Courting the Diaspora Erdogan Hopes Germany's Turks Can Get Him Re-Elected

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is running for re-election in June, and is hoping that Germany's large Turkish community can help him secure the votes he needs. But his request for electoral help from the German government has ruffled feathers.
Erdogan's speech in Düsseldorf was a campaign event.

Erdogan's speech in Düsseldorf was a campaign event.

Foto: dapd

The campaign speech in Düsseldorf made headlines in Germany. Newspapers described it as a "sermon of hate" and warned of "new divisions" in society. But the election campaigner wasn't even running for office in Germany: It was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who caused all the fuss.

The heated reaction  was due to comments that Erdogan made during his Sunday, Feb. 27 speech.  He said that Turkish, not German, must be the first language of the children of Turkish parents. "You are my citizens!" he told the crowd.

On the day after the scandal erupted, Erdogan met with Thomas de Maizière, who was still the German interior minister at the time (he has since been appointed Germany's defense minister). De Maizière had carefully studied Erdogan's speech on Monday afternoon, in his car, on his way to the CeBit consumer electronics trade show in Hanover (Turkey was the fair's partner country this year). He knew that the Turkish prime minister likes to polarize, so he decided to remain calm. He gently corrected Erdogan, without loudly contradicting him. "We want the children to learn German, at the latest when they start attending school," said de Maizière. "Whether or not they learn Turkish is their own private matter."

Request for Help

But during their discussion over dinner, the guest from Ankara appeared no longer particularly interested in the language proficiency of young Turkish-Germans. In his Düsseldorf speech, he had set his sights on a far greater subject: the parliamentary elections in Turkey this coming June. Erdogan has asked the German government for help -- he wants to make it possible for his fellow Turks to vote in Germany.

Erdogan is a high roller and a populist, and there is one thing that he now wants more than anything else: to be re-elected. Between 1.1 and 1.3 million Turks living in Germany are eligible to vote in Turkish elections. Germany is effectively the fourth largest Turkish electoral district after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

This June, Erdogan wants to see ballot boxes placed in the Turkish Embassy and Turkish consulates in Germany. De Maizière agreed, at least in principle, to provide support, and has tentatively promised police protection. Swedes, Iraqis and Australians are already able to vote in their embassies. The German government had previously rejected all requests from Turkish politicians -- out of fear of attacks.

Erdogan has a highly efficient campaigning machine. In Germany's densely populated Ruhr region, supporters of his Islamic conservative ruling AKP party put up posters in all major cities. The Union of European Turkish Democrats, the AKP's unofficial foreign representative, distributed thousands of free tickets for the Düsseldorf rally in mosques, associations and Turkish supermarkets. Not to be outdone, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, Erdogan's challenger from the opposition CHP party, also plans to hold an appearance in Germany this month.

Immigrants with a Turkish passport used to travel to Istanbul and Ankara to vote at the airport. In Cologne, for example, a local Turkish electrical engineer organized election trips to Turkey for many years. In his neighborhood he campaigned for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and invited supporters to eat meals at his home. It used to be that Turkish-Germans supported a range of parties, but these days nearly all votes go to the AKP, says the engineer: "Erdogan has the community under control."

Out of Touch with Modern Turkey

Erdogan's success in Germany reveals a great deal about the sensitivities of Turkish immigrants -- and about the extent of integration in the country. There are commissioners for foreigners, Islam conferences, integration courses and endless debate on the issue, yet Germany has never really understood its immigrants. Who are these people who turn out in their thousands to cheer for a foreign head of government?

Many of the women in Düsseldorf wear headscarves while the men are clad in knitted sweaters that are reminiscent of the first generation of guest workers in Germany. They moved to the country decades ago, but never really adapted to the new world. They cling to their traditional lifestyle, where the men are macho and the women marry young. Furthermore, they pass on this cliché to their children, leading many young Turks to feel ill at ease in Germany, even those who are third-generation immigrants. It is precisely this group that the Turkish prime minister addresses in his tirades.

But the reality of life back in the homeland has long since overtaken the immigrants' worldview. Turkey is more modern than many immigrants remember it. They notice it when they fly back to the old country. When they arrive in Turkey, they bitterly complain about increasingly loose family ties and the anonymity of big cities. The Turks call these returnees Almancilar, a word coined from the Turkish words Alman (German) and yabanci (foreigner). They are not particularly well liked and are generally seen as backward and arrogant. Turkish-Germans often have it just as rough in Istanbul as in Berlin or Frankfurt: There is no place where they really feel at home.

Erdogan maintains that he can help change that. He conveys a sense of pride to the immigrants, along with a feeling that they have missed all too often in Germany in the past: a sense of belonging. Speaking in Cologne three years ago, he condemned assimilation as "a crime against humanity." The tone of his speech in Düsseldorf was more moderate, but the message was the same: Don't become like the Germans.

Big Brother Is Looking Out for You

But Erdogan's approach locks the immigrants into their Turkish-ness. His speech is "a slap in the face to people who are working for integration," says Heinz Buschkowsky, the straight-talking mayor of Neukölln, a Berlin district with a large foreign population.

"I am here to look after your vested interests," Erdogan told his audience in Düsseldorf. His supporters respond with unconditional loyalty. Safiye, 53, has been living in Germany for 33 years, but she speaks hardly a word of German. She is proud of the prime minister, she says. "He looks after us. I love him." After Erdogan's speech she had tears in her eyes.

Erdogan's appearances abroad are directed not so much at immigrants in Germany as at voters in Turkey. Recent WikiLeaks disclosures  have damaged the prime minister's image. In Germany, though, he can play his favorite role, acting the part of the abi, the big brother who looks after things wherever he is needed in the world. That includes Libya, for instance, where he recently had Turkish nationals evacuated back home, as well as Germany.

'Easy Points'

German politicians are critical of Erdogan's approach. Martin Schulz, the chairman of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, accuse Erdogan of trying "to score easy points in the election campaign." He says that it is "scandalous that this man is now presenting his pan-Turkish world view in Germany for the second time."

Even politicians with Turkish origins like German lawmaker Serkan Tören of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) see Erdogan's "campaign show" as counterproductive: It does nothing to help the integration of Turkish immigrants into German society, Tören says.

"We ourselves are the only people who can solve the integration problem," argues Kenan Kolat, chairman of the Turkish community in Germany. "This can't be achieved by any foreign politician."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.