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.
EU 'Negotiations Should Be Put in a Deep Freeze'
That helps explain why the most recent scandal surrounding Erdogan has done little more than trigger the same old reflexes. Conservative politicians in Germany, for example, reacted as they always have: with the demand that ongoing EU accession talks be abandoned. "Turkey is developing away from our tried-and-true European standards," says David McAllister, lead candidate for Merkel's Christian Democratic Union in the EU elections. He says the country isn't exactly recommending itself for EU membership. "The negotiations should be put in a deep freeze," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a politician with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, told the German daily Die Welt. Dilek Kurban, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes that a definitive EU rejection of Turkish membership could force Erdogan's hand, even though that step would carry the risk of losing whatever influence it still has in the country.
The Foreign Ministry in Berlin, though, says it is more important now than ever to force accession talks ahead. "We have to compel Turkey to speak with us about such issues as the rule of law, an independent judiciary and press freedoms," says Michael Roth, a state minister in the Foreign Ministry. "Erdogan's comments are a reason to intensify the negotiations rather than to break them off."
The European Commission has also rejected demands that the talks be abandoned. "Only a credible accession process can help Turkey overcome its current problems," says an EU official close to the talks.
But German politicians are concerned that Erdogan could export domestic Turkish conflicts to Germany. The debate over immigration triggered by xenophobic author Thilo Sarrazin and the string of murders targeting Turkish immigrants perpetrated by the NSU neo-Nazi terror cell have made immigrants here uneasy. Furthermore, many Turkish-Germans feel that politicians here don't take their concerns seriously. The Turkish government has tried to fill this gap, with Erdogan posing as the patron of the Turkish diaspora. At a campaign appearance in Düsseldorf in 2011, he said: "I am here to look after your well-being. You are my citizens, you are my friends, you are my brothers and sisters."
Erdogan rejects all criticism of his government from abroad. At the same time, he spent months deploring the alleged forced conversions of Muslim Turkish foster children in Europe. His deputy also criticized Germany's policy of requiring immigrants to take German courses as a "human rights violation." Such aggressive rhetoric has driven a wedge between immigrants and German society.
There are between 1.1 and 1.3 million Turks living in Germany who have the right to vote in Turkey. After Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Germany is the fourth largest Turkish voting district. As a result, Erdogan has long since perfected his foreign campaign strategy and expanded his stump activities to Germany. As early as 2004, the premier founded the Union of European Turkish Democrats in Cologne, a lobbying group for his conservative AKP. Then, in 2010, Erdogan established an office for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (UETD), an authority in Ankara with some 300 employees who are responsible for the 4 million Turks living outside the country.
Most recently, Erdogan held a speech before thousands of people in Berlin's Tempodrom arena in February. Ecstatic followers waved flags and chanted: "Tayyip, the country is with you!"
Now, Erdogan is hoping that the Olympic Stadium in Berlin will be transformed this summer into the world's largest polling station. Thus far, Turkish Germans have been forced to travel to Turkey in order to vote; the country does not have a vote-by-mail program. For the presidential election on Aug. 10, the Turkish government is planning on setting up ballot boxes in the Berlin stadium as well as in Frankfurt's Fraport Arena, in the ISS Dome in Düsseldorf and in convention halls in Hanover, Munich and Karlsruhe. Chancellor Merkel indicated in February that she would help ensure that Turks in Germany could take part in the presidential elections. Other countries, after all, make it possible for their citizens to vote in Germany -- though the ballots are usually filled out in consulates and embassies rather than in stadiums. The Interior Ministry is now checking to determine whether security at the Olympic Stadium can be guaranteed for such an event.
Left Party foreign policy expert Sevim Dagdelen is concerned that the campaign could disrupt the peaceful coexistence of Germans and Turks in Germany.
"The Turkish-German community is split into supporters and detractors of Erdogan," Kenan Kolat, head of the Turkish Community in Germany, agrees. "This could lead to tensions ahead of the presidential election this summer."
A first glimpse of the emotions in question could be provided by the 10th birthday celebration for the UETD on May 24. Erdogan plans to hold a speech before 20,000 followers in Cologne's Lanxess Arena that day. People close to the premier say that he could use the occasion to officially announce his candidacy for the office of the presidency.
By Ralf Neukirch, Paul Middelhoff, Maximilian Popp, Christoph Schult and Oliver Trenkamp