Entering May, two important countries along the Eastern Mediterranean Sea—Turkey and Greece—are holding presidential and parliamentary elections respectively. Turkey’s presidential election has attracted the attention of the outside world, not only because Erdogan, the strongman who has dominated the country’s political arena for 20 years, declared that this is his “last battle”, but also because of the severe public opinion challenges he once faced, reflecting some The mentality of voters seeking change after years of populism.
In contrast, there is not much suspense in Greece’s parliamentary election: the moderate right-wing “New Democratic Party” led by the current Prime Minister Mitsotakis won more than 40% of the votes, much higher than the number predicted by previous polls. In contrast, Syriza, the largest opposition party and the radical left, slipped to half the votes of its main rival. This rate of votes was enough to allow Mitsotakis to sit firmly in the country, but under the new parliamentary system reform plan, he failed to get enough seats to form a cabinet. A new general election will be held again in late June, and the “net seat transfer” rule is friendly to the largest party after the election.
In the past five years, the relationship between Turkey and Greece, the old rivals with historical grievances, has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Especially after the discovery of natural gas on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, diplomatic disputes broke out between the two countries over the sovereignty of the relevant waters, and there was even the possibility of a misfire. Can the general elections held by the two countries in May this year ease the undercurrent in the Eastern Mediterranean?
The strong man who put away the fireworks
Judging by past indications, whenever an important election is approaching, the Turkish authorities will also harden their rhetoric against Greece. During Erdogan’s first term as president, especially around 2020, he repeatedly emphasized the so-called “Blue Homeland” plan, which is to challenge the division of the Aegean Sea and the ownership of islands signed in 1923. the Lausanne Agreement.
In the era of heyday, Erdogan, who advertises himself as the “Kesmal of the 21st century”, fought against the Syrian Kurdish armed forces in the east, and competed with Greece in the Aegean Sea in the west. Seeking for itself, under 20 years of operation, it has built a “big Asian and European country” that makes many supporters proud and makes neighboring countries tremble.
2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Turkey, and it coincides with the presidential election year. In order to win the support of the right-wing public opinion base, Erdogan should have erected the signboard of the “Asia-European power” that he has been operating. But in May, Erdogan’s external and internal remarks began to converge.
In an interview with the Greek traditional right-wing newspaper “Kathimerini”, Erdogan said that after the general elections of Turkey and Greece, the leaders of the two countries who have been re-elected will “create a new relationship.” Since the earthquake in southeastern Turkey in February this year killed more than 30,000 people, Greece has become the first neighboring country to send relief supplies, and the relationship between the two countries has been so much that “earthquake diplomacy” has begun to ease.
Another important reason for Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan to withdraw its edge is that Turkey has experienced internal and external difficulties in recent years, allowing Erdogan to bear certain consequences in the election: In the first round of presidential election voting, Erdogan The vote rate was stuck at 49.4%, while the main opponent, the presidential candidate jointly launched by the six opposition parties, Klechidarolu, got 44.9% of the vote. Erdogan, who was once unrivaled in the political arena, although he leads the public support rate, still gives people the feeling of “no longer his glory”.
Parallel to the presidential election is the Turkish parliamentary election. The “Justice and Development Party” led by Erdogan won 268 seats. Although it retained its position as the largest party, it lost 27 seats compared to the last parliamentary election, the worst result since 2002; The “National Alliance” of the opposition camp to which Chidarolu belongs won a total of 169 seats, 23 more seats than the combined six parties in the last election.
The presidential and parliamentary elections have been interpreted by the outside world as a contest between “two turkeys”: Erdogan represents conservative voters in underdeveloped eastern Turkey, while Kelecidarolu’s votes are mostly close to Europe big cities. On one side is the impassioned “21st Century Sultan” and on the other side is a mild-mannered economist. The two main candidates represent two very different ways of life. Looking at the map of Turkey’s electoral districts, it can be found that Ankara, Istanbul and several Mediterranean coastal areas voted for Kelecidarolu, while the middle inland area and the Black Sea coastal area chose Erdogan.
Since the earthquake in southeastern Turkey in February this year killed more than 30,000 people, Greece has become the first neighboring country to send relief supplies, and the relationship between the two countries has been so much that “earthquake diplomacy” has begun to ease.
During the election process, Kelecidarolu mainly played the economic card, focusing his attack on Erdogan’s mishandling of inflation and earthquakes caused by years of ruling. In the months after the earthquake, Kelecidarolu maintained a stable narrow lead in multiple polls. However, in the first round of voting, Erdogan’s vote rate still overtook his opponent, only 0.6% to pass the 50% threshold, which is enough to determine the outcome.
The softening stance in diplomacy, especially the easing tone towards Greece and even the EU, is also in a sense Erdogan’s strategy to avoid increasing risks under the pressure of huge public opinion. In 2022, 41% of Turkey’s total export value will be destined for the EU market, and the EU is an important market at its doorstep. Sedart Rachina, a Turkish diplomatic scholar who is pro-opposition, used “election resilience” and “diplomatic resilience” to summarize Erdogan’s long-standing behavior. He believes that taking a breath at a critical moment may be exchanged for a new term of power in Turkey.
military tensions remain
Verbally, the Prime Minister of Greece and the President of Turkey expressed goodwill to each other, but the two sides did not relax militarily. Especially for Greece, a neighboring country that is not friendly to itself and is larger than itself has brought a lot of geopolitical pressure.
