Erdogan woos nationalists by picking fights around Europe

Turkish president’s rhetoric is aimed at winning support for power-boosting referendum

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: A loss in April’s referendum would hurt him more than any previous election failure or shortcoming. Photograph: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Service  via AP)

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: A loss in April’s referendum would hurt him more than any previous election failure or shortcoming. Photograph: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Press Service via AP)

 

The diplomatic spat Turkey has fuelled with the Netherlands and Germany has set off a wave of anger in the country, which may drive support to the Yes side for the referendum on constitutional changes on April 16th.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has kept up the outrageous rhetoric, repeating charges that the Dutch government contains “Nazi remnants”, holding it responsible for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre and calling out German chancellor Angela Merkel for “mercilessly supporting terrorism”.

Erdogan’s tactics are clear. In search of an enemy, any enemy, he and his fellow Turkish political leaders are going after Europe on the eve of a referendum which they hope will greatly consolidate power in his hands.

Turkey has picked fights specifically with European countries where immigration has become a lightning rod for debate. In the spat with the Dutch, Turkey tried to use last Wednesday’s general election there as a means to show it could influence the internal politics of another European country.

Erdogan raised the stakes with the Netherlands when foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu made the decision to travel there last Saturday even as he knew his aircraft would be denied permission to land. Several days previously, Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, had said that the government’s Yes campaign for Turkish nationals in the Netherlands would not begin until after the March 14th general election.

The denial of entry to leading Turkish diplomats, combined with Erdogan’s vitriolic speeches, has stoked nationalist sentiment. Last Sunday, in a nod to the Netherlands stand-off, AK Party supporters stabbed oranges with bread knifes at a rally in Kocaeli.

High stakes

A loss for Erdogan would hurt him more than any previous election failure or shortcoming – rare as they have been over the past 15 years – since the referendum has been presented as a vote on his personal popularity and legacy as much as on the de facto political control of Turkey, which he already commands.

The AK Party’s nationalist turn is part of a new strategy to attract voters that previously would run away from its conservative, Islamist worldview. The party’s identity was forged in its ability to act as a voice for Turks who for decades saw political Islam repressed.

Though it goes against the tenets of what makes the AK Party a political powerhouse, appealing to nationalists has roots in the shock loss of its parliamentary majority following the June 2015 general election, when the Kurdish-focused HDP entered parliament for the first time.

Because the modern Turkish identity has, in part, been defined through a suspicion of outsiders, including its restless and oppressed Kurdish minority, the nationalist vote is important. In recent election cycles, the AK Party has out-thought and out-fought the traditional political vanguard of secular nationalism, the Republican People’s Party or CHP.

It has also co-opted unlikely support for its Yes campaign from the smaller, right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, which last Friday took the step of expelling four leading members that announced they would vote No.

Turks abroad

European Union

With Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Denmark all barring Turkish politicians from conducting meetings and rallies in those countries, many expat Turks may view such moves as a slight on their national identity and be further motivated to vote for Erdogan’s proposed constitutional changes.

For many Turks in Europe, the raucous political rallies Erdogan and his allies have brought to towns and cities throughout Turkey can only be experienced through the television screen. Now the opportunity to see and meet their leaders face to face on their trips around Europe has been taken away from them.

Whether the Turkish government’s bluster in Europe and its turn to nationalism can translate to a bump in support at home ahead of the April 16th referendum remains to been seen.

But it shows the depths to which Ankara is willing to stoop, and the enemies it is willing to make, in its efforts to preserve and advance Erdogan’s legacy.

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