On April 16, Turkish voters approved President Erdoğan’s proposed constitutional changes, transforming the country into a presidential republic. Turkish voters domestically were close to being evenly split on the issue, with only a narrow majority 51.4 per cent voting Yes.
Strong Yes vote among Turks abroad
Turks living abroad generally supported Erdoğan by a much larger margin, with 59.1 per cent of them casting a Yes ballot. In Germany, this number stood even higher, at 63.1 per cent.1
National differences are striking in this respect: while more than 70 per cent of Turks living in Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands approved the constitutional changes, the Yes camp received only 20 per cent or less in Great Britain, the United States, and the Czech Republic.2
Politicians’ reactions to the referendum
German media has expressed shock at the comparatively high number of Yes votes coming from German Turks. Some politicians have echoed this sentiment. A diverse number of CDU members has called for the abolition of dual citizenship provisions, as well as for the abandonment of plans that would allow foreigners to vote at county level.3
While remaining critical of the Yes voters, the co-chair of the Green Party, Cem Özdemir, nevertheless struck a different note. He interpreted the strong showing of the Yes camp as a sign of failed integration policies. In particular, he pointed to belated reforms to German citizenship law that had compelled many immigrants to remain foreigners in Germany.4
Critical voices from among German Turks
Özdemir’s argument was echoed by Can Dündar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper living in German exile. Dündar criticised the widespread expectation that German Turks should be immune to Erdoğan’s propaganda effort. Erdoğan’s success among German Turks was linked by Dündar to his ability to present himself as the defender of the interests of those Turks excluded from their host communities.5
Gökay Sofuoğlu, leader of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) organisation, which had openly campaigned for a No vote, also rejected any calls for the curtailment of political rights of Turks living in the country. Only greater possibilities for political participation in Germany could be a sensible reaction to the referendum outcome, he argued.6
Others, such as comedian Serdar Somuncu, asserted that German decision-makers had failed to stand up to Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies as long as it suited them not to do so (mainly as long as he prevented the arrival of further refugees to Europe). This, together with the inability and/or unwillingness to curb racially-charged polemics or even violence against Turkish immigrants, was seen by Somuncu as rendering somewhat hypocritical the belated demand that German Turks act in accordance with democratic norms now.7
Islamic associations’ muted response
German’s Muslim associations have generally stayed silent in response to the referendum result. DİTİB, the country’s largest association, has been embroiled in a succession of scandals linked to its pro-Erdoğan line, including spying activities of some of its Imams directed at suspected members of the Gülen movement. Conceivably, by not commenting on the referendum result, DİTİB wishes to keep a somewhat lower political profile and not attract renewed negative attention.
The equally Turkish-dominated Islamic Community Millî Görüş (IGMG), an organisation with roots in the same Islamist milieu as Erdoğan’s AK Party, also sought to project an outward image of neutrality, asserting that both Yes and No votes deserved respect.8
Only the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), which is ethnically more mixed and whose current chairman Aiman Mazyek has pursued an ambitious policy of rendering the ZMD politically visible and influential, struck an openly critical note, warning of the threats of dictatorship in Turkey.9
Need for self-criticism
At the same time, many Turkish German commentators also engaged in self-criticism. TGD chairmain Sofuoğlu asserted that the TGD and other immigrant organisations had made mistakes in the past: “We were too focused on the role of the victim. We have shown too much understanding to those who just stay out of everything [in Germany].”
More particularly, Sofuoğlu noted that only 20 per cent of Turks holding a German passport regularly cast a ballot in German federal or state elections, signalling a lack of interest in German politics.10
Unpacking the numbers
At the same time, Sofuoğlu’s comments also apply to some extent to German Turks’ participation in the Turkish referendum. Only half of Germany’s population with a Turkish background was allowed to vote in the referendum because they still hold Turkish nationality. Of these, only 46 per cent actually went to the polls. Consequently, the Yes vote did not represent 63 per cent of all German Turks but only 29 per cent.11
Others noted that the intimidation tactics used by the Turkish secret service even on German soil had had an impact in keeping opponents of the constitutional changes away from the ballot box. Many German Turks also reported of acquaintances suspected of being critical of Erdoğan having been arrested when they temporarily returned to Turkey to visit friends and family.12
Diverse reasons for support
Yet the reasons German Turks espouse for supporting Erdoğan are undoubtedly diverse. When interviewed during and after the referendum process, respondents often expressed admiration for Erdoğan’s ability to transform Turkey “from a developing country to the 17th-largest economy in the world”. Nationalist tropes of Turkish pride and greatness were often emphasised.
At the same time, many also presented much more nuanced arguments as to why they supported a presidential system under Erdoğan. And, to be sure, some of them patently felt out of touch with Germany in general and with its political scene in particular. These individuals would not shy away from denouncing those campaigning against the presidential system of being “traitors” and of “having become German”.13
Yet many Yes voters interviewed felt in no way to be on the margins of German life. They asserted that their home country was Germany and that ‘their’ president was “definitely” Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the new German head of state, rather than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Nevertheless, they deemed it their duty to strengthen the position of the only man they deemed able to prevent Turkey from sliding back into instability.14
A community divided
In the aftermath of the referendum, old and new disagreements within the German Turkish community have come to the fore again. The opponents of enlarged presidential powers accused their fellow German Turks for failing to even comprehend the latitude of the proposed constitutional changes, instead voting blindly in favour of their strongman Erdoğan.
Others could not get over what they saw as an enormous cognitive dissonance – the fact that the partisans of a Yes vote cast a democratic ballot in Germany in order to undermine democracy in Turkey.15
The most pervasive sentiment among opponents of the constitutional changes has been fear – fear of being targeted by communal violence or by the organs of Erdoğan’s state. The president’s supporters were, nevertheless, unfazed: they celebrated their Erdoğan’s win in Germany’s streets.16