been conferred Pakistan’s highest civilian honor, the Nishan-e-Pakistan. Pakistan also condemned the failed coup attempt against President Erdogan in 2016 and accepted the Turkish government’s request to close schools in the country run by the Gulen Movement.
This political proximity had also transcended from political to personal levels as President Erdogan developed a close inter-personal relationship first with the former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif and later on with Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Under President Erdogan, the Pakistan-Turkiye defense partnership has blossomed and it would not be wrong to suggest that Turkiye remains, alongside China, Pakistan’s foremost defense partner. From upgrading Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets to providing cutting Bayraktar Akınci drones and manufacturing MILGEM-class corvette ships for the Pakistani navy, Turkiye’s contribution toward Pakistan’s defense capabilities remains of critical importance. Turkiye’s hard power projection in Pakistan has been flanked by soft power and Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) has started various capacity building projects in the health, agriculture, and education sectors. Moreover, Turkish soap operas have truly captivated Pakistani audiences.
As opposed to the 1990’s when the Pakistani public and elites were exposed to a diverse set of political actors from Turkiye, in the last two decades they have only seen President Erdogan, who in popular imagination remains a larger-than-life figure and whose image overlaps with that of Turkiye.
Against this backdrop, Pakistan’s decision makers and public will both be rooting for the re-election of President Erdogan to ensure the continuation and further strengthening of the country’s unique relationship. In case of an opposition victory, the relationship might lose its special status and will perhaps undergo a recalibration, coupled with a possible Turkish-India rapprochement. Since President Erdogan has already won the first round and most observers predict his victory in the second round, such an outcome appears unlikely.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89