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Turkish campaign trail leads to Germany

Nina Niebergall
February 17, 2017

Turkey’s prime minister is campaigning in Germany for controversial constitutional reforms. Thousands are expected to attend the event. Why are Turkish politicians so popular here?

Türkei verlängert Ausnahmezustand - Yildirim
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Altan

A sea of red flags with a white crescent moon and a politician who inspires cheering crowds: Such events are familiar to many in Germany. Because in recent years, high-ranking Turkish politicians have taken to addressing Turkish citizens living in Germany. This time, it's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (above). He will be appearing at an event in Oberhausen to campaign on behalf of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan' planned constitutional reforms that are to be decided in a referendum on April 16. Turkish citizens living in Germany are also allowed to vote.

That puts German politicians in a difficult spot. The Turkish prime minister will be speaking on German soil about reforms that all parties in the German parliament have roundly rejected. Not surprisingly, criticism from Berlin has been vehement. Cem Özdemir of the Green Party says Yildirim is "campaigning for a state at Erdogan's mercy." Left Party politician Sevim Dagdelen says Yildirim should be denied entry in order to prevent this "ad campaign for a Turkish dictatorship."

The problem: Yildirim is appearing at a private event. And under German democracy, where freedom of speech and right of assembly are protected, there are no legal means that can be taken to stop him.

Türkei Präsident Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoganImage: Reuters/B. McDermid

"That would be counterproductive," said Özcan Mutlu of the Greens. "If Yildirim is prevented from appearing, he will be celebrated in Ankara as a victim, and they'll say that Germany isn't a real democracy." That would only serve to strengthen Erdogan and his AKP party, Mutlu said.

Thousands of people will likely turn out for Saturday's event and listen to the prime minister give a speech that practically calls for his own office to be abolished. The planned constitutional reform would put all the power in the hands of one man: Erdogan. Yildirim is widely considered to be his vassal. He vigorously defended Erdogan's vision of a presidential Turkey on state television, and accused all opponents of being part of the Gülen movement, or being members of the Kurdish Worker's Party, the PKK, and thus supporters of terrorists. Critics agreed, it was a clear attempt at intimidation.

Reflecting Turkey's conflicts

The Turkish media has a large influence on the Turkish community in Germany, meaning that AKP members will have heard about Yildirim's remarks. What does this mean for his speech on Saturday? German government spokesman Steffen Seibert explains: "We are of course assuming that all the participants at this event in Oberhausen will ensure that Turkey's domestic conflicts are not played out here in any form."

USA Fethullah Gülen bei einer Pressekonferenz
Fethullah Gülen speaks to the media at his home in exile in PennsylvaniaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Smith

This warning was not issued without cause: After the failed military coup in Turkey, the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) said it was "confident that everyone involved in this illegal revolt would receive their just punishment at the hands of the Turkish justice system and the Turkish people." In the wake of that statement, several people of Turkish origin attacked German institutions that are close to the movement of exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan had said Gülen was to blame for the coup attempt.

Guests, not residents

And that once again prompted debate about Germany's status regarding immigration. For a long time, German politicians failed to recognize that foreigners who came to Germany might actually put down roots here. They were simply "guest workers" who would eventually return home. And those who aren't going to stay permanently don't need to integrate. That's what Erdogan is now benefiting from. He's using decades of experience of being outsiders in Germany to gain support among Turkish Germans. During an event in Karlsruhe in 2015, he greeted his audience, saying: "You are not guest workers to us - you are our strength abroad."

Political scientist Burak Copur explains the phenomenon, observing that many people are in search of a savior who can offer them support, stability, and the feeling that they have a home. "That's something German politicians have been unable to offer these people."