Levent Kenez /Stockholm
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to use anti-Americanism as a tool in his election campaign ahead of the May 14 elections, as he has done in the past, reacting harshly to the March 31 visit of US Ambassador Jeff Flake to main opposition leader and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
“[This is] shameful. … You are an ambassador, and your interlocutor here is the president, use your mind a little,” Erdogan said.
Turkish voters are used to Erdogan’s statements targeting the European Union and the US during election campaigns. Erdogan had previously implied that Western leaders were all the same and infidels, invoking a religious reference.
Visiting a branch of the Gray Wolves (Ülkü Ocakları), the youth organization of government partner the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan also criticized US President Joe Biden.
“We need to teach America a lesson in these elections. Joe Biden is speaking over there, but look what his ambassador is doing here. He goes and visits Kılıçdaroğlu. It’s shameful.”
However, Biden hasn’t made any recent statements about Turkey. Most likely, Erdogan is reacting to not being invited to last week’s Summit for Democracy 2023 hosted by Biden for the second year in a row.
Erdogan also said his door was closed to the ambassador, telling Flake to know his place and to learn how to operate as an ambassador.
Surely Erdogan can’t be unaware that ambassadors in Turkey meet with other political party representatives as part of their duties. However, before the elections in May, his opposition to the US and EU reinforces the image of a leader who defies the world, which Erodgan’s team wanted to create for conservative voters.
Another issue that disturbs Erdogan is that Flake’s visit to Kılıçdaroğlu, the chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the joint presidential candidate of an opposition bloc of six parties known as the Nation Alliance, in advance of the presidential election is interpreted as US support for the opposition and that voters may see this as a message from the West for a post-Erdogan period. According to a widely believed conspiracy theory, a candidate that the West does not want will not win the election.
Meanwhile, Ambassador Flake visited ruling party headquarters on March 20 and met with Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmuş. Since Erdogan is simultaneously party chairman and president, his deputies generally represent him during such visits.
Russian and Chinese ambassadors to Turkey frequently visit opposition party leaders, a fact that so far has elicited no negative reaction from the government. In addition the Turkish ambassador in Washington, Murat Mercan, frequently meets with Republican senators and members of congress.
Flake recently came under government criticism in February. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu targeted the US ambassador, telling him to “Take your dirty hands off Turkey” after nine countries, including the United, States, the United Kingdom and Germany, temporarily closed their consulates in Istanbul and issued security alerts about the possibility of a terrorist attack.
Referring to Flake, Soylu said, “I know which journalists wrote what you told them to say. I know what you’ve done, what steps you have taken and how you want to destroy the peace in Turkey.”
Flake was the target of criticism in parliament as well when he visited the opposition mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, in 2022.
MHP deputy Kamil Aydın had mentioned US Ambassador Flake as having met with the İstanbul mayor and described him as a politician who had changed sides and betrayed his cause, a reference to when Flake, a senator representing Arizona at the time, argued that Donald Trump should withdraw his candidacy after insulting remarks he made about women in the Access Hollywood tape, a scandal that emerged before the general election in 2016. He also described Flake as a man who appeared to be a Republican but was not. According to Aydın, Flake sold out his fellow Republicans, sided with the Democrats and was given an embassy as a reward.
Minutes of Aydın’s speech in parliament:Kamil Aydın on Flake
The ruling party and MHP deputies usually use opposition figures’ meetings with foreign leaders and ambassadors as a tool for defamation in an effort to present them as politicians supported by “foreign powers.”
Meanwhile, Erdogan is looking for ways to have his picture taken with Russian President Vladimir Putin before the election. During a live interview last week, Erdogan did not hide his desire to see Putin attend the April 27 inauguration of the first reactor at the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, built by Russia in southern Turkey.
“There is a possibility that Mr. Putin will come on the 27th of April. If not, we’ll connect virtually,” Erdogan said.
The Kremlin denied reports last week that Putin was coming to Turkey. However, the Turkish government aims to strengthen Erdogan’s image by hosting a ceremony with Putin in attendance before the elections.