Sunday

21st Jan 2018

Erdogan's EU victory wins fans among Turks in Germany

  • Erdogan: left Brussels like a boss (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged from last week's EU Council with major concessions from the EU in hand, it did not come in a political vacuum.

Turkey is holding a general election on 1 November, its second this year. The vote was called after Erdogan's AKP party failed to secure a majority in an election in June.

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  • Merkel even said she backs restart of EU-Turkey accession talks (Photo: Turkish presidency)

The Turkish president, known for his strongman tactics and populist appeal, desperately needs to shore up his support in order to cross the majority threshold this time around, and the 5 percent of Turkish voters living outside the country may be crucial to this effort.

For the sizeable Turkish community in Germany, which makes up about half of the expatriate voting bloc, Erdogan's aggressive diplomacy last week in Brussels may win him new fans.

He was able to extract major concessions on Turkey's long-stalled EU integration in exchange for an agreement to stem the flow of migrants leaving Turkey for EU countries.

These include up to €3 billion in aid, new EU visa privileges for Turkish citizens, and a restart of talks on Turkey's accession to the EU.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, travelled to Ankara last week to affirm this commitment, despite the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, she had reiterated her strong opposition, shared by France and most other EU states, to Turkey ever joining the bloc.

Early voting has been taking place at the Turkish embassy in Berlin for several weeks, and the turnout appears to be high.

"I'm voting for AKP because Erdogan is making Turkey stronger," says Burak, a Turkish immigrant who works in a small store in Berlin.

"He stands up for Turkey."

This is the sentiment of many Turkish emigrants around Europe, who tend to be fairly religious and conservative. They were only given the right to vote in Turkish elections three years ago, after the Turkish parliament passed a new law.

Calculated move

Many saw it as a calculated political move by Erdogan, at that time the country's prime minister, because his AKP party enjoys majority support among Turks abroad. In the June election, it won just under 50 percent of the vote.

But the Turkish community in Germany is not politically homogeneous. It shares many of the deep divisions now present back home. The centre-left Kurdish minority party, the HDP, stunned observers in June by coming second in the expatriate vote with 21 percent.

Back home, the party for the first time passed the threshold to enter the Turkish parliament, which was the decisive factor in AKP losing its majority.

"Most of the people that live here in Germany want to have a democratic Turkey, and see democratic values develop in Turkey," says Hakan Tas, a member of the German parliament from the leftist Die Linke party who is part of the country's Turkish minority.

"But people from Turkey living in Europe have voted extensively for Erdogan's party, so they have a majority in Europe. The people from Turkey living in Europe, most of them are conservative. This group of people see Erdogan as a strong leader and that's why they follow his lead. The other group of people, who didn't vote for the AKP party, they see Erdogan's policies as authoritarian and dictatorial and they do not support him."

Erdogan's strongman persona is not appreciated by all. Many are concerned over the Turkish president's crackdown on democratic freedoms, such as freedom of the press.

After his party failed to win a majority in June, he warned that it would lead to instability. The country then suffered a series of politically-motivated bombings, and the various political factions are blaming the bombings on each other.

The latest incident came earlier this month, when a bomb killed at least 102 people attending a pro-Kurdish peace rally in Ankara. It was Turkey's deadliest-ever terrorist attack.

The government blames Kurdish separatists or Islamic militants. But many pro-democracy advocates, who dislike Erdogan's increasingly autocratic rule, think the AKP allowed the bombings to happen in order to increase the feeling of insecurity in Turkish society.

Erdogan's opponents

Those Turkish citizens in Germany who are strongly opposed to Erdogan tend to come from middle class, educated backgrounds.

Emre Yesilbas, a Turkish student studying in Berlin, says he is voting for the HDP, even though he is not Kurdish. He sees it as the only party that can knock Erdogan's AKP from absolute power.

"Most of the people who vote for Erdogan's party who live in Germany, they would vote for left parties here because they have the immigrant identity and they know that they shouldn't vote for conservative parties," he says.

"But when they vote in Turkish elections, they choose Erdogan's party knowing it’s a conservative party."

"The HDP is the only party that embraces all of Turkey's different ethnicities, sects, women and the LGBT community as well," he adds.

"They project a different understanding of democracy in Turkey that people in Turkey aren't used to. Also, it’s the only party right now that is speaking of peace. All the other parties are not even talking about it in those terms. Lots of my friends are voting for HDP as well. For the young generation it is a new hope for Turkish democracy, so there are lots of [ethnic] Turks willing to vote for the party as well."

In this context, could Erdogan’s recent manoeuvres in Brussels, which could restart the Turkish accession process and bring benefits to Turkish citizens in the EU, win over some of those younger, educated Turkish expatriates?

"I think that’s very unlikely because people who are critical of Erdogan, they don’t buy into that," says Yesilbas.

"They don’t see him as a person who is good at diplomacy. So, even the idea that Turkish people would get a visa to the EU more easily, that wouldn’t be as convincing for them. Right now, Turkish society, both people living here and in Turkey, they are very decisively separated, pro-Erdogan and against Erdogan."

High tension

Tensions are running high ahead of the 1 November election, which observers are saying could be one of the most pivotal in recent Turkish history.

For his part, Yesilbas believes the theory the Turkish government may have allowed the recent bombings to take place because the feeling of insecurity plays into its hands.

But many Erdogan supporters believe the official line the Kurdish guerrillas did it to undermine the government.

Because the issues at stake are so serious, few in Germany’s Turkish community are unhappy about being asked to vote again just five months after the last election.

"I don’t think anyone's annoyed by that because everyone is very frustrated because of the bombings and lots of people dying in Turkey right now," says Yesilbas.

"People are looking forward to voting again and to show what they are supporting."

Whether or not Turkey’s EU accession is actually about to speed ahead, there is no denying that the situation in Syria has thrust Erdogan’s Turkey into a pivotal place in European politics.

For the large Turkish community living in Germany, the international issues at stake in this election could have significant long-term implications, but it remains to be seen whether it will change their voting habits. 

EU courts Turkey ahead of summit

EU leaders will discuss ways to get Turkey's help on stemming the flow of refugees at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Opinion

EU must press Turkey on press freedom

The migrant crisis is an opportunity for the EU and Turkey to put relations on a new footing. The EU should start by defending journalists from draconian laws.

When the EU shuts up, Erdogan moves in

Almost a week after Merkel’s visit to Istanbul, Turkish police seized one of the country's largest media groups on the eve of elections.

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