If Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state, were still alive, he would be wearing a gas mask and protesting with the people on Taksim Square in Istanbul. He would lead them in their fight against Prime Minister Erdogan. Alp Kale is sure of it. He points to his white T-shirt with a design he drew himself. It shows Atatürk with a gas mask along with several small figures that represent Kale's ideal of a pluralistic Turkey.
Alp Kale is a 31-year-old graphic designer born in the Evangelical Hospital in Castrop-Rauxel, a town in the heart of Germany's Ruhr Valley. He is sitting on his best friend's terrace, where he has already spent hours talking about "his Turkey."
Since last year's Gezi Park protests, he has been trying to understand what is going on in the country his parents still consider home despite having left over 30 years ago, a place where Kale has spent every summer since his childhood. He and his best friend Fikret tell stories from the villages where their parents come from in an attempt to explain how Recep Tayyip Erdogan could have come to power. They talk about systematic electoral fraud and tell of state money being made available to bribe voters -- of poor farmers being lured to the ballot box with money and bags of rice so that they could vote for Erdogan.
Since the Istanbul protests Alp Kale has become worried. He doesn't want a prime minister whose only accomplishment is economic growth. He thinks one man shouldn't have as much power as Erdogan does, adding that it is scary that a prime minister wants to determine if his citizens drink Raki, how many children they have or whether they get tattoos. "For me, Erdogan is a dictator-in-training," he says. His style of governance is, for Kale, too absolute and too totalitarian. Erdogan's Turkey is becoming increasingly alien to people like Alp Kale.
Last weekend, Turkish citizens outside of Turkey were allowed to vote for the first time in presidential elections. Three million people of Turkish origin live in Germany and 1.4 million of them are eligible to vote, making Germany equivalent to the sixth-largest voting precinct in Turkey. They are the children and grandchildren of the guest workers who came decades ago, young people like Alp Kale, who were born in Germany and grew up here. But they are also people over the age of 60, who are voting in an election for the first time in their lives.
No Gray Area
Alp Kale wants to free Turkey from Erdogan. Yet the newspaper publisher Ilhami Oguz, who lives in Hanover, admires him, can recite a list of his achievements and would like Erdogan to stay in power for a long time. In Berlin, the lawyer Ekrem Özdemir, local head of the largest Turkish opposition party CHP, is happy that his fellow countrymen can finally vote. But he also doesn't want Ergodan to win the election -- even if it seems hopeless.
The question of how one sees Erdogan divides Germany's Turkish population. People are either for him or against him and there is no gray area in between. The same is true for those who cannot vote because they have taken a German passport. The one half stood cheering when Erdogan spoke in front of 18,000 supporters in Cologne at the end of May. The other half held up posters at protests in Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg saying "War criminal wanted" over the image of Erdogan.
Like Turkey itself, the Turkish community in Germany is extremely heterogeneous, made up of Turks, Armenians and Kurds, Christians, Alevis and Sunnis. Many escaped to Germany from the political conflicts of past decades: the military coup of the 1980s, the Kurdish conflict in the '90s. But most of them descend from the first generation of guest workers which arrived in the 1960s.
This includes Anatolian farmers that came to work the mines in North Rhine-Westphalia. They have proven to be the most receptive to Erdogan's Islamic-nationalist agenda. But it's not only those with little education: Erdogan also has fans among the second and third generation, people who have completed school and have apprenticeships or jobs.
But how can it be that the election in Turkey is more important to many of those who have lived in Germany for decades, or were even born in Germany, than German elections?
Alp Kale registered and voted against Erdogan, as did his parents. But his reasons are more egotistical, more German than theirs. They have more to do with Castrop-Rauxel than with Ankara.
Full of Contradictions
It's the neighbors and the "organic Germans," as he calls them, that are always asking him: What's going on over there? Why are you hitting your women? Why are there honor killings? They saw him for years as a diplomat for Turkey. Until Alp became what everyone took him for: a Turk.
Kale says that during puberty he was a "prole-Turk" who listened to Turkish rap, wore nationalist tags, fasted and wanted to join the Turkish military. He didn't kiss his girlfriend for a month because that's the way Turks did it. Alp was full of contradictions, and still is.
His childhood hero was Atatürk. A poster of Atatürk had come with his parents to Castrop-Rauxel, a mining town near Recklinghausen. The men went below ground while Atatürk stayed in the living room and watched over Alp. Today Alp knows that the founder of Turkey wasn't always a hero, but he was a part of Alp's identity as a child --someone who brought the West to Anatolia and paved his parents' path to Germany. He was someone he could be proud of.
