Israel crisis boosts Erdogan’s popularity ahead of polls
Turkey's crisis with Israel, its backing for Hamas and close ties with Iran may irk its NATO allies but they have added to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's popularity in his quest for a third term in power in Sunday's polls.
Just a year ago, tens of thousands of people would demonstrate outside mosques in Istanbul shouting "Down with Israel!" and "We are soldiers of Hamas!" referring to the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip.
The almost daily protests were triggered by the killing of nine Turks in an Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ferry that led an international flotilla aiming to break Gaza's blockade, spearheaded by a Turkish Islamist charity.
Commenting on the outrage, academic Ahmet Insel had then said: "It's good for Erdogan politically, and he will gain from it in 2011."
"This is indeed the case," Hasan Cemal, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, said in the run up to the June 12 elections.
They may have not used the same language as protesters, but Turkey's Islamist-rooted leaders reacted furiously to Israel: the Turkish ambassador was recalled from Tel Aviv and President Abdullah Gul declared that ties between the one-time allies would "never be the same."
The crisis remains unresolved.
"Attacking Israel is good for Erdogan's public image as there is always an anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkish politics. And not only in Islamist circles, but also among Kemalists and nationalists," Cemal said.
And that's exactly where Erdogan is seeking to grab more votes, hoping for a sweeping victory to form his third one-party government.
Curiously, noted foreign policy commentator Sami Kohen, Israel or Ankara's support for Hamas were almost absent from Erdogan's election rallies.
"The Mavi Marmara was not mentioned in the campaign but the crisis has certainly reinforced Erdogan's image" as a champion of the Palestinian cause at home and abroad, said Kohen.
A NATO member and a candidate for European Union accession, secular Turkey has alarmed its Western allies under the Islamist-rooted government: the crisis with Israel was preceded by Erdogan's frequent outbursts against the Jewish state after it launched a devastating offensive on Gaza at the turn of 2009.
Concerns that Erdogan is turning his back on the West have increased amid Ankara's growing rapprochement in recent years with the Arab world and Iran.
Most notably, Turkey voted against a fresh round of sanctions against Iran over its controversial nuclear programme, adopted at the UN Security Council last year.
Turkey "has not simply loathed Western interests but acted against them, in a sign of the West's deteriorating standing in the region," commented analyst Kemal Koprulu, editor of the Turkish Policy Quarterly.
The Israeli case aside, is Erdogan's image benefiting from this East-oriented policy, including Iran?
According to Kohen -- yes. He says the new drive signifies Turkish independence from the West and the United States, expands the country's regional clout and gives Erdogan a "Gaullist" standing with electoral benefits to reap.