Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it seemed, had run out of stories to tell. He had retold the legend of his rise from the very bottom of society to the political pinnacle, and of his energetic battle against his country's enemies, so often that his referendum campaign had long felt like a repeat of earlier elections.
Turkish voters are slated to cast ballots on April 16 on the introduction of a presidential system that would transfer virtually all power in the country to the president. But Erdogan has had a tough time persuading voters of the need for these reforms.
Now, though, it is the Europeans, of all people who are feeding Erdogan the arguments he needs. The moves in recent days by politicians in Germany and the Netherlands to prevent Turkish politicians from making campaign appearances in those countries have once again lent relevance to Erdogan's campaign. The dispute with Europe allows Erdogan to play his favorite role: that of a fearless outsider taking on the world's powerful.
Merkel Deflects Criticism
In Germany, a number of cities in recent days banned events that had been planned with members of Erdogan's government. Various pretexts were cited, from concerns about fire safety to an alleged lack of parking spaces. In response, Erdogan accused the German government of "Nazi practices." German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded with cool reserve, deflecting the criticism in a way that made it appear the issue had been laid to rest.
But now the conflict has escalated again. On Saturday, the Netherlands revoked landing rights for Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu's plane and then blocked Family Minister Beytül Kaya from entering the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam that night before forcing her to drive back to Germany, from whence she had come.
The Turkish government reacted with outrage. Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, lamented a "dark day for democracy in Europe" in a tweet. "Shame on the Dutch government for succumbing to anti-Islam racists and fascists," he added in another. Turkish Finance Minister Naci Agbal said Europe was in the process of reestablishing National Socialism.
Erdogan Exploits the Dispute
In the Netherlands and in several Turkish cities, demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the event ban. In Istanbul, a man scaled the Netherlands Consulate and replaced the Dutch flag with the Turkish one. The government-aligned Yeni Akit newspaper even hinted at civil war, writing: "The Netherlands has 48,000 soldiers. There are 400,000 Turks living in the Netherlands."
President Erdogan appears determined to exploit the commotion in the final month before the referendum. Family Minister Kaya appeared before the press in the Istanbul airport following her return flight on Sunday morning. Standing together with Erdogan's step son, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who had received her, she accused the Dutch authorities of "ugly" and "inhumane" treatment. Erdogan himself said to the Dutch: "You will pay a price. We will teach them international diplomacy."
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim also threatened on Sunday morning to retaliate in the "harshest ways." Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said an "apology was not enough" and that there "will be repercussions" for the Dutch actions. The Turkish government has no interest in resolving the conflict because it knows that it stands to profit from it.
Tuna Beklevic, the head of the "No" Party, a group opposing the proposed constitutional reforms, has described the events as the "perfect storm." The dispute with Europe, he said, was precisely the kind of thing Erdogan had hoped for. Beklevic fears the scandal will mobilize nationalist voters. "It could provide Erdogan with exactly the 2 to 3 percentage points that will ultimately decide the referendum."