Alp joined the German navy, where he was referred to simply as Kale, but he was still refused entry at a club in Stralsund, despite being in uniform. He had trouble getting excited about Germany's World Cup victory and has never really felt like a German. But nor has he ever identified with his parents' homeland, where people don't even know the proper way to serve beer. Kale, born in Germany, refers to himself as a "Ruhr Vally-Turk."
It wasn't until last summer that Alp Kale found a place where he felt he belonged. When the Gezi Park protests started in Istanbul, he saw Turks his own age on television. They were right-wing and left-wing, Muslims and transvestites fighting together against Erdogan. "I, too, am Gezi," Kale says. Although he has never been there, he identifies more strongly with those few square meters of a far-away park than with anywhere else. He had the feeling of absolute belonging. Finally the Turks were no longer backward and uncultivated. They threw tulips at water cannons and braved tear gas to dance tango.
For Alp, it was his ideal homeland. But Prime Minister Erdogan had it cleared, called it a refuge for terrorists and put demonstrators behind bars. Since then, Kale talks with his friends almost every day about this power-hungry politician. They organize anti-Erdogan protests in Germany and search painstakingly for his flaws. They see him as a man who only craves power, a leader who only allowed Turks abroad to participate in the election so that he might win even more votes.
The Forgotten Ones
Still, granting Turks in Germany the right to vote in Turkish elections has been a long time coming. Kale's parents, of course, essentially abandoned their voting rights when they came to Germany. In Germany they were guests, overlooked for decades by German political parties. Turkish politicians were also uninterested. They were the forgotten ones.
But when Alp was 13 years old, the Turkish constitution changed to make way for Turks abroad to cast ballots -- but politicians largely ignored the shift and it wasn't implemented. Erdogan, then, became the first to recognize the potential value of these votes, which make up roughly 5 percent of the Turkish electorate. He knew that many of these foreign Turks would vote for him.
And he was right. Even if Kale doesn't like it, he and Turks like him have to recognize that Erdogan supporters are in the majority -- in Germany as well as in Turkey.
One-hundred-ninety kilometers northeast of Castrop-Rauxel, Ilhami Oguz is sitting at his desk in Hanover and venting about people like Kale. "I don't understand these people," he says. "Do they have any understanding of politics? Do they not know what a dictator is?" Oguz, the Turkish newspaper publisher, furrows his brow. Oguz is wearing jeans and a collared shirt, his chin-length hair is swept behind his ears.
It's shortly after 3:30 p.m., and the temperature has almost reached 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), but it will still be hours before he is allowed to eat or drink. As a pious Muslim, Oguz fasts during Ramadan. "Adolf Hitler was a dictator. Saddam Hussein too. But Tayyip! Seriously?" he asks. "That's crazy." When a politician has been voted in by the majority of his people, he argues, you call that democracy, not dictatorship.
Ilhami Oguz looks through his documents. He has printed out informational material in order to offer proof of Erdogan's accomplishments. Unemployment numbers, export growth and inflation; he has marked the important places with a green highlighter. He waves one sheet in the air: "Not everything can simply be explained away," he says.
A trained construction technician, Oguz was at VW for years until he launched his own advertising agency and founded the free Turkish newspaper Imaj, of which he is now the editor in chief. It appears every month and includes articles on such topics as the football team SV Melle Türkspor's chances of success, about police inspections of mosques in Lower Saxony or about how people can register for the first Turkish presidential election on German soil. It was a complicated process, especially for the older folks. They had to enroll in the electoral register online before being assigned a four-hour window in which to vote at one of the seven locations in Germany.
Oguz, 41, runs a blog in addition to his newspaper on which he has posted not only photos of his pilgrimage to Mecca, but also a photo of himself with Erdogan. On Facebook he is a fan of pages like "Lider Recep Tayyip Erdoan." He has also posted photos of Turkish President Abdullah Gül in a race car. Oguz likes Gül so much that he wrote him in order to get an autographed photo. Gül's staff sent him a portrait, but "unfortunately without a signature," says Oguz. He had it framed nevertheless and it now hangs in his office.
Oguz sees Erdogan as "a kind of Turkish Nelson Mandela," a freedom figure. He has for example, gotten the conflict with the Kurds in the east under control. He also admires Erdogan for his economic policy. "Since Tayyip has been in charge, things have been going much better in Turkey than they were 10 years ago," he says. He is convinced that the majority of Turks in Germany support Erdogan. "Most here tend to be conservative," he says. Oguz has dual citizenship and would never miss an election, whether German or Turkish. In Germany, Oguz votes for the Greens or the center-left Social Democrats.
