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With NATO Entry Blocked, Sweden Turns Hopeful Eye Toward Turkey’s Presidential Elections

Sweden’s hopes of quickly following Finland into NATO membership have alighted on Turkey’s presidential election in May, in which recent polls show President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 20-year rule is in danger of ending.

“The signals that Sweden has gotten from the opposition have been very good,” Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, said of the National Alliance coalition of six parties challenging Erdogan. “The opposition has indicated that they would ratify Sweden’s NATO membership rather soon.”

In recent months, Erdogan’s popularity in Turkey has sharply eroded due to factors including the country’s economic hyperinflation, February’s devastating earthquakes that killed upwards of 50,000 and the government’s slow and lackluster response to the disaster. As Erdogan’s problems have mounted, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (pronounced “ka-LEECH-da-ro-lo”), the leader of the National Alliance coalition, has in recent weeks begun polling ahead of the president.

Moderate and more secular but lacking Erdogan’s charisma, Kilicdaroglu is known as “Turkey’s Gandhi” after he walked 200 miles from Istanbul to Ankara in a “March for Justice” six years ago in protest of Erdogan’s antidemocratic legislation. While few would previously have given him much of a chance to win, recent voter surveys show him ahead by 3% to 10%. If that political earthquake were to actually come to pass on May 14, many experts say the effects would certainly be felt in Sweden.

“If Kemal Kilicdaroglu wins the presidential elections, the chances for Sweden to become a member of NATO would increase,” foreign policy analyst Pinar Sayan, an associate fellow at the Istanbul Political Research Institute, told Yahoo News.

Although Turkey voted to approve Finland’s entry into NATO last week over objections from Russia, it has so far blocked Sweden from joining. Erdogan has demanded that Stockholm extradite dozens of Kurdish immigrants — an ethnic minority in Turkey involved in secession attempts and militant actions — whom Turkey’s government deems to be terrorists. Over the past year, Sweden has extradited only three.

“Turkey is quick to slap the terrorist label on those expressing sympathy for a cause,” Asli Aydıntasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Yahoo News. “Most European countries make a distinction between thoughts and deeds.”

In January, an anti-Islamic Swedish politician burned a Quran outside the Turkish Embassy just days after a fringe Kurdish group strung up an effigy of Erdogan in front of Stockholm City Hall. While legally protected under Sweden’s freedom of expression laws, those events enraged the Turkish president. “At this rate, Sweden’s NATO membership application will never be approved by Turkey,” Numan Kurtulmus, deputy chairman of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, told Turkish reporters.

There’s a prevalent belief in Sweden that Russia is funding some of the protests that have gotten under Erdogan’s skin.

“Russia is perceived to be everywhere in seeking to prevent Swedish accession, including in Turkey’s refusal to ratify,” Gunilla Herolf, a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, told Yahoo News. Many Swedes, for example, suspect that Moscow was involved in January’s effigy hanging and Quran-burning incidents, Herolf said, and videos of such protests have been used by Erdogan to try to galvanize domestic support.

“Hanging an effigy of a president may not be a huge deal in the United States, but in Turkey it resonates,” said Aydıntasbas. “Erdogan takes it very personally and blames Swedish authorities for allowing these demonstrations to take place.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan addressing a rally on Monday. (Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Keenly aware of how those demonstrations have played in Turkey and other Islamic countries, Swedish police instituted a ban on Quran burning, only to have a Swedish court toss it out last week. Swedes “have a very almost self-righteous support of free speech issues,” noted Aydıntasbas. “And the result is a conversation [between Sweden and Turkey] that is not going anywhere.”

But if Kilicdaroglu does manage an upset over Erdogan, and the current government goes the extra step of allowing those results to stand, Aydıntasbas believes “the first order of business would be improving Turkey’s rule of law and trying to reverse the country’s authoritarian drift.”

Erdogan’s government is believed to have jailed nearly a third of the journalists imprisoned worldwide, and recently passed a disinformation law that tightens Erdogan’s hold over news and social media platforms.

“An efficient and well-coordinated opposition may do well in elections. But there are risks that people have to take into account,” Aydıntasbas said, who noted that one of them is that “Turkey is a country that tends to experience unforeseen events in the run-up to elections.”

On April 6, for example, bullets were reportedly fired at Kilicdaroglu’s party headquarters.

Levin said that Swedes are growing frustrated with the Turkish Parliament’s refusal to ratify its membership into NATO, saying Sweden has “taken action” on all of Erdogan’s demands, including putting together antiterrorism legislation, considering extradition requests and dropping a ban on selling military equipment to Turkey after its 2019 attack on a Kurdish militia in Syria. “There’s not much more Sweden can do within the bounds of rule of law,” Levin added.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu
Turkish presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu. (Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images)

If Erdogan does prevail in the May elections, his hard line on forcing concessions from Sweden in order to grant it entry into NATO may ultimately be seen as a deciding factor.

“It was good domestically for Erdogan to green-light Finland and red-light Sweden,” former U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford, now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Yahoo News. “It’s a pretty clear demonstration of the power he wields inside NATO. Erdogan’s making Turkey’s position hugely relevant for the world’s most important defense alliance.” She added that Erdogan is “keeping a card he can still play to get further concessions from NATO members,” including an F-16 deal with the U.S.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also acknowledged the importance of Sweden’s passage of a new counterterrorism law. “If Erdogan wins, he’ll make the case that Sweden went to its knees and agreed to Turkey’s demands,” Cagaptay said, adding that whoever wins, Sweden will probably ultimately join Finland in NATO — it may just be a question of how much more it is forced to concede.

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