The Cable

In Upcoming Elections, Will Germany’s Turks Obey Erdogan?

This month’s vote could double as a referendum on German Turkish relations.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at a rally at Tempodrom hall on February 4, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Turkey will soon face parliamentary elections and Erdogan is vying for the votes of expatriate Turks. Berlin has the highest Turkish population of any city outside of Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to supporters at a rally at Tempodrom hall on February 4, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Turkey will soon face parliamentary elections and Erdogan is vying for the votes of expatriate Turks. Berlin has the highest Turkish population of any city outside of Turkey.

Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan shocked Germans last month when he demanded that Turkish Germans boycott several major parties in the country’s upcoming federal elections. Referring to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Green Party as “enemies of Turkey,” Erdogan urged German citizens of Turkish descent to choose other parties come Sept. 24.

Now, as those elections draw near, it remains uncertain whether the approximately one million Turkish Germans who are eligible to vote will heed Erdogan’s call, as no recent voter surveys have targeted the Turkish population. It’s not just the election results that are at stake. If the vote shows Turkish Germans shying away from parties condemned by Erdogan, it could indicate a frightening level of foreign sway over European citizens and even, some say, a failure of integration.

Turkish German support for the center-left SPD has traditionally been very high.  Almost 70 percent of them support the SPD, compared to just 27.9 percent of native Germans and 40.9 percent of total recent immigrants, according to a 2016 study by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. That’s due both to the SPD’s traditional focus on workers, as many Turkish Germans arrived first as guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s, and to its immigrant- and Muslim-friendly policies. Turkish German support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU is already very low, at around 6 percent, due to its long-standing opposition to Turkish membership in the EU.

Erdogan’s comments came as relations between Germany and Turkey sharply deteriorated in recent months. The two nations are NATO allies and major partners, but the failed coup in Ankara last year and Erdogan’s subsequent crackdown on civil society, lawyers, judges, and the press have driven a wedge between them.

But the constitutional referendum held in Turkey in April seemed to mark a turn for the worse, both in high-level bilateral relations and in grassroots sentiment. European leaders expressed concern with the referendum, which would alter the constitution to consolidate more power in Erdogan’s hands. Germany blocked organizations linked to Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) from campaigning in Germany to rally Turkish German voters there — which in turn irked the Turkish leader, who denounced the move as “fascist.”

More alarming, however, was the strong support that Erdogan’s constitutional overhaul found among Turkish residents in Germany. Of the approximately three million people of Turkish origin in Germany, about 1.4 million were eligible as Turkish citizens to vote in the referendum — and of those who cast ballots, 63 percent voted yes to granting Erdogan expanded constitutional powers, essentially voicing their support for what Western governments have characterized as a power grab in Turkey.

Some experts in Germany saw the results as a bellwether of Turkish German support for Erdogan — and as a failure of Turkish Germans to adopt liberal democratic values. Hasnain Kazim, Der Spiegel’s former Turkey correspondent, wrote in an op-ed:  “Despite living in democracies and in freedom and safety, these people have essentially voted to eliminate democracy in Turkey.”

The high support for the referendum could indicate that Turkish Germans are ready to follow Erdogan’s directive to boycott certain parties in Germany.

That support could arise both from a sense of displacement at home and concerns about stability back in Turkey. Growing nativism and the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany has challenged the place of Turkish immigrants there. And the numerous terror attacks, combined with the failed coup attempt last year, have made Erdogan’s image as strong leader more valuable than ever. In this environment, European criticism of Erdogan can feel like a threat to Turkey itself.

“There’s a strong sense of being marginal — ever more since the perceived ‘attacks’” on Erdogan, said Christian Joppke, a sociologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and an expert on immigration. “Judged by the strong support among Turkish Germans for the Turkish referendum (granting more powers to the president), I suspect his non-voting directive does have appeal.”

The wider German public and political leaders have reacted strongly against Erdogan’s voting instructions, seeing it as unacceptable foreign meddling in the country’s domestic affairs. Merkel said she “will not tolerate interference of any kind.” Sevim Dagdelen, the foreign affairs spokesman for minority party The Left, called for Germany to levy sanctions on Erdogan and his inner circle.

Others warned of the long-term dangers of Erdogan’s efforts.

“Erdogan’s provocations promote a fundamental conflict of values,” wrote two leading SPD members, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas, in an article for the German magazine Der Spiegel. “He wants to push our Turkish friends in Germany toward a culture war.”

But some Turkish Germans may have a different perspective on the proposed party boycott. Joppke told Foreign Policy it was possible that religiously conservative Turkish Germans, who form a majority of the community in Germany, don’t see a problem with Erdogan’s demand, though “a small secular part certainly does not agree with Erdogan.”

There is still no consensus, however, on whether or not Erdogan will sway the community’ votes later this month. Serhat Karakayali, a researcher on migration issues and professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, thinks that Turkish German support for authoritarian policies abroad doesn’t necessarily mean they would support similar measures in Germany.

“I would hypothesize that Turkish migrants have split or double consciousness when it comes to Turkey and Germany as two different realms where different criteria apply,” Karakayali told FP.

Turkish migrants were socially conservative long before AKP influence in Germany became a national concern. Even so, Karakayali said, they still voted more frequently for the left-leaning Green Party and SDP than the average German voter. That’s because those parties are seen as more sympathetic to the concerns of immigrants and Muslims.

But traditional issues that appealed to Turkish Germans, such as immigration policies and domestic political platforms, “have become overshadowed these last months by the Turkey debate,” said Karakayali.

“Not all Turkish immigrants support the Erdogan regime. The question is, whether the number of those who do not support Erdogan is larger amongst Turks with German citizenship.”

Adam Berry/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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