Turkey’s Erdoğan Ramps Up Anti-Western Rhetoric in Tight Campaign

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

Opposition candidate targets president’s “authoritarianism” but won’t rush to rebuild ties with the United States, experts say. 

Facing public backlash over nearly 50 percent inflation and the deadly winter earthquakes, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is stoking anger against the United States and Europe as he seeks support from “radical elements” in Turkey during an election season that could end his two-decade rule, scholars tell Middle East Policy

Erdoğan’s “election speeches tend to repeat the same points he has been raising for nearly a decade now: the alleged cooperation between the opposition and terrorists and/or Western countries,” Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras said in an interview. However, “it is uncertain whether this type of scaremongering will be effective this time,” added the scholars from Ankara’s Bilkent University. 

The main opposition candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, remains focused on the economy. While he portrays the election as a fight against “authoritarian rule,” Kılıçdaroğlu has been careful not to fully align himself with the West, given the anti-American mood that prevails among key sectors of the society.  

Less than a week before the vote, opinion polls indicated that the opposition candidate had a slim lead over Erdoğan, who has led Turkey as prime minister or president since 2003. 

If Kılıçdaroğlu were to win the presidency, “there is little doubt that the opposition will be much more open to more cooperation with the West,” the scholars noted. “But it will take a significant amount of time to rebuild the lost trust.” 

Grigoriadis, an associate professor, and Aras, a master’s student, analyze anti-Americanism in Turkey in an article recently published by Middle East Policy. In 2017, they show, less than 1 percent of survey respondents considered the United States a friend. In recent years, the Turkish public has had an overwhelmingly negative evaluation of its NATO ally—though President Donald Trump’s hands-off approach somewhat reduced this sentiment.  

While anti-Americanism is mostly driven by concerns with Turkish sovereignty and the belief that the United States is unreliable and imperialist, a more radical strand—emphasizing that the Western superpower is inherently evil—has grown among the media, Grigoriadis and Aras show. 

In their email interview with Middle East Policy—conducted just before the first round of voting forced a runoff, scheduled for May 28—the scholars observed that Erdoğan is trying to deflect criticism of his economic stewardship by playing into this anti-Americanism. They noted that a week before the election, Erdoğan tweeted, Kılıçdaroğlu “won’t say what he promised to the baby-killing terrorists or to the Western countries.” 

Kılıçdaroğlu, for his part, has been careful not to embrace the NATO allies, Grigoriadis and Aras said. “Neither West nor East, this is Turkey’s path,” the opposition candidate tweeted recently. 

Ultimately, the scholars contend, the election will be decided more by domestic issues than foreign policy. “The economy is the biggest factor,” Grigoriadis and Aras told Middle East Policy. “The rampant inflation and the cost of living crisis are the biggest thorns for the government, and it will most likely decide the election.” 

Click here to see the takeaways from the article by Grigoriadis and Aras. 

Erdogan and Biden


Interview with Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras 

This transcript of the Middle East Policy interview has been lightly edited. 


Middle East Policy: We have been hearing that Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu are basically tied, according to polls. Is that what it feels like there? 

Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras: For the most part, yes. Most polls show that it will be a close call, though the hopes for an opposition victory are higher than ever due to the worsening economy and the disastrous consequences of the earthquake.  

The opposition campaign is rather energetic, and the opposition Nation’s Alliance managed to get together a large number of mostly minor parties, including those split from the AKP [Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party], including IYIP [the Good Party], which split from and even outperformed the ultranationalist MHP [the Nationalist Movement Party]. Although there was a disagreement on who should be the opposition candidate, with IYIP favoring the mayor of Istanbul and CHP [the Republican People’s Party] favoring Kılıçdaroğlu, this was resolved after a compromise. The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara are now running to be vice presidents to Kılıçdaroğlu.  

Erdoğan and AKP’s alliance, in comparison, feels much smaller due to their limited success in their scramble to find new allies. Their People’s Alliance is composed of mostly far-right and radical minor parties, which again speaks to the implications we listed in our article. Erdoğan will more and more rely on radical elements in the society to hold onto the support, which is confirmed with the support of the radical Islamist HÜDA PAR, the Islamist/ultranationalist Great Unity Party (Buyuk Birlik Partisi), and the political Islamist New Welfare party. 

MEP: We understand that there is public dissatisfaction with inflation and the earthquake toll and response. Your article indicates that Erdoğan might have been able to strengthen the economy if he could have improved ties with the West. At the same time, major voting blocs as well as the media are anti-American, so he would have faced a backlash. Since you wrote your article, what measures has the president taken to try to gain public trust in his stewardship of the economy? 

IG & UA: Erdoğan continually attempts to frame himself as the best candidate to manage the economy, or more accurately, the best candidate to protect the economy from foreign manipulators. In reality, most things he has done are very short-term, if not in rhetoric only.  

