Turkish shadow looms over German election as leaders’ relationship darkens

Erdogan urges voters to boycott Merkel’s party as ‘enemy of Turkey’

 

Ahead of next Sunday’s federal election, voters in western Germany have been surprised by a familiar face smiling down from election posters: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey’s 63-year-old president is endorsing the little-known Alliance of German Democrats, although it is as likely to secure a parliamentary seat on Sunday as the country’s hip-hop party. Either way, Mr Erdogan has made sure to cast a shadow of uncertainty over next weekend’s poll amid a rapid unravelling of relations between Ankara and Berlin.

Trapped in the middle: the world’s largest expatriate Turkish community, including the million German voters with Turkish forebears. Traditionally more than two-thirds of them backed the centre-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, followed by the Greens and Left Party. But last month Mr Erdogan urged “my people” in Germany to boycott the SPD, the Greens and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, as “enemies of Turkey”.

Ottoman genocide

It was the latest act in a drama that began in earnest when last year, under huge protest from Ankara, the Bundestag passed a resolution condemning the mass murder of Armenians a century ago as genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.

Tensions increased after what Mr Erdogan perceived as Berlin’s delayed condemnation of last year’s failed putsch. That chilly atmosphere turned icy when Germany warned that a vote handing the president more powers would undermine the rule of law in Turkey.

Hitting back, Turkey sparked Berlin’s fury with the detention, on terrorism charges, of 54 Germans and German-Turks, including journalists, aid workers and holidaymakers.

After Germany issued a travel warning for Turkey, Ankara responded last week by warning its citizens that they could be attacked at election allies or treated “disrespectfully” by border guards.

Two weeks ago the SPD challenger Martin Schulz promised, if elected, to pull the plug on EU-Turkey accession, forcing Chancellor Merkel to react. At the weekend she said the ongoing detention of German citizens in Turkey was outrageous, meaning Germany would “roll back further our economic co-operation with Turkey”. But she warned against breaking off diplomatic relations with Ankara, “otherwise we will achieve nothing”.

Intimidation and insecurity

On the campaign trail, parliamentary hopefuls with Turkish roots tell similar tales of intimidation and insecurity among voters. Everyone here has heard reports of German-based imams working with Turkish intelligence officers to collate lists of suspected supporters of the preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara views as a terrorist.

With informer rumours doing the rounds, a pre-election information event for Berlin’s Turkish community last week was half-empty.

The SPD politician Cansel Kiziltepe, born in Berlin to a Turkish family, said she has been attacked at her campaign stand as a “traitor” by Erdogan supporters. “At podium discussions I can see in people’s faces that they are pulling back, asking no questions that might indicate how they’re thinking,” she said.

German election: Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a poster for the Alliance of German Democrats. Photograph: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty
German election: Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a poster for the Alliance of German Democrats. Photograph: Henning Kaiser/AFP/Getty

A Green Party candidate in Berlin’s traditionally Turkish neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, Canan Bayram, said it has been a battle to reach German-Turkish voters this time around. “There is a concern that there are a lot of spies out and about,” said the 51 year-old politician. “People are afraid for their families in Turkey or their property there.”

Alliance of German Democrats

Just as the German-Turkish community is divided – between Erdogan loyalists, loathers and undecideds – opinion is divided about just what effect, if any, the ongoing uncertainty or the new pro-Erdogan political party will have.

The Alliance of German Democrats was formed last year by Erdogan loyalists with close ties to Turkey’s ruling AKP. In the recent vote in North Rhine-Westphalia, despite the Erdogan posters and his personal endorsement – “Friends of Turkey, stand with them! Give them your vote” – the party scored just 0.1 per cent of the vote.

It will run on Sunday only in North Rhine-Westphalia, and Turkish organisations say most of their members are unaware it exists. They hope their members will ignore Mr Erdogan’s boycott demand and vote as usual.

Gökay Sofuoglu, head of the largest Turkish organisation, TGD, said: “The SPD cannot reckon with 70 per cent of the vote as before, but it will still be strongest among those of Turkish origin.”

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