German-Turkish tensions high ahead of elections

By Dr Heather Merle Benbow
Convenor of German and European Studies, University of Melbourne

Germany’s special relationship with Turkey - NATO allies, partners in a key refugee deal and major trade partners - is routinely referred to as being in crisis.

That crisis has spilled over into the upcoming German election on September 24.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently called on German citizens with Turkish heritage – of which 1.2 million have the right to vote - to boycott three major parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their coalition partner the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). These two, together with the Greens, were condemned by Erdoğan as “enemies of Turkey” - parties that had “been engaged in aggressive, disrespectful attitudes against Turkey”.

Image: President Erdogan and Martin Schulz in 2015 when Schulz was President of the European Parliament. Schulz is currently the leader of the SPD. Credit: Martin Schulz/Flickr

President Erdoğan’s statements have been regarded by the German government as interference in its sovereignty; and have caused further international and domestic tensions as the European Union deals with international volatility from numerous quarters, such as the influx of refugees from Syria, Brexit, and the policies of US President Donald Trump.

Turkish-German Relations at a Low Point

President Erdoğan’s statement was the culmination of a series of confrontations with the German government since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016.

Relations have soured rapidly over numerous issues including Turkey’s refusal to allow German parliamentarians access to Turkish NATO bases, the “blacklisting” of 680 German companies it accuses of having links to terrorism, and the arrest and detention of dissidents and human rights activists including the German citizen Peter Steudtner and the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel. The German government says there are currently 10 German citizens in Turkish detention for political reasons.

Dr Merkel’s CDU has long opposed Turkey’s accession to the EU and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently declared that Turkey was moving quickly away from “everything Europe stands for” and would “never” become a member of the EU under President Erdoğan.

For its part, Turkey has accused Germany of “systematic hindrance” of campaigning in Germany by President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party before the Turkish referendum; and has demanded the extradition from Germany of theology academic Adil Oksuz, who is suspected of playing a leadership role in the attempted coup.

Turkey has doubtless been emboldened since a deal was made with Germany that helped slow the influx of refugees reaching the EU from the Middle East and Africa. Dr Merkel has been accused of overlooking the behaviour of the Turkish government for the sake of a deal that, as Tamara Tubakovic has pointed out, has been crucial to her neutralisation of refugees as an election issue.

Erdoğan’s Appeal to the Turkish-German Diaspora

President Erdoğan views the large Turkish-German diaspora – they make up Germany’s largest ethnic minority - as an electoral asset, and they have supported him strongly. Of those who voted in the 2015 Turkish elections, 60% voted for his party, the AKP; and 63.1% voted to give him unprecedented presidential powers in the April referendum.

President Erdoğan’s government continues to exercise influence in the political affairs of Turkish Germans. More than 900 imams sent by the Turkish religious office Ditib preach in German mosques, something that has caused concern on both the right and the left of German politics.

The co-chair of the German Green Party Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish heritage, has called Ditib an “extension of the Turkish state” and has argued “Erdogan wants to establish Turkey here in Germany.”

Turkish Germans and German Electoral Politics

There have been long-standing concerns in Germany about Turkish Germans forming a so-called “parallel society” with little connection to Germany and its democratic institutions. This is apparent in the media consumption patterns of Turkish Germans, many of whom consume almost entirely Turkish media.

Germany has been slow to grant citizenship rights to its Turkish community, even to recognise its status as a permanent feature of the German population. While Germany and Turkey signed the treaty for work migration in 1961, German governments nurtured the illusion for decades that Germany was not a country of migration. There is to this day a strong scepticism towards multiculturalism and a focus instead on “integration”, with an emphasis on the German language and a German Leitkultur, or leading culture. Turkish Germans, who are now present in all areas of German culture and society, are still commonly perceived as a social problem for Germany.

Like President Erdoğan and his AKP, Turkish Germans are, broadly speaking, socially conservative, having largely migrated from more traditional, rural areas of Turkey under the work migration program. But because they mostly have a working class background they sympathise overwhelmingly with the German Social Democratic Party (69.8% according to a 2016 study) or with the Greens (13.4%). This trend is also reflected in the representatives of the parties in the German Bundestag. Of the currently 11 Bundestag representatives with Turkish heritage, five are SPD members, three are Greens and two are in the Left Party. Only one is a member of the largest party, Dr Merkel’s CDU.

If Turkish-German voters heed President Erdoğan’s call to boycott the two largest parties and the Greens, it is the left and centre-left that stand to lose the most.

Voting participation rates among Turkish Germans – already lower than the general population – may also fall; and that can’t be good for the integration of an already marginalised segment of German society.

Banner image: Turkey President Erdoğan. Credit: AMISOM/Flickr


foreign-policy; immigration; national-security; election; policy Foreign Policy; Immigration; National Security; Election; Policy de-cdu; de-sdp; de-greens Christian Democratic Union (CDU); Social Democratic Party (SPD); Alliance ‘90/The Greens

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