The state of the economy is a topic that he tends to avoid. His election speeches tend to repeat the same points he has been raising for nearly a decade now: the alleged cooperation between the opposition and terrorists and/or Western countries. Just yesterday (Sunday, May 7), at his Istanbul campaign rally, he said, “European newspapers and magazines are watching here, saying what is happening in the Atatürk Airport. May the plans of those who make [sinister] plans for this country [fail]….We won’t let our homeland to be divided. We won’t let Kılıçdaroğlu, who works with the terrorists, divide our homeland.” He said in a tweet, “[Kılıçdaroğlu] won’t say what he promised to the baby-killing terrorists or to the Western countries.”  

The rest of the People’s Alliance’s campaign mostly highlighted the infrastructure plans for the country and dull economic promises, such as short-term tax relief for the young. For instance, in the same Istanbul speech, he said, “We are not ignoring the cost of living. We follow these issues closely. In time, we will see all these resolved. We will resolve this, as we have resolved every other problem of our country.” This is, overall, a weak and vague promise.  

When he gets into specifics, it tends to be in retrospect. He says, for instance, “We tripled our national income in the last 21 years. We built 10.5 million homes and provided housing to [millions of] families in the last 21 years. We sold 14.5 million cars and provided new cars to our people in the last 21 years,” which are, again, tired points that do not address the core issues with the economy. 

MEP: Kılıçdaroğlu told Time magazine, “This is an election for those defending democracy against authoritarian rule,” which sounds like something someone in the US Democratic Party would say about the Turkish election. He also indicated in the interview that he would try to rebuild relations with the West. Is this the appeal that he is making to the Turkish electorate? 

IG & UA: For the authoritarianism comment, yes, it is one of the main points of the opposition, though they often frame it together with the economic problems.  

As for foreign policy and the West, it is not an issue widely discussed by the opposition, and when they do, they are somewhat cautious in being too enthusiastic. The sovereigntist argument that the AKP championed during the last decade, but that existed long before, has a unique hold on Turkish society, so openly promising rebuilding relationships with the West to a Turkish audience would confirm the vehement accusations of the AKP.  

A tweet by Kılıçdaroğlu—a communication method he has used frequently during the campaign—posted on Sunday is illustrative here. He said, “Neither West nor East, this is Turkey’s path.” And he starts by saying, “They are accusing the Nation’s Alliance of being pro-Western….I do not separate between East or West.” It is clear that he is being cautious when the audience is Turkish. 

But they are not anti-Western, nor do they champion policies that are anti-Western, which automatically reflects a friendlier outlook toward the West. It is also a consequence of them focusing on more advantageous issues for the opposition, such as the economy. In the same tweet, for instance, Kılıçdaroğlu proposes a huge infrastructure project. Still, there is little doubt that the opposition will be much more open to more cooperation with the West, but it will take a significant amount of time to rebuild the lost trust and resolve the outstanding issues, some of which, such as the [purchase of the Russian] S-400 [air-defense system], may be here to stay for a long time. 

MEP: Given your analysis of anti-Americanism in Turkey, is Kılıçdaroğlu’s openness to the West a surprise? 

IG & UA: No. Ideologically, most opposition parties are not anti-Western. And those that are, are not as close to the extreme outlook of the AKP or focus on anti-Westernism that much. Moreover, post-Erdoğan Turkey has nowhere to go economically besides the West. China and Russia will be at best lukewarm toward a president that replaced an authoritarian leader that continued to disrupt the Western lines (not that Russia is in a position to offer much economically). What is concerning is the public response to further cooperation with the West, which may limit the extent of openness to the West.  

We reckon that the public will be neutral toward economic cooperation, but any compromises on more sensitive issues, such as Kurds in Syria or eastern Mediterranean, may result in backlash. 

MEP: You note in your article that Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s Party has strains of anti-Americanism but has signaled a greater willingness to rebuild ties with the West. Do you see this as likely if he prevails? Or would anti-Americanism in the media and in key parts of society prevent him from fully doing so? 

IG & UA: We do see this as likely, but in a qualified manner. More sensitive issues that are tied to national security, at least in the mind of the electorate, may not be resolved anytime soon, the most critical of which are Syria and Libya. Economically, there would be some resistance to it no matter what, but as long as it relieves the economy, this resistance will be overcome easily. Anything that helps the economy would be welcome by the electorate at this point. 

MEP: Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu reportedly accused President Joe Biden of planning a coup for May 14. Has this kind of anti-Americanism played a major role in the election? 

IG & UA: It is a significant feature of the incumbent coalition’s campaign. Erdoğan continues to refer to shady dealings made by “certain” countries, though he rarely names any specific country. His subordinates are not as polite. So it does play a role in the campaigns. But it is uncertain whether this type of scaremongering will be effective this time. 

MEP: Are there radical anti-American elements who have been able to gain any influence in the campaign? 

