Insulting Erdogan Merkel Falls Flat over a Satirical Poem

A satirical poem targeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become an affair of state. Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the crisis has been abysmal and shows that she is losing her grip on power.
Merkel meeting with Erdogan in Istanbul last October.

Merkel meeting with Erdogan in Istanbul last October.

Foto: Guido Bergmann/ dpa

The man has been penalized enough already. If you have to rely on support from Mathias Döpfner, head of the Springer Verlag publishing house, and Dieter Hallervorden, who leads a cabaret theater in Berlin, you're not in great company. If you become famous, if you make history, with a few repugnant lines of clumsy poetry and not with your significant television skills, you have lost control over the popular interpretation of your own work. If the high point of your fame consists of calling the Turkish president a goat fucker and triggering an affair of state, you are not to be envied.

But Jan Böhmermann, author of the deeply insulting lyrical attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has little to fear should he face trial for violating German laws prohibiting the insulting of foreign institutions and representatives. Even if he were convicted, the absurdity of a prison sentence seems highly unlikely. And he would likely be able to afford a fine, particularly given the possibility that Döpfner and Hallervorden would take up a collection to help him pay.

The only one who really stands to lose is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In fact, she has already lost. Despite the current focus on the satirist, Böhmermann himself is rather unimportant. The real issue is the chancellor's own power.

It is a curious axiom in the history of political scandals that politicians only rarely stumble over the actual mistakes they make. More often, they trip over their futile and increasingly unsustainable attempts to cover up or eradicate those mistakes. The cascade of missteps made by Merkel in recent months has now found its ignoble low point in the Böhmermann Affair.


Photo Gallery: The Autocrat on the Bosporus

Foto: REUTERS/ Presidential Palace

Many would say that Merkel's first and greatest error was that of opening Germany's borders to the refugees stuck in Budapest in September 2015. That accusation will not be made here: The chancellor chose a humane response to a dramatic situation. She found support among German citizens who had never before even considered voting for her and in doing so, developed a new following. At the same time, though, she neglected and ultimately lost an older bloc of voters -- the conservative, foreigner-skeptic and at least latently Islamophobic protectors of the German culture. And she relied on the empathy of Germans and -- perhaps out of hubris -- on the assumption that other EU member states would follow her lead. Wrongheaded faith in her own persuasive power was her first mistake.

Trying to Satisfy Everybody

Yet once she became aware of the anger within her own Christian Democratic Union, and within its Bavarian sister party, and once she realized that Europe -- particularly Eastern Europe -- was in no mood for solidarity, she tried to back step on the first mistake without losing the support of her new fans. She began working on a deal with the Turkish government that would allow her to keep the German borders open while reducing the numbers of refugees arriving. The deal essentially called for transforming her dubious partner Erdogan  into the European Union's bouncer. She wanted to maintain the image of welcoming openness while eliminating the incentives to come. She wanted to satisfy everybody. That was her second mistake, made while trying to correct the first.

It almost looked like she would succeed. Even as Merkel's confident rhetoric led many of her well-meaning new supporters to believe that she still welcomed refugees with open arms, the Turkey deal allowed her to make an about-face in the crisis, thus appeasing critics within her party. The Balkan border closures, which Merkel publicly criticized but which she privately likely welcomed with a certain sense of relief, likewise also contributed to the change of mood. German gymnasiums slowly emptied of refugees and peace finally returned to the country.

If only the Turkish president wasn't such a choleric bully! He passes up no opportunity to show the world what he thinks of freedom of opinion and of the press: Nothing. He is equally fond of demonstrating how much he cares of those who would criticize that stance: Not at all. Unless his extraordinarily delicate honor is involved. Then, his rage knows no boundary.

It is noteworthy that Erdogan's other, more serious transgressions are being largely overlooked in the current public perception: his potentially corrupt dealings; his alleged support for Islamist terrorists; his bloody operations targeting the PKK, which are likely the product of domestic political calculations; his meddling in the already difficult relationship with Russia; and most recently, his bellicose rhetoric surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Wide Awake Germans

All of it is complicated, but it is also far away. Yet when the Turkish president places newspapers under state administration and when charges are filed against myriad critics for insulting the president, journalists are suddenly on point. When he then goes even further by having the accreditation of German journalists refused , having the German ambassador summoned multiple times for nothing and now even demanding that Berlin file charges against a German television personality, it is so clearly undemocratic that anger quickly boils over. This despot wants to take a German comedian to court? Germans are wide awake.

And here, in this relatively preposterous affair, Merkel committed her third mistake. It is a mistake that could ultimately cost her the Chancellery.

Merkel apparently sought to take the wind out of Erdogan's sails by hastily having her spokesperson announce that the Böhmermann poem was "consciously injurious." She could have thrown her support unmistakably behind Böhmermann, as one might expect from a chancellor charged with defending the German constitution. His poem was very clearly meant as satire; none of the uncomely imputations therein should be taken -- nor were they meant -- seriously. The chancellor, of course, knows as much. Yet by adopting Erdogan's viewpoint, she has essentially allowed him to determine what should be viewed as satire in Germany and what not. Now, the chancellor must decide if German prosecutors should be allowed to open a case over the insulting of a foreign head of state -- but because she already described the poem as "injurious" via her spokesman, she has very little room for maneuver.

Erdogan, like the troll that he most certainly is, isn't satisfied. Rather than wait for Merkel's decision, he went ahead and filed a criminal complaint against Böhmermann himself. That case will move ahead no matter what Merkel decides.

A Chancellor Without Power

Merkel's attempts at appeasement have not borne fruit. On the contrary, the entire country can now plainly see that Erdogan has put Merkel under his control and can lead her around like a big cat in the circus.

And now, Germans aren't just wide awake. They are electrified.

Merkel, though, never really had much use for an electorate that was wide awake. The wonderful peace has once again been disturbed. If she allows legal proceedings to go ahead, she will lose more than the support of the new voting bloc she won over last fall: From conservative Turkey opponents to the very last of Merkel's new fans, everybody will suddenly realize the shameful extent of Merkel's kowtowing to her egomaniacal refugee-crisis partner. If she puts a stop to the legal proceedings, there is a risk that an insulted Erdogan will withdraw from the refugee deal -- and the horrific images from Idomeni are merely a foretaste of what then would take place at EU borders elsewhere. Many people will once again try to reach Europe and Germany, no matter how great the risks. Many will die. Merkel's already problematic attempt to solve the refugee crisis will have come crashing down around her.

In fact, it doesn't matter much how the chancellor ultimately decides. She has already lost. And a chancellor whose decisions no longer matter has forfeited her power.