Ilhami Oguz was born in Hanover, but he is careful to only speak Turkish with his four children. "It's important to me that they learn both languages properly," he says.
Oguz's wife wears a headscarf, just like both of his daughters. One of his daughters finally found an apprenticeship position this summer as a dental assistant -- still not an easy task in Germany for women who wear the headscarf. Even in Turkey, women in headscarves had problems for a long time. "It's nice that women who wear headscarves finally have more freedoms," says Oguz. "It's a sign that Turkey is becoming increasingly democratic."
His parents come from near the Turkish capital of Ankara. In the 1960s, they emigrated to Hanover, where his father worked as a streetcar driver. Now both have returned to Turkey and spend their vacations in Germany.
Oguz says he feels at home in Hanover. Whenever he spends a few weeks in Turkey, he says he starts getting homesick for Germany. He grew up and went to school here. He took Koran lessons at the Milli Görüs Mosque near the main train station and still goes there for Friday prayer.
Oguz has strong words for the Gezi protesters. "They don't understand what democracy means," he says. They go on the street and think that they can topple a politician who was elected by the people." Oguz thinks people should be able to criticize Erdogan, but within limits -- boundaries that were overstepped when Erdogan visited Cologne, he argues. "We were very disappointed with the way the German media reacted."
Not Welcome Here
He says he got the feeling that the prime minister wasn't welcome here. Erdogan's speech was clearly a campaign appearance, but not officially -- according to Turkish law, campaigning abroad isn't allowed. His candidacy was only promoted in Turkish newspapers and tearooms in Germany. "We don't want to bother the Germans," says Oguz. "We take care of it among ourselves. Nice and calm."
Two-hundred-fifty kilometers away, the attorney Ekrem Özdemir is sitting at his kitchen table in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin. Özdemir has never felt the need to search for his identity. He is Turkish. He grew up Hatay and studied law in Ankara before coming to Berlin in 1999 -- and staying. Now 44, he lives with his girlfriend in Kreuzberg and makes a living by representing Turks from Germany before Turkish courts. Most of his cases have to do with inheritance issues, divorce proceedings and cases of Turks in Germany being defrauded by shell companies in Turkey.
He leads the Berlin chapter of the Turkish opposition party CDP, Atatürk's party. Özdemir founded the Berlin office two years ago. He is certain that if Turks abroad hadn't been given the right to vote, Turkish lawmakers wouldn't now be visiting German cities -- nor would they be concerning themselves with people that they neglected for decades.
Özdemir doesn't understand why Turks in Germany who vote in the Turkish elections have been accused of refusing to integrate. "You can't sever emotional ties at the push of a button," he says.
He doesn't believe that turnout will ultimately be all that high among Turks in Germany, but he too is worried about the fate of secular Turkey. He doesn't like the fact that Erdogan used the word "Allah" 18 times in the first four minutes of the speech declaring his candidacy. "One might almost think that Allah has an AKP membership card in his pocket," says Özdemir, referring to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.
He sees AKP politicians as social engineers who are building a Sunni, homogeneous Turkey. And he doesn't like their Turkey, a place where anti-Semitism is normal, where Christians aren't mentioned and where atheists are discriminated against.
Packages of Hope
He is also bothered by the Office for Turks Abroad, which Erdogan established in 2010, even though Turkish consulates are charged with taking care of their needs. He says the offices function merely as "complaint boxes for Turks" and are really just part of the prime minister's power structures. Erdogan, he says, seeks to establish parallel systems everywhere in order to maintain control -- and to exert influence over faraway Turks.
Even still, Özdemir sees the right to vote outside of the country as the "way out of modern slavery." It allows people into the democratic process who never would have voted otherwise because they had decided not to apply for German citizenship.
"They were supposed to work and send the money back home," says Özdemir. And it worked. Özdemir believes foreign Turks are Turkey's greatest financial investment of the past 50 years. With their departure, unemployment in Turkey decreased. They brought West German deutsche marks from the coal mines and into their Turkish villages, drove Opels, built houses, generated tax revenue for Ankara and brought German radios to Anatolia.
At Ekrem Özdemir's kitchen table, he and his friends talk about why only seven polling stations were opened in Germany and why the allotted times were restricted to four hours. One of his friends, an election volunteer, wonders why no polling station in Hamburg was made available. Perhaps, they conjecture, Turks in Hamburg are too far left for the prime minister.
Ekrem Özdemir knows that Erdogan can't be stopped in this election. But still, after the Turkish Berliners will have cast their ballots, he will count their votes in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, pack the sealed envelopes into crates and send them to Turkey for appraisal. Packages of hope, from 2,000 km away, 50 years after their arrival.