The domestic systems of both Pakistan and Türkiye have witnessed various formats of cultural collaboration with the objective of increasing bilateral people-to-people contacts. Under the broader framework of cultural collaboration, Cinnah Caddesi (C has the sound of J in Turkish language) is the name of a famous road in the capital of Türkiye, Ankara. Similarly, Ataturk Avenue is a road named in Islamabad. In the absence of any major disagreement between the governments of the two states, the bilateral relationship between Ankara and Islamabad has led to multifaceted cooperative ties in the fields of politics, economics, and security. Building on these foundations, the year 2022 marked the 75th year of diplomatic relations between Pakistan and Türkiye. Since the past seventy five years, both countries have been supporting each other on various global platforms.
Unlike Pakistan’s turbulent relations with the USA, its relationship with Türkiye has improved for the better over the decades. Pakistan and Türkiye concluded the 6th High Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC) meeting in Islamabad on February 2022 which was attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In addition, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, after coming to power, visited Türkiye from the 31st of May to 2nd June 2022. Following this visit, the bilateral relationship between the two countries was further cemented through the signing of a Preferential Trade Agreement in August 2022. Policymakers are hopeful that this will pave the way for increased trade and investment, and will lead towards the initial bilateral trade target of $5 billion. However, this strong relationship is not reflective of the current trade relations between the two countries as for the year 2021-2022 the bilateral trade stood at a paltry $1-billion mark.
But what these two countries lack in terms of bilateral trade, they make up for it in the diplomatic arena. Pakistan and Türkiye have been supporting each other diplomatically in the international arena since their creation. For instance, Türkiye supports Pakistan’s major foreign policy stance on Kashmir issue while Pakistan supports Türkiye’s strong position on Cyprus. In addition, President Erdoğan has raised his voice for the Kashmir cause on various occasions in the UN General Assembly sessions. Furthermore, Pakistan voices Türkiye’s concern over the role of the Gülen movement (known by the Turkish government as FETO) in the coup of 2016, and in this regard handed over the management of previously Gülen- operated Turkish schools in Pakistan to Türkiye’s Maarif foundation. This is, however, not a quad pro quo understanding between the two countries.
In addition, Türkiye has been always generous and proactive in coming to Pakistan’s aid in times of need. The recent floods that wreaked havoc in Pakistan are one example where Türkiye supported Pakistan wholeheartedly with material and financial aid. In addition, as mentioned above, HLSCC is a high-level diplomatic forum where Pakistan and Türkiye are cooperating on a number of arenas. A glance at their bilateral relationship indicates both countries are not even close to being locked in a power competition – and instead work forward towards absolute gains.
However, the future is something unpredictable, with the element of change as the only thing constant. A similar situation is about to occur in the domestic politics of both the countries. Pakistan is destined to go to elections in October 2023 – if at all it goes – while Türkiye will embrace both presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023; the election date for Türkiye is yet to be finalised. Any change of leadership in Türkiye will certainly have implications on the country’s foreign policy, as any change of guard in Türkiye may bring surprises for Pakistan. Thus, the domestic political arena of Türkiye merits attention.
Currently, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Türkiye and chairperson of the ruling Justice and Ruling Party (AKP) in alliance with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), called the People’s Alliance, will go to the polls against the opposition, which Türkiye political commentators are calling “the table of six.” This table comprise of six political parties who want to uproot President Erdoğan and wish to move back to the parliamentary system. It is not yet clear whether AKP will compete in the upcoming elections in alliance with MHP or alone. In addition, recent polls suggest that the popularity of AKP party under President Erdoğan is on the decline, although the credibility of the polls can always be questioned.
As such, there is little doubt that the opposition will put up a brave fight against President Erdoğan but there are other domestic and external factors at play dissuading the voters.
To begin with, the lackluster economic performance under President Erdoğan is pushing away the voters. Increasing inflation, currency devaluation, lack of investor confidence and sporadic changes of the Central Bank Governor are just a few things adding fuel to the fire. Moreover, President Erdoğan’s increasing falling out with the West, Türkiye’s position in the NATO and the purchase of S-400 missiles in the face of Western opposition has further exacerbated problems on the foreign policy front for Türkiye. These evolving issues will undoubtedly play in the oppositions’ favour.
Meanwhile, the opposition is united for the upcoming elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), a Kemalist party lead by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is the lead in the ‘table of six’ with Mr.Kılıçdaroğlu vying to be the next joint opposition presidential candidate for 2023. But Istanbul’s Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, also from the ranks of CHP, is slated to be a presidential candidate. Then there is the mayor of Ankara Mansur Yavaş, hailing from the CHP, who is also in line for the candidature. All of them are strong candidates with Ekrem İmamoğlu enjoying significant popularity. Important to mention that İmamoğlu was recently sentenced to imprisonment of two years along with a ban on participating in politics. This was done by a Turkish court which argued that İmamoğlu ridiculed members of Türkiye’s Supreme Election Council during his campaign for mayorship of Istanbul. The sentence, however, has not been upheld till date. In addition, Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of CHP, has not yet confirmed whether İmamoğlu or Yavaş will run for the presidency. However, he has affirmed his decision to be a candidate himself.
Who will come to Ankara in June 2023 remains to be seen and Pakistan needs to be prepared for it.
Why is this important for Pakistan? Islamabad must realise that for the past two decades, its relationship with Türkiye were actually with AKP in general and President Erdoğan in particular. It would not be wrong to call it the personal foreign policy of President Erdoğan towards Pakistan. Thus, any scenario where President Erdoğan departs from the helm will open the bilateral relations to reevaluation.
Assuming a scenario where a candidate from the ‘table of six’ takes over the presidency and then pushes for a return to parliamentary politics, it will surely impact Türkiye’s foreign policy. The opposition will most likely want to reengage with the disgruntled West which was sidelined under President Erdoğan. Thus, a broader reorientation of Türkiye’s foreign policy will include Pakistan as well. However, there is a caveat; currently the ‘table of six’ is united on a single point agenda, that is to defeat President Erdoğan in the upcoming elections. Beyond this agreement, the opposition has different agendas; thus, making it difficult for the new entrants to chart a navigable diplomatic path.
What Pakistan can do in this regard is to gauge the mood in Ankara and identify the foreign policy positions of the opposition parties vis a vis Türkiye’s relationship with Pakistan. This may include but not be limited to bilateral trade, as India has been actively lobbying for access to Türkiye’s markets, issue of illegal immigrants entering Türkiye via Iran from Pakistan, defense ties, education and tourism. What the future holds is an enigma but it is in the interest of Pakistan to stay close to Türkiye.
In either case, Cinnah Caddesi and Ataturk Avenue are here to stay.