Expatriate Turks started casting their ballots last week for the June 24 snap presidential and parliamentary elections called for by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the past, Erdogan’s numerous electoral victories could be attributed in part to support from Turks in Europe. Whether this support has done them any good, however, is questionable. Already facing serious problems related to integration and racism, their backing of Erdogan appears to have made their lives more difficult, not simpler. Many argue that this stems from the Turkish president’s innate disdain for the West and his insulting approach to European politicians.
Erdogan set off shock waves last year when he referred to political leaders in Germany, Holland and Austria as Nazis. He had gone ballistic after he and ministers from his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were prevented from canvassing Turks in those countries for the constitutional referendum designed to enhance his hold on power by replacing Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with a presidential system.
After Erdogan announced snap elections in April, Germany, Holland and Austria wasted no time in again banning Turkish politicians from canvassing Turks on their territory. The bans were clearly aimed at Erdogan and the AKP, because Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party was allowed to hold a rally in Berlin in early June.
Of the Turks in Europe eligible to vote in the 2017 referendum, 63% in Germany, 70.1% in Holland and 73.23% in Austria supported amending the constitution, fully aware that it was essentially a vote for Erdogan’s continued leadership. Put another way, the ban on Turkish politicians campaigning in Europe backfired. This outcome shone the spotlight even brighter on the Turkish diaspora in Europe.
Not just the far right, but conservative, center-right and social democratic politicians in Europe also began to question the loyalty of their Turkish minorities. This was highlighted when Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, German-born soccer stars of Turkish origin on the German national team, visited Erdogan during his official visit to London in May. The picture posted by Erdogan’s office of him meeting the players was interpreted as a blatant show of political support and elicited angry reactions in Germany. Ozil and Gundogan were forced to request a meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to clarify matters. Steinmeier later announced on Facebook that the players had affirmed their loyalty to Germany during the meeting.
The outcome of last year’s referendum also increased scrutiny of Turkish groups in Germany and Austria, especially those with AKP ties. It also reignited the dual citizenship debate in Germany, with increasing calls for Turks to decide whether they want to carry Turkish or German passports. A large number of Turks in Europe continue to cling to their Turkish citizenship for emotional or practical reasons but also want to secure dual citizenship rights.
Ahmet Acet, a retired Turkish ambassador who served in Berlin during 2008-2011, noted that the dual citizenship question is not new to Germany. He added, however, that Erdogan’s bellicose remarks aimed at Europe have inflamed matters.
“This has definitely not made it easier for Turks there,” Acet told Al-Monitor. “It has also increased anti-Turkish, right-wing sentiment.”
He believes Turks in Germany and Austria should not expect their condition to improve under the current conditions. “It will be enough of a benefit for them if there is no change in their present condition, rather than seeing things get worse,” Acet said.
Politicians in Germany, Holland and Austria — the three countries with the largest Turkish communities — continue to view Erdogan as a major obstacle to integrating their Turkish minorities. Osman Koruturk, a retired Turkish ambassador who also served in Berlin in 2000-2003, said the question of integration features prominently in the minds of German politicians.
“The fear is that Turks in that country will be organized by Ankara and interfere in German politics,” Koruturk told Al-Monitor. “Erdogan’s approach has increased this concern.”
Erdogan caused another uproar in Germany last year after he called on Turks there not to vote for the “enemies of Turkey” in that country’s parliamentary elections, held in September. He openly targeted the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and the Greens. Erdogan was responding to criticism of his authoritarian ways by the mainstream German parties and the ban on his holding political rallies.
Koruturk said that while serving in Germany, he found most Turks to be well-integrated, including proficient in the German language. He also disputed the idea that the 63% who voted for the constitution's amendment represented “unintegrated Turks.”
“Even conservative Turks in Germany traditionally vote for the Social Democrats for practical reasons,” Koruturk said. He added that many Turks in Germany who vote for Erdogan and the AKP also do so for practical or opportunistic reasons.
Erdogan is relying on the support of expatriate Turks in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, whatever their reasons for voting. Notwithstanding serious irregularities in the balloting last year, the constitutional referendum passed with a 51.3% majority, and by a margin of slightly more than 1.2 million votes. That was enough to illustrate the impact that the 3 million Turkish voters across Europe — with 1.4 million of them in Germany — can have in Turkish elections. The reasons behind the voting habits of Turks in Germany, Holland and Austria are, nevertheless, varied and complex, driven by numerous factors.
Ayhan Kara, a professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University, maintains that many Turks in Europe from disadvantaged backgrounds consider Erdogan to be a paternal figure unafraid to challenge European leaders. “This strong father figure becomes attractive to those with rather conservative religious backgrounds, and mainly those coming from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background,” Kaya told the Hurriyet Daily News in a recent interview. “These are mostly people who have not taken German citizenship, for example, and are also among the losers of neoliberalism and globalization.”
A similar situation exists in Austria, with a Turkish minority of some 600,000 and currently governed by an anti-immigration, ultra-conservative coalition led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a vocal Erdogan critic and opponent of Turkey’s EU membership bid. Kurz’s government recently decided to close seven mosques (out of 250 in Austria) run by the AKP-linked Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria and to expel their imams, whose salaries Turkey pays. This, too, was seen as a backlash caused by Erdogan’s attempts to garner support among religious Turks in Europe.
The Austrians' decision followed a highly nationalistic re-enactment by Turkish children of Turkey's 1915 victory at Gallipoli. Held at one of Vienna’s largest mosques, the piece not only praised religious martyrdom, but was also full of Islamic invocations. Vienna said that parallel societies, Islamism and radicalization have no place in Austrian society.
Erdogan’s response to Kurz — a veiled threat that he said also applied to others in Europe, especially Germany — appears unlikely to improve conditions for Turks in Austria. Erdogan accused Kurz, 31, of being “too young to understand that he is stoking a new war between cross and crescent. … This will bring [Kurz] much trouble,” he said, adding that Turkey would not allow its brothers and sisters in Austria to be oppressed. He warned of being prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent it.
The upshot is that Erdogan’s Turkish supporters in Europe have served him well, but as long as Ankara's tone remains bellicose and vitriolic, it is unclear what benefit they stand to receive in return to improve their lot where they live.