Ahmet Sakip says that a great leader should eschew the advice of others. "And Tayyip Erdogan is the greatest leader of all," he adds. The men sitting at the table in Son Durak, a tea room in Hamburg's St. Pauli neighborhood, all nod their heads in agreement. Most are pensioners who came to Germany many years ago as migrant laborers.
They admire Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom they view as their prime minister. Under Erdogan, Turkey returned to greatness, they say. He built highways, hospitals and schools. More importantly, he defied the international community. "Even the German president now knows that you can't get away with criticizing Turkey," says Sakip.
In a speech he gave to students in Ankara last week, German President Joachim Gauck denounced Turkey for its democratic deficiencies. He criticized censorship of the media by the Turkish government, the transfers of unwelcome public prosecutors and police as well as the recent blocking of access to YouTube and Twitter. "These developments frighten me," Gauck said.
Erdogan's reaction was prompt. Referring to his past as a cleric, Erdogan disparaged the German president as a "pastor" and said that Gauck had interfered with Turkish domestic policies, an act "unbecoming of a statesman." "That's ugly," Erdogan said. A Turkish newspaper with close ties to the government ran an image depicting Gauck wearing a swastika armband.
German politicians roundly criticized the Turkish prime minister's gaffe in a manner not often seen for the leader of one of Germany's allies. The European Parliament's German president, Martin Schulz of the center-left Social Democrats, described Erdogan's tirade against Gauck as a "breech of the rules of diplomacy."
The motivation for Erdogan's sharp comments is clear. On August 10, Turks will go to the polls to elect a new president. And for the first time ever, Turks living in Germany will also be able to cast ballots. Erdogan still hasn't declared his candidacy for the presidency, but no one has any doubts about his ambitions. "Of course we're going to vote for Tayyip Erdogan," proclaim the men sitting at Son Durak in Hamburg.
Little To Lose
It appears that Erdogan no longer cares much what Germans think of him. Cem Özdemir, the co-head of Germany's Green Party and himself the son of Turkish immigrants, says that Berlin's ability to influence events in Turkey has "diminished palpably." Erdogan has said he would like to govern Turkey for at least another decade -- and he knows that, in the competition for voters, tough words for Germany can't hurt.
Turkish term limits prohibit Erdogan from running for a fourth term as prime minister in 2015 parliamentary elections, which is why most expect that he will run for the presidency in August instead. The current incumbent is Erdogan's ally and co-founder of the Islamist conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), Abdullah Gül.
The role of the Turkish president is currently similar to that of Germany's head of state -- it's largely a ceremonial position. If he wins, though, it is expected that Erdogan will seek to massively expand the president's powers. "Erdogan wants to triumph this summer so that he can consolidate his power," says Gencer Özcan, a political science professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University. "To achieve this, he's willing to risk tensions with close partners like Germany." Özcan believes the prime minister will continue to fire barbs in the weeks ahead.
When Erdogan first became prime minister, he pledged to pursue reconciliation not only within Turkey, but also with its neighbors. He proffered an olive branch to the country's liberal forces, curtailed the generals' power and defused the conflict with the Kurds in southeast Turkey. In 2005, the European Union opened accession talks with Ankara.
Hunger for Power
His early success, though, did little to still his hunger for yet more power, and he has become increasingly authoritarian and unresponsive to criticism. His opponents have begun lampooning him as a "sultan," partly in response to the persecution last year of journalists, students and members of the political opposition who took part in anti-government protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park. Indeed, there are more journalists imprisoned in Turkey today than in China. And rather than demanding answers in a government corruption scandal shortly before Christmas, Erdogan instead moved judges, prosecutors and police out of the way.
Liberal Turks like Aybars Görgülü of of Istanbul's Tesev think tank share Gauck's opinion and also believe Erdogan poses a threat to democracy in Turkey. And yet Görgülü also believes that the German president's speech in Ankara was a disservice to pro-European, democratic forces in Germany.
Gauck's speech was comparably mild in tone: He praised Turkey for the assistance it is providing refugees of the Syrian civil war and commended the country's economic policies before delving into the country's authoritarian tendencies. But that criticism could actually aid Erdogan's campaign.
When Erdogan entered office in 2003 as a political outsider, many Turks welcomed his rise as a kind of counterrevolution. For once, the country was being governed by a man of simple means. As the son of a sailor from Anatolia, he wasn't a representative of the secular elite, he wasn't privileged and he wasn't an heir to Atatürk's staunch secularism.
Even though Erdogan's AKP has permeated literally every corner of the country in the years since, the prime minister has still managed to maintain the image of an underdog. As part of his effort to cultivate that image, he has recently shifted his focus from attacking Turkey's ailing secular establishment to stirring up resentment among his supporters of purported enemies abroad. "He's downright demonizing Europe," says political scientist Özcan.
Even last summer, Erdogan tried to portray the Gezi Protests as a conspiracy mounted by foreign agents, the media and the Jewish "interest rate lobby". Erdogan's chief advisor, Yigit Bulut, even claimed that the German airline Lufthansa was behind the protests because it wanted to damage the image of upstart competitor Turkish Airlines. He also warned that foreign powers wanted to use psychokinesis, an alleged psychic ability to move objects using mental force, to murder the prime minister.
More recently, Erdogan has been seeking to position himself as a courageous defender of the Turks against any meddling from abroad. And he's not above stooping to the basest instincts of his supporters, either. Last week, for example, he claimed that Gauck had been acting on behalf of "atheist Alevis" living in Germany, a reference to a Muslim minority group.
Germany and Europe are largely helpless in the face of the Turkish premier's exploits. In the first years of his term, Erdogan seemed genuinely eager to please Europe. With EU help, Erdogan banished the military from Turkish politics and established greater rights for religious groups, including Christians. But after three election victories in a row, he no longer needs Brussels' input on domestic issues.
At the same time, enthusiasm for the European Union in Turkey has plunged dramatically, with Europe's half-hearted support for Turkish accession talks ultimately alienating liberal Turks. Just 10 years ago, 73 percent of the country supported EU accession; today less than half do.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long been among those who have categorically opposed EU membership for Turkey, a position that has left Germany with little influence in Ankara. At most, German politicians can criticize Erdogan for his oversteps -- such as the violent suppression of pro-Democracy protests last summer in Istanbul or his more recent attempts to get rid of undesirable prosecutors and judges. But they cannot sanction him. "Pressure exerted by the EU on Ankara to reform has essentially lost all of its power," says Green Party co-chair Özdemir.