ISTANBUL - Turkey has cautiously welcomed Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
“The election marks the beginning of a new era in the United States,” declared President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of businessmen in Istanbul. “Personally and on behalf of the nation, I wish to consider this decision by the American people a positive sign and wish them a successful future."
The warm words are in stark contrast to Erdogan describing Trump as an “Islamophobe,” in response to Trump’s call to ban Muslims visiting or immigrating to the United States. Members of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party had even called for Istanbul’s Trump Tower to be renamed. The Turkish president, a devout Muslim, likes to portray himself as a defender of Muslims throughout the world.
On the surface, it appears the two leaders have little in common but observers in Turkey point out both view themselves as strong men who are outside the establishment, with a common touch, and who care little about making waves with provocative statements.
“They seem to share similar traits and they [are] both riding the wave of popularism - there is no doubt about that,” observes political columnist Semih Idiz of Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News and Al Monitor website. “Trump has also signaled that it's not up to America to interfere in other countries and tell them that their democracy is good or bad.”
Issues ‘won't disappear overnight’
A new approach from Washington on human rights will likely be welcomed in Ankara. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration made little secret of its growing concerns over human rights in Turkey, exacerbated by an ongoing crackdown following July’s coup attempt. Relations have markedly deteriorated, with Erdogan’s chief international relations adviser, Ayse Sozen Usluer, describing ties, diplomatically, as going through "turbulence."
Awaiting Trump are disputes and tensions between the two NATO allies. “Issues that existed under the Obama administration won't disappear overnight,” warns columnist Idiz. “Starting with the Fethullah Gulen problem and then the Syrian Kurds, which Turkey describes as terrorists and which America is allied at the moment.”
Officials in Turkey blame U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen for July’s failed military takeover. Ankara has made little secret of its anger over Washington’s insistence that any extradition of Gulen will be subject to judicial process.
Sources close to Erdogan suggest that Trump’s businesslike approach could offer its best chance of having Gulen sent back to Turkey, Ankara’s No. 1 diplomatic priority. In congratulating Trump on his victory, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim wasted little time in sending a message to the president-elect. “I am openly calling on the new president from here about the urgent extradition of Fethullah Gulen,” Yildirim said, adding that a “new beginning” in bilateral relations was in the offing.