Turks in Europe caught in electoral whirlwind

The millions of Turkish expat voters are playing a decisive role in Sunday’s Turkish elections that could be the final one in a decade that has changed the country. Divided along lines mirroring the polarization in their original country, Turks in Europe also have to deal with their status as immigrants, which is exacerbated by the deteriorating image of Turkey in the world and suspicions of loyalty to both countries, undermining hopes for integration.

The bellicose anti-Western rhetoric of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not helped their case: Erdogan has repeatedly called his followers in Europe to turn against the governments of their countries of adoption. European countries with the largest Turkish communities have in return banned Turkish politicians from campaigning on their soil, prompting fierce criticism from Erdogan and his supporters, who say the ban is evidence of unfair treatment of Turkish minorities.

“Our thesis is that the ban helped the regime because they could play the role of the ‘Muslim victim’, discriminated against by the ‘West’,” explains Cihan Sinanoğlu, spokesperson of the Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland (TGD), an umbrella organization of Turkish communities in Germany. “Erdogan is always using the ban to point out that there is just one force that can protect the Turkish people in Germany and this is him.”

It is not hard to see why Turks in Germany and Germans of Turkish origin feel the need for protection. Last summer elections saw the rise of Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right, xenophobic formation accused of neo-Nazi ties, whose deputy chairman called for the current minister of integration who is of Turkish descent to be “disposed of” back to Anatolia. On May 29, German chancellor Angela Merkel and the Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey attended a solemn ceremony to commemorate the 25th year of the massacre in Solingen, where 5 members of a Turkish German family were burned to death in a neo-Nazi attack. The TGD warned that populist, xenophobic arguments are once again again dictating the public discourse on integration.

“That’s the tragedy of German politics,” decries Mr. Sinanoğlu, “They gave and still give Erdogan the void to denounce racism in German society. That space should be filled by German politicians who should admit that institutional racism exists and tell Turkish people in Germany that they belong there.’’

The feeling of being neglected or rejected by their countries leaves German, Dutch or Austrian Turks open to other calls. Erdogan’s words to Turkish voters in Europe could not have been more explicit: "Take the nationality of the country where you live and take an active part in politics. Become a member of parliament," he recommended, in his only European rally in Sarajevo, implying that Turks in European parliaments would serve the interests of Turkey.

It’s an idea that touches a raw nerve in a public sensitive to xenophobic and populist rhetoric, but that it is refuted by facts.

“Erdoğan and his ministers also underline the importance of integration in their speeches. Their common message is ‘Do integrate in the societies of the countries that you as Turks are living in and try to have high positions in order to let Turkey benefit from it, but do not assimilate,’" explains Armand Sağ, senior research fellow at Institute for Turkish Studies in the Netherlands. “Turks are very pragmatic and self-absorbed: they choose the party that suits them. When a party in Europe promises them more cultural rights, they will vote for that party regardless of its political agenda while they do the same in Turkey.”

The consequence is different behavior in national or Turkish elections: “In Europe it is mostly the left parties that tend to stand up for minorities while in Turkey it is mostly parties from the right that want to have a strong Turkish diaspora.”

The situation in Germany is similar, confirms Mr. Sinanoğlu: “There is no influence from Turkey when it comes to elections in Germany. Most of the people with Turkish migration background vote for SPD and Grüne.”

While Erdogan is indeed very popular among Turkish voters in Germany, that is not an indicative of the monolithic support in the Turkish community: “Not all Turkish people are interested in Turkish politics or wish to participate in the process. We have different religions, political currents, generations,” Sinanoğlu goes on to say. “On the other hand, we have people who still have strong ties to Turkey. They vote for a wide range of reasons. There are supporters of Erdogan and then there are those who are opposed to the regime. Some of them vote because they feel discriminated against by German society. Some of them are liberals who want to prevent the win of Erdogan.”

Save the occasional flares of rivalry, especially among Turks and Kurds, political divisions were not visible in public. “They suddenly became public with the Gezi protests. Since then, we have had tensions in the community itself.”

The so called 2013 Gezi Park protests marked the end of Europe’s honeymoon with Erdogan and his AK party and made the drift of Turkey towards authoritarianism and away from EU evident from the outside. Suddenly the European public saw Turkish expats as possibly loyal to a non democratic, growingly anti European government.

Reflecting Erdogan’s anti-Western rhetoric and Turkey’s fury for fugitives finding shelter in Europe, several episodes have raised alarm across Europe.

In France, a group of Turkish citizens protested, asked for removal and then brought down posters of a magazine cover that they claimed was insulting Erdogan, mirroring censorship of free press in Turkey. The French President himself felt obliged to tweet in defense of press freedom from “enemies of freedom.”

In the Netherlands, the mayor of Rotterdam claimed that policemen of Turkish origin had been threatened by Erdogan’s supporters following the incident of deportation of a Turkish minister who defied the ban to campaign for the 2017 referendum.

In Germany, a police investigation alleged links between a Turkish MP and a boxing gang accused of plotting attacks against Erdogan critics.

“Erdoğan's manipulative actions toward Turkish diaspora in Europe created a very toxic atmosphere for all. It put an immense burden on the image of Turks which was positive when compared with other Muslim communities,” Kader Sevinç, Turkish opposition CHP representative in Brussels, said. “Of course lack of sustainable, coherent and efficient integration policies in European countries and xenophobia that is experienced everyday played an important role as an enabler to those actions.”

Armand Sağ disagrees: “Erdoğan emphasizes that they should see Turkey and the country that they are living in as a mother and a father. One can not, and should not, love one more than the other.”

But he concurs that the problem is created by the decade-long neglect of the Turkish minority by European states. “Turks are the largest minority in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Austria and Bulgaria. They are denied an official status as ‘minority’ in the Netherlands, so there are no language courses or tv channels for Turks. Germany recognizes Frisians, Danes, Sorben, Roma and Sinti while ignoring the Turks. This has caused a wave of anti-European sentiments and even resentment against Europe in general whereupon Erdoğan has reacted.”

Shortcomings of integration being exploited by astute politicians for domestic gains is a trend that is becoming very familiar to European voters. But even positive examples of integration are not immune to exploitation and controversy.

When two prominent German national team footballers of Turkish origin posed for photos with Erdogan earlier this year, a debate erupted in Germany questioning if Germans of Turkish origin have the right to represent Germany in international competitions if they remain loyal to a foreign president.

‘’The debate over Özil and Gündoğan is symptomatic for where the discourse is shifting. Remarkably, the public questioned not their action but if the players belong to Germany. It is very easy at the moment to exclude people from the German society,” Cihan Sinanoğlu says.

The discourse should be reversed, according to Sinanoğlu: if Germany wants to prevent the Erdoganist spillover, it should claim its Turkish citizens, not reject them. “We plead for a different critic: yes, the players made a bad mistake. But they are part of German society, they belong to us.”

After the controversy, and despite meeting the German president, the players were heckled during a match and of their vehicles was vandalized.

“We have political parties and movements who exploit and use these cases to express their racism. There is a clear tendency against visible minorities,” Sinanoğlu said.