Political freedom and Turkish expat voters in Europe

KAAN ELBIR @kaanelbir
Published

Turkey's coming presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24 are not only a major topic for Turkey but also for Turkish citizens abroad, especially in Germany. Germany has the largest Turkish diaspora that constitutes a sizable amount of voters abroad – a total of 3 million Turkish citizens are eligible to vote abroad, 1.5 million of whom live in Germany.

Turkish politicians have a natural tendency to reach out to those 1.5 million voters, which is a group larger than some European countries' whole population, and are being confronted by different types of obstacles and also banned by the German and some other governments. Because the number of Turkish voters in Germany and Europe has come to a point that no political party in Turkey can afford to ignore the size of this constituency, a heated discussion on the legitimacy of Turkish politicians visiting and campaigning on German soil has broken out recently. Some other European countries, such as Holland and Belgium, have also erected some barriers to campaigning by Turkish politicians as if they are coming with weapons or threats instead of words for prospective voters.

The dispute between Turkey and Holland during the April 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey is still fresh in people's minds. Turkish politicians were banned from making campaign speeches, there were verbal disputes exchanged between the leaders of a number of countries, and some controversial decisions were made by local authorities in Europe. It was all a mess at that time, which only ended up harming bilateral relations and caused visible and perceptible divisions within communities.Germany, in the run-up to the 2017 referendum in Turkey, blocked some Turkish ministers and deputies of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) who wanted to meet with voters and hold informative gatherings with the local Turkish society. This blockade made Turks in Germany feel isolated and discriminated very seriously shaking their confidence in the German state. Various owners of meeting halls abruptly canceled previously agreed-upon contracts for the referendum appearances of Turkish politicians after the topic was inflated in the media.

Actually, it was not the German federal government banning these meetings, but instead the central government shifted authority for these decisions to the local level. With this diplomatic move, they enforced the intended bans without even having to take direct responsibility for them.

However, one could not say that this disagreeable attitude was extended towards all Turkish politicians. Unfortunately, it was only directed against the ruling AK Party representatives. On the other hand, opposition politicians of the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the People's Democratic Party (HDP) were able to gather with their supporters without interference. This position was taken up by the German media with enthusiastic support – almost as if it were a natural occurrence. German media almost seemed like a part of the Turkish opposition parties, and this attitude is still visible.

Germany's state of emergency

The source of further tensions in regard to relations with the EU is the state of emergency that is still being implemented in Turkey. The state of emergency was proclaimed after the failed Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ) coup attempt of July 15, 2016, which has since been repeatedly extended. In Western media, people were quick to speak of the "death of democracy" in Turkey or how "Erdoğan leads Turkey into dictatorship". The criticism, however, was not directed against the parliament, which had ultimately declared and extended the continuation of the state of emergency, each time with a large majority, but directly against President Erdoğan. The fact that the so-called "wilde Mann vom Bosporus" (The wild man of the Bosporus) has large popular support behind him – earned by his refusal to subordinate Turkey to the status quo of world politics dominated by Western powers – is often hidden in Western media coverage.

The unwanted results of government policies

The fiery, disproportionate and biased criticism in the run-up to the referendum by Western politicians against Turkey ultimately spilled over to the society at large.

The increasing skepticism towards Turks escalated the hatred in some places, leading to attacks against Turkish institutions, mosques and people. This atmosphere eventually blended with the socially-acceptable Islamophobia that is rampant among European right-wing movements. The ongoing anti-Turkish media propaganda continues to pose a threat to Turks as it could increase hostility toward them in the future.

Whether this trend will change after the early elections on June 24 is doubtful. As can be seen, the blocks on Turkish politicians are already being discussed again – both in politics and in the media.

In Germany, there is a significant Turkish minority with the right to vote in elections in Turkey, and it seems that the German state cannot maintain a rational and objective state attitude towards those who are pro-Erdoğan. The government is marginalizing its own people, who are also taxpayers, because of their political orientation and is forcing these people to choose between the German state and political parties in Turkey.

In light of these facts, Turkey has proposed a different solution – so as to protect its citizens from getting stuck in a difficult situation and put an end to speculations – by declaring that so far, only one appearance in front of a Turkish audience in Europe is planned; on May 20 in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. Before that announcement, the presidency had been bombarded with thousands of emails in which citizens expressed their desire to receive the president in their country. This was also noticeable on social media. It seems there will be more than 20,000 participants from across Europe who will come to Bosnia to see the Turkish president. Even if a trip to Bosnia is not possible for all of the supporters and sympathizers of the AK Party and the president, many hearts will surely be beating there on May 20.

* Director, the Daily Sabah Centre

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