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Istanbul, Turkey, 2015 © Alexandros Michailidis

The Other Winner in Turkey’s Elections

Dogu Perincek looks set to be a winner in Turkey even if he does not make it into parliament.

He’s been in and out of prison during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule and is running against the president in the Turkish elections on June 24, with no chance of defeating him and little hope of winning a seat in parliament. Yet Dogu Perincek wields significant influence in Turkey’s security and intelligence establishment, and he sees much of his eurasianist ideology reflected in Erdogan’s foreign policy. With President Erdogan likely to emerge victorious from the election despite the opposition posing its most serious challenge to date, Perincek looks set to be a winner even if he does not make it into parliament.

At a glance, Erdogan and Perincek seem poles apart. Perincek is a maverick socialist and a militant secularist whose conspiratorial worldview identifies the United States at the core of all evil. By contrast, Erdogan carries his Islamism and nationalism on his sleeve. Nonetheless, Perincek’s philosophy and world of contacts in Russia, China, Iran and Syria have served Erdogan well in recent years. His network and ideology have enabled the president to cozy up to Russia; smoothen relations with China; build an alliance with Iran; position Turkey as a leading player in an anti-Saudi, anti-Emirati front in the Middle East; and pursue his goal of curtailing Kurdish nationalism in Syria.

Tacit cooperation between Erdogan and Perincek is a far cry from the days that he spent in prison accused of having been part of the Ergenekon conspiracy, which allegedly involved a deep state cabal plotting to overthrow the government in 2015. It was during his six years in prison in that Perincek joined forces with Lieutenant General Ismail Hakki Pekin, the former head of the Turkey’s military intelligence, who serves as vice-chairman of his Vatan Partisi or Homeland Party. His left-wing ideology, which in the past was supportive of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PPK) that is viewed as a terrorist organization by the Erdogan government, has not stopped Perincek from becoming a player in Turkey’s hedging of its regional bets.

Together with Pekin, who has extensive contacts in Moscow that include Alexander Dugin, a controversial eurasianist extreme right-winger who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Perincek mediated the reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara following the Turkish air force’s downing of a Russian fighter in 2015. The two men were supported in their endeavor by Turkish businessmen close to Erdogan and ultra-nationalist eurasianist elements in the military.

Eurasianism in Turkey was buoyed by increasingly strained relations between the Erdogan government and the West. Erdogan has taken issue with Western criticism of his introduction of a presidential system with far-reaching powers that has granted him almost unlimited power. He has also blasted the West for refusing to crack down on the Hizmet movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan holds responsible for an unsuccessful coup in 2016. Erdogan has rejected Western criticism of his crackdown on the media, the dismissal of people from public sector jobs and/or arrest of tens of thousands accused of being followers of Gulen.

Differences over Syria and US support for a Syrian Kurdish group aligned with the PKK have intensified pro-eurasianist thinking that has gained currency among bureaucrats and security forces, as well as in think tanks and academia. The influence of eurasianist generals was boosted in 2016 when they replaced officers who were accused of having participated in the failed coup.

Eurasianism, as a concept, borrows elements of Kemalism — the philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire — Turkish nationalism, socialism and radical secularism. It traces its roots to Kadro, an influential leftist magazine published in Turkey between 1932 and 1934, and Yon, a left-wing magazine launched in the wake of a military coup in 1960 that became popular after yet another military takeover in 1980. Eurasianism is opposed to liberal capitalism and globalization. It also believes that Western powers want to carve up Turkey, and it sees Turkey’s future in alignment with Russia, Central Asia and China.

Foreign Policy

Perincek’s vision is shared by hardliners in Iran, including the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who advocate an Iranian pivot to the east. This is on the grounds that China, Russia and other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are more reliable partners than Europe, let alone the US.

The IRGC believe that Iran stands to significantly benefit as a key node in China’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative and will not be confronted by Beijing on its human rights record. Some Iranian hardliners have suggested that China’s principle of non-interference means that Beijing will not resist Iran’s support of regional proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, Shia militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen in the way the US does. Their vision was strengthened by US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran. China, Russia and the European Union have vowed to uphold the deal.

Iranian empathy for eurasianism has been reinforced by Chinese plans to invest $30 billion in Iranian oil and gas fields and $40 billion in Iran’s mining industry, as well as the willingness of Chinese banks to extend loans at a time that Trump is re-imposing sanctions.

Turkey’s embrace of the eurasianist idea has taken on added significance since Russia and the European Union slapped sanctions on each other because of the dispute over Russian intervention in Ukraine. The EU sanctions halted $15.8 billion in European agricultural supports to Moscow. Russian countermeasures prevent shipment of those products via Russia to China.

Perincek may, however, be pushing the envelope of his influence in his determination to restore relations between Turkey and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “The first thing that we will do after victory in the election is that we will invite Bashar Assad to Ankara and we will welcome him at the airport. We see no limitations and barriers in developing relations between Turkey and Syria and we will make our utmost efforts to materialize this objective,” Perincek vowed in a campaign speech.

More in line with Erdogan’s vision is Perincek’s admiration for China. “China today represents hope for the whole humanity. We have to keep that hope alive … Every time I visited China, I encountered a new China. I always returned to Turkey with the feelings of both surprise and admiration,” Perincek told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com