According to the 2022 NATO annual military expenditure report, Greece is the country with the highest defense expenditure as a percentage of GDP among many NATO member states. In 2022, the defense budget of the Greek government under the leadership of Mitsotakis will be 7.44 billion euros, accounting for 3.54% of Greece’s GDP, ranking first among all NATO member states. In contrast, the United States is also in second place, followed by Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Latvia.
Ironically, Greece invests such a high proportion of its defense budget in defense of Turkey, which is also a member of NATO. Mitsotakis also declared: “Greece has a neighbor that is larger than itself and has malicious intentions, so we must shoulder the heavy task of defending ourselves.” In the long run, the Mitsotakis-
led The moderate right-wing government has always had a tradition of maintaining a high proportion of the defense budget, and building an “advanced and powerful Greek navy” has always been the political platform of the New Democratic Party. Since it came to power in 2019, Greece’s defense budget has increased significantly, and it has shown a trend of increasing year by year.
During Mitsotakis’ tenure, Greece has witnessed a number of arms procurement projects for the West and Israel. In 2021, Greece and France signed an arms procurement contract worth billions of euros. In particular, Greece purchased 18 French “Rafale” fighter jets at one time. French President Macron and Mitsotakis also extended the “National Defense Strategic Partnership” between the two countries for five years. According to the statements of the two countries, when one of the two countries is attacked by a third party (including NATO member states), the two countries will jointly take military action against the third party.
Greek Prime Minister and NDP leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis arrives at the Presidential Palace in Athens, May 24, 2023
Many Greek voters still remember that in 2019, Erdogan sang a line from a Turkish folk song that made the Greeks feel harsh: “Throw all the Greeks into the sea.” In terms of land strategy depth or population and economic size, Greece cannot stand at the same level as Turkey. Turkey’s military industry has reached a scale of 10.1 billion US dollars in 2021, and it still has export capabilities; in contrast, Greece’s own military industry can almost be ignored, and all weapons are imported, ranking among the top arms imports among EU member states.
Behind the dispute between the two countries on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea is the huge undersea natural gas storage that is difficult to ignore. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are about 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of oil on the seabed of the Eastern Mediterranean, from the waters off Israel to the coasts of Turkey and Greece, and westward to the coast of Libya.
The dispute between Turkey and Greece over the right to exploit natural gas has already affected many countries along the Mediterranean Sea. In October 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and the pro-Turkish Libyan government signed a gas agreement. According to the agreement, Libya, which faces Greece across the sea, can issue oil and gas exploration licenses to Turkish companies under the 2019 maritime boundary agreement between the two countries, which Greece and Cyprus have always disputed.
In 2022, the defense budget of the Greek government under the leadership of Mitsotakis will be 7.44 billion euros, accounting for 3.54% of Greece’s GDP, ranking first among all NATO member states.
Under the 2019 agreement with Turkey to delineate the maritime border, Libya can claim sovereignty over a large area of seas through the maritime exclusive economic zone, which forms a maritime boundary with Turkey’s maritime exclusive economic zone. Previously, Libya had discovered 29 oil fields and 12 gas fields in this sea area. Since Libya has been hit by civil war for years, Turkish natural gas exploration companies can take advantage of the situation and “assist” Libya in the exploration of natural gas and oil reserves equivalent to about 30 trillion US dollars.
It was also against this background that France, which has direct economic and security interests in the Mediterranean, began to intervene, joining forces with Egypt on the Libyan issue to support the opposition to the pro-Turkish Libyan National Army. So far, the dispute between Turkey and Greece has triggered the overall situation, causing neighboring countries to stand in line one after another, forming a confrontation between the two camps. And this kind of confrontation cannot be resolved in one election.
What does Türkiye want?
The relationship between Turkey and the United States has deteriorated sharply in the past 10 years, and the “dream of joining the European Union” that has been going on for half a century has long since cooled. Facing the increasingly “disobedient” Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan, many Western commentators have repeatedly asked: What does Turkey want?
In the words of Sedat Rachinna, the West must make Turkey feel “a certain sense of geo-security”, so that Turkey can dispel the sense of loss that is constantly berated by the United States and rejected by the European Union.
Due to its unique geographical location, Turkey faces geopolitical pressure in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. When it is strong, Turkey can not only control the affairs of the Middle East, but also gain a foothold in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Eastern Mediterranean; when it is weak, it may face the challenges of old enemies in all directions. From this point of view, Turkey, a country that straddles Asia and Europe, has one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Like Russia, it has some kind of “Eurasianism” myth.
Rachinna, who stands against Erdogan, called on the West to transfer more benefits to Turkey in exchange for the support of the Turkish people to the opposition. Unlike France, which has a tough stance, Germany, one of the “dual cores” of the EU, has always maintained a better relationship with Turkey, and has always hoped to play a role that can mediate between Greece and Turkey. However, when Germany is overwhelmed by the Russia-Ukraine war, the EU’s “dual-core” has been marginalized, and the possibility of driving the entire EU to give Turkey a major bait is not high. Under such circumstances, no matter where the Turkish political situation evolves, the undercurrent on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea will continue to rage.