IG & UA: Absolutely. As noted above, many radical Islamist parties have joined AKP’s alliance. The ultranationalist MHP is an obvious case, whose rhetoric often mirrors that of Erdoğan. Buyuk Birlik Partisi is very similar ideologically, as it split from MHP in the 1990s. The New Welfare Party, very conspicuously named after the Welfare party from which the AKP split, is also of the Political Islamist vein, which is inherently anti-Western. A very infamous ally is HÜDA PAR, which is very closely associated with the Kurdish Hezbollah, a violent radical Kurdish Islamist group established in the 1980s, linked to murders of Kurdish left-wing activists and rumored to have links with the Turkish “deep state” of the time.  

Although these parties’ vote shares will likely be very small, the fact that AKP has publicly invited them into its alliance is very telling. All these minor parties are even more extreme in their hostile outlook towards the West. Should the AKP win the elections, they will have influence over policies, which is a concerning look for the future of the relations. 

MEP: Your article shows that there are major constituencies in the state, the public, and the media that see realignment with the West as treason. How do these anti-American groups see the recent thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran? 

IG & UA: In the pro-government camp, the “idealist” segments of the public and the media may be seeing it as one step closer to something resembling Islamic unity. But at the official level, the government is likely alarmed by it, as this thaw could weaken Turkey’s strategic position in the Middle East. They would not want to see Saudi Arabia rebuild ties with a significant rival because the Turkish government has usually been much closer to Iran due to both sharing some kind of a revisionist vision for the Middle East and believing that Saudi Arabia does not and is firmly within the Western camp.  

In the opposition and secular camps, it is probably not that well-received, either, as they view it as a collaboration between Islamist, radical regimes in the Middle East. Yet this is not something they would set as a priority at the moment, especially as the consolidation of this thaw and its transformation to a rapprochement remains uncertain. 

MEP: Do the nationalist anti-American factions see China as a potential path away from the Western orbit, or are they suspicious of its growing power in the region? 

IG & UA: Pro-government groups are not too concerned by the Chinese influence. In fact, the government, while championing Muslims all around the world, conveniently continues to ignore the plight of Uyghurs raised by the opposition. They likely wish to remain on the good side of China because it is seen as a potential replacement for the West in terms of economic and strategic cooperation. At best, China is seen as the lesser evil by the anti-American groups within the pro-government camp. 

For neo-nationalists and Eurasianists on both sides, growing Chinese influence is seen as positive, and they indeed see it as a potential path away from the clutches of Western influence. The anti-American groups in the opposition are mostly neo-nationalists or Eurasianists (those who did not defect to AKP), so they are likely to endorse this shift, as well. 

MEP: With just a few days until the election, what do you think is the biggest factor that will decide the outcome? 

IG & UA: The economy is the biggest factor. The rampant inflation and the cost of living crisis are the biggest thorns for the government, and it will most likely decide the election. 

Erdogan and Obama


Takeaways from the Middle East Policy article “Distrusted Partnership: Unpacking Anti-Americanism in Turkey,” by Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras 

  • There are four main types of anti-Americanism identified in Turkey: 

    • Liberal: a criticism of the United States’ “inability to live up to its ideals of liberal capitalism and democracy, including its support for autocratic regimes or protectionist measures.”

    • Social: a criticism of the inequalities resulting from US domestic and foreign policies. 

    • Sovereign-nationalist: a focus on “not losing control over the terms by which polities are inserted in world politics and the inherent importance and value of collective national identities.” 

    • Radical: a complete clash with US values and norms. Extreme variants view the United States and Western countries as irreversibly decadent and advocate their destruction. 

  • The US-Turkey relationship has soured in the last decade due to developments such as: 

    • Democratic backsliding since 2023, compounded by a failed 2016 coup that enabled Erdogan to expand his power. 

    • The 2015 collapse of a peace process between Turkey and Kurdish groups like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a US partner. 

    • The US refusal to extradite Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who Turkey claims played a part in the 2016 coup attempt. 

  • Public opinion in Turkey has been largely negative towards the US in the last decade: 

    • One poll indicates that in 2017, only 0.6 percent of people believed that the US was a friend of Turkey. 

    • The same poll states that in 2018, 81.3 percent of people answered yes to the question of whether the US is a threat to Turkey. 

    • In 2021, 64.8 percent of people believed the US to be an unreliable, imperialist, or hostile country rather than a strategic partner, global power, or ally and friend. 

  • Considering the powerful government control in Turkey, it is most likely that the media is advocating and justifying pro-government positions instead of influencing policymaking. 

    • There are two major ardently pro-government newspapers, Yeni Akit and Yeni Şafak, and two major moderate, but still pro-government, newspapers, Hürriyet and Sabah

  • The majority of media attitudes seem to hold the sovereign-nationalist strain of anti-Americanism, but there are also growing radical elements within the pro-government media. 

  • Despite what happens in the election—which polls indicate will be close—a realignment of Turkey with the West is not the most likely of outcomes, as it is clear that the US remains deeply unpopular in the country, though the alliance “may not be irreparable.” 


You can read the article by Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras, “Distrusted Partnership: Unpacking Anti-Americanism in Turkey,” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley


Click here to read our Q&A with Ioannis N. Grigoriadis and Ümit Erol Aras. 


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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