Turks Go to the Polls in Germany


BERLIN — By all forecasts, the outcome of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey will be close, so close, some say, that there could be a runoff for the presidency. If Recep Tayip Erdogan does not receive a clear majority in the first round on June 24, he could face a candidate backed by a coalition of opposition parties. Two weeks later, a runoff would be called on July 8 (from June 30 to July 4 for voters abroad). And in that case, the votes cast by Turkish citizens living outside the country, who make up an estimated 5 percent of the total electorate, could prove decisive.

This helps explain the special focus that Erdogan and his AKP party colleagues have been placing on wooing voters in Germany. Of the more than 3 million eligible Turkish voters living abroad, there are 1.4 million in Germany alone. The European countries that follow in rank are home to substantial numbers of voters, but considerably fewer than Germany; France with 341,000, Holland with 260,000 and Belgium with 142,000 according to German press reports. The US and Canada account for about 100,000 each.

Voting began on June 7 at 13 polls set up in the Turkish consulates throughout Germany, as well as Austria and France, and will continue until June 19.  Erdogan is hoping that he and his AKP will profit from what he hopes will be a massive turnout. During a speech in Mugla on June 6, he appealed to voters in Europe to flock to the polls until they burst; “the signal that you send from abroad,” he said, “will, God willing, blend together with the votes of your brethren in Turkey.” And his foreign minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, called for an even higher vote than what Turkish voters in Germany had delivered for the referendum last year. At that time, the turnout was 50 percent and 63 percent of those who voted cast a “yes” for Erdogan’s changes.

Campaign Rallies Banned

The problem Erdogan has is that he cannot rally the masses directly. Last year in March Germany issued a ban on any campaign speeches by Turkish politicians, a move followed by Holland and Austria. In response Erdogan accused the Germans of adopting “Nazi methods.” When Chancellor Angela Merkel and SPD politician Martin Schulz indicated that the talks on Turkey’s bid for EU membership were at a dead end, he said they were all “Nazis of fascists.” This did not endear him to the political class in Berlin, nor did it lead to any rethinking of the ban.

And yet, early polls indicate that there is considerable support for Erdogan and the AKP. The reasons suggested by political analysts are complex: as one German TV feature presented it, Turks living in Germany, even those who were born here, tend to consider Turkey still as their homeland. They view Erdogan as the man who succeeded in providing economic growth, fighting poverty, building public infrastructure, roads, bridges, airports, schools and hospitals. Although in reality, the economy has entered a serious crisis and the national currency has taken a nose dive, the picture presented in the state controlled media, which many Turkish-Germans follow, is still the rosy one of years past.

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Then there is the psychological, ideological factor, which is overwhelming. Many Turks in Germany feel they are discriminated against, and this contributes to identity insecurities; as one Ahmet cited by ZdF TV put it, “In Germany, you are always the Turk, and in Turkey I am always the German, Alman.” Despite the fact that the Turkish community has been here for three generations, analysts complain that not enough is being done to fully integrate them. Osman Okkan, a filmmaker and leading representative of the Turkey-Germany Cultural Forum, noted that Germans are not so active in the integration and social processes, and the mosques and Turkish organizations like DITIB have moved into the vacuum.

Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey, attributed to the Gülen movement, Turks in Germany have been put under tremendous political and psychological pressure from the Erdogan regime to stay in line. Okkan told “DeutschlandFunk” radio news on June 7 that people are scared. “I have never experienced such a mood of fear,” he said, “and several reports we have read confirm that many people do not want to expose themselves to the danger of being labeled terrorists or terrorist sympathizers on flimsy pretexts.” He said they even had to conceal their views from their closest neighbors.  It has been reported that Turkish-language media in Germany have solicited reports on individuals suspected of links to the Kurdish PKK or to the Gülen movement. Serap Güler, a political figure responsible for integration policy in the federal state of North Rhine Westfalia, said he had never witnessed such fear, both here and in Turkey, fear of speaking openly about politics.

Such political pressure, actually a form of blackmail, exerted on persons who feel they are being discriminated against, can have devastating effects. When the charismatic leader appears on the scene, with appeals to the glories of “Turkishness” or other names for exasperated nationalism, that offers an alternative identity based on a sense of power. As political analyst Gülistan Gürbey commented, Turks see themselves as second-class citizens, and “see Erdogan as a man who gives them a voice they can identify with. He intuitively reinforces the self-consciousness of these people.”

A study conducted at the Duisburg-Essen University showed that since 2010 more Turks have said they identify with Turkey than with Germany. In 2010, Turkey established a Ministry for the Diaspora, whose message has been summed up as, “We are taking care of you; you are not really wanted here, but back home, you are.”

One Picture Is Worth…

It is in this context that a calculated move by Erdogan should be considered. On May 13 he posed for a photo with two Germans of Turkish background and when the picture hit the press, it caused an uproar. The two Turkish-Germans were Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündgan, leading members of the German national soccer team, now in Russia to compete for the world championship. As in other countries, fans consider such sports stars as heroes, and when they appeared in print together with Erdogan, the backlash was brutal. Although the players attempted to calm the waters, and Merkel noted that they had probably utterly underestimated the explosive potential of such a photo, the incident has become an issue.

Whatever was going through the minds of the soccer players, it cannot be doubted that Erdogan knew exactly what he was doing.

That said, there is no reason to consider the outcome of the vote a fait accompli for Erdogan. There is a numerically strong and politically sophisticated opposition in the Turkish community in Germany, including prominent intellectuals, writers, filmmakers, not to mention a substantial component of Kurds and an increasing number of Turks from military and political circles who have sought and obtained asylum in Germany. Inside Turkey itself, the establishment has good reason to fear the potential alliance of opposition groups in a possible runoff, and that reality finds its counterpart in Germany as well.


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