German Turkish community nervous before referendum

‘No’ voters afraid to express views on Erdogan as 1.4m voters in Germany eligible to vote

A woman casts her vote in the Turkish consulate general Cologne for the Turkish constitutional referendum. Photograph: Sascha Steinbach

Tossing a flat, cheese-filled Gözleme bread onto the hot griddle, Aisha says she's fed up with Sunday's referendum in Turkey.

Serving snacks at all hours in her tidy Berlin diner, she's used to hearing her tea-sipping patrons argue the pros and cons of Turkish affairs. In the run-up to a vote on greater powers for Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, things have been very different.

"The 'Yes' people are loud, the 'No' voters quiet," says the 52-year-old businesswoman, who came to Germany as a child. "Communities and families are divided, 'No' people in particular are afraid of expressing their opinion and not sure where their words will end up."

If it's an "avet" – Yes – on Sunday, Erdogan will gain new powers to draft budgets, hire and fire ministers, influence judicial appointments and dissolve parliament. Supporters say it will provide badly-needed stability; critics fear a "Yes" vote will seal Turkey's slide into autocracy and away from Europe.


Some 5.5 million Turkish citizens live outside the country, according to the Ankara government, and about three million people with Turkish roots live in Germany. Of them, some 1.4 million were eligible to vote at one of 13 polling stations around Germany during two weeks' voting.

Tight vote

After a turnout of almost 49 per cent, the sealed boxes were flown to Ankara on Monday and will be opened with the domestic ballots. “If it’s a tight vote on Sunday, just one or two points’ difference, the ballots of expat Turks could be decisive,” said Atila Karabörklü, deputy head of Germany’s Turkish Community (TGD), which advocated a “No” vote.

While no reliable polls exist of which way the Turkish expat vote in Germany will swing, anecdotal evidence – and previous election results – indicate higher support for Erdogan in Germany than in Turkey.

“I’m for Turkey, for Erdogan, what else is there to say?” said Özcan, a 30-year-old man in a red T-shirt with the white Turkish star and crescent moon.

Outside a polling station in western Berlin, he says: “I hope things turn out well for Erdogan so that things can continue as well as they’ve been going in Turkey.” Erdogan’s supporters in Germany are optimistic about what they hear – and see on visits to Turkey – about improved childcare, healthcare and schools under the president.

Many expats have responded positively, too, to his ruling AKP’s active courtship and messages of inclusion towards them, a contrast to the exclusion many Turks still feel half a century after the first so-called “guest workers” arrived in Germany.


Even if the “hayir” – No – voters prevail on Sunday, many Erdogan-critical Turkish-Germans say last year’s failed coup, and subsequent mass arrests of AKP political opponents, journalists and public servants, has left many “No” voters afraid of outing themselves in Germany for fear of being denounced as unpatriotic.

“We’re all unsure what the future holds – for us here but also for Turkey – and we’re more divided than ever before,” said a mother with two young girls, who declined to give her name but made clear she was with the “No” side.

That sense of mutual suspicion among Germany’s diverse Turkish community was catalysed in recent weeks by Erdogan’s efforts to start a diplomatic war of words, accusing Germany of “Nazi methods” over cancelled political rallies with Turkish ministers.

With Turks in Germany torn, chancellor Angela Merkel declined to rise to the debate, saying comparisons with the Nazi era "disqualified themselves"; she also condemned the detention in Turkey of the Turkish-German Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel, who was jailed in February on charges of propaganda in support of a terrorist organisation and inciting the public to violence.

Shortly afterwards, German investigators published details of what they said was widespread spying – by Turkish intelligence and imams – on suspected supporters of the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara has accused of instigating the attempted coup of last July.

German officials say they have seen no convincing evidence of Gülen coup involvement, and plenty of evidence of “paranoid” surveillance of some 500 Turkish organisations and individuals, including German MPs critical of Turkey.

Back in her Berlin diner, her eyes drifting up to the Turkish television news, Aisha says she will be very sad if Erdogan gets his way on Sunday. Brushing butter onto her Gözleme breads, she adds: “But I still hope for a whispered ‘No’.”