Erdoğan’s electoral victory aggravates tensions and recriminations in Germany

The Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections have, on balance, handed President Erdoğan the victory he had hoped for – a victory that had looked in jeopardy in the run-up to election day. Most importantly, the Turkish leader managed to retain the Presidency, winning an absolute majority of 52.6 per cent in the first round.1

Importance of diaspora support

In past years, the Turkish leadership has increasingly courted the significant number of Turkish citizens living abroad in Europe. In countries such as Germany, Austria, France, and the Netherlands, this tactic has been rewarded with handsome electoral support for President Erdoğan and his AK Party at crucial moments – such as last year’s controversial constitutional referendum.

It has not been different this time around. Although the final results are yet to be released for some countries, preliminary figures suggest strong backing for the incumbent among the Turkish diaspora in Europe: at the presidential polls, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan obtained 64% in France, 72% in Austria, 73% in the Netherlands, and 75% support in Belgium. Conversely, Turkish voters from the UK only gave 21% of their votes to the Turkish leader; in Sweden, he received 44%.

Results in Germany

Germany, home to the world’s largest Turkish diaspora, is of particular significance in the Turkish President’s electoral gamble – especially given the political fall-out between the German and Turkish governments, as well as the rise of an increasingly toxic debate on ‘integration’ raging in Germany.

In Germany, too, President Erdoğan scored highly at the ballot box, obtaining roughly 65 per cent of the votes cast. This roughly mirrors the results from the constitutional referendum of 2017, when the presidential system desired by Erdoğan was backed by 63 out of every 100 voters.

German outrage

And just as in the aftermath of the referendum, political reactions to the results have been fierce. Former Green Party chairman Cem Özdemir, himself of Turkish extraction and a polarising figure among Germans of Turkish descent, asserted that the supporters of President Erdoğan celebrating his victory were “expressing their rejection of our liberal democracy.”

This stance was echoed by many voices from across the political spectrum. Yet far from engaging in anything resembling dispassionate analysis, the debate was marked by a sense of self-righteous outrage: The election results – like the recent ‘Erdoğangate’ photo-op scandal involving two football players – once again demonstrated that German Turks were simply unworthy of Germany’s democratic freedoms.

Serap Güler, the CDU’s State Secretary for Integration in the Land of North-Rhine Westphalia – herself no stranger to controversy, as demonstrated by her demand to ban young girls from wearing the hijab – criticised this tone of the debate in a Facebook post.

After 6 million Germans supported the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic AfD party in last year’s federal elections, all major political parties embarked on a quest to win back these votes, catering to the far right in the process, she observed. “Now, 65% (roughly 500.000) of Turks in Germany vote Erdoğan, and everyone is like: ‘Go back to Turkey!’ We can hardly make it more obvious that we have never seen these people as belonging to us. And now we are surprised that they vote Erdoğan?”

“What is wrong with German Turks?”

Major German newspapers echoed these sentiments of outrage at the election results, questioning the belonging of German Turks. Headlines exclaiming “65 per cent for Erdoğan: What is wrong with German Turks?”2 or “More votes than in Turkey: Integration debate after Erdoğan’s runaway victory in Germany”3 were the norm.

The Tagesschau, the country’s leading evening news broadcast, announced the election results in a more matter-of-fact tone. Yet their journalists, too, chose the headline: “German Turkish voters: Two thirds for Erdoğan”.4

Media bias

The Tagesschau’s own fact-checking service subsequently criticised this representation of the electoral outcome.5 For it is worth unpacking the numbers. In fact, only half of the three-million-strong population routinely subsumed under the label ‘German Turks’ or ‘Turkish Germans’ hold Turkish citizenship and are thus eligible to vote.

Of these, about 50 per cent (or 750.000 men and women) actually went to the polls. This leaves us with 500.000 ballots cast in support of President Erdoğan – encompassing roughly 17 per cent of all so-called ‘German Turks’ rather than the oft-mentioned two thirds.

Some expressed frustration with what they perceived as the biased representation of the vote’s results. According to comedian Abdelkarim, claiming that two thirds of Germans Turk had voted for Erdoğan was as absurd mathematically as asserting that Morocco’s football team still stood a chance of becoming world champions. (After two losses at the World Cup, it was already impossible for the team by June 25 to advance to the next round.)

Heterogeneity of ‘German Turks’

To be sure, this does not imply that the Turkish leader enjoys support only among those groups who actually took to the ballot box and voted for him.

There are indications, however, that there are significant cleavages among German residents of Turkish extraction with respect to their views on Turkish politics. Citizenship may be a good proxy to highlight some of these cleavages, as demonstrated by a March 2018 survey conducted by academics from the universities of Cologne and Duisburg-Essen among ethnic Turks holding a German passport.

Survey respondents in fact expressed a strongly negative opinion of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: on a scale ranging from minus five to plus five, the Turkish President attained a score of minus 2.5. Conversely, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was viewed more positively with a score of plus 1.6.6

While no direct conclusions can be inferred about how respondents would have behaved at the ballot box for a Turkish election, it seems unlikely that 65 per cent of them would have supported President Erdoğan. In the racialised representation of ‘German Turks’ as a monolithic group, there is, however, little scope for such nuance.

Roots of disaffection

Ultimately, the fact that many men and women of Turkish descent support President Erdoğan should not come as such a surprise. In a book recently reviewed on Euro-Islam, journalist Can Merey chronicles his father Tosun’s gradual transformation into a supporter of the Turkish leader as Tosun’s tenacious attempt to ‘become German’ foundered on the hurdles and mechanisms of exclusion German society placed in his way.

Striking a note similar to Can Merey, journalist Eren Güvercin summed up the German reactions to the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections of June 24: “Again most media/ politicians are dealing with symptoms instead of thinking about the reasons why German Turks vote that way. The eternal repetition of the usual slogans and demands will achieve the exact opposite.”

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