Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has likened the current German government to the Nazis because some German cities and states have hindered his party’s plans to campaign there ahead of Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum. The offensive hyperbole is needless overreaction, but it’s testament to the increasingly important role that expat voters play in today’s globalised world.
It’s no surprise why Erdogan is fighting for them tooth and nail. There are 2.5 million Turks resident in Germany, a sizeable constituency. In the 2014 presidential election, Erdogan won 52 per cent of the vote overall but 63 per cent of the half-million votes cast from abroad, and 67 per cent in Europe, including Germany. Turkey has 55.3 million people inside the country who are eligible to vote in the referendum and only 3 million living abroad, but since Erdogan is not certain of the outcome of the referendum and a defeat could put an end to his power consolidation, the Turkish strongman needs the German-Turkish votes, and he intends to get them either through campaigning by his close associates or through fiery rhetoric such as his Nazi accusation — which could resonate with those Turks who feel Germany is not accepting enough of their religion and ethnicity.
Disrupting Erdogan’s plans, three German towns have recently withdrawn permission to hold Turkish referendum rallies. Frechen, near Cologne, and Cologne-Porz cited contractual reasons to cancel meetings with Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci, and the south-western town of Gaggenau disallowed an event headlined by Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag because it said the venue couldn’t hold the expected crowd. That got both ministers, and Erdogan, so angry that the Turkish leader hurled the worst possible insult at the German authorities. Erdogan threatened to come to Germany personally to campaign and to “make the whole world rise up” if he’s not allowed to do it.
This is dangerous for German-Turkish relations, already at a low point since the recent arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel in Turkey for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda. German politicians reacted angrily to the insults, and some called for a total ban on Turkish campaign events — something Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has resisted on freedom of speech grounds. Zeybekci was allowed to campaign in Cologne on Sunday, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is expected to do so in Hamburg on Tuesday. Merkel is right not to fight this. Once upon a time, countries allowed only diplomats, military personnel and other people on government missions to vote from overseas, on the theory that emigres weren’t good citizens, potentially developing conflicting loyalties. But in today’s world, moving to another country is less of a permanent life-altering decision than it used to be. According to the United Nations, 244 million people live outside their birth countries — 41 per cent more than in 2000. Many of them are dual citizens or only citizens of their home countries living overseas on long-term visas.
Until Erdogan’s AK party came to power in 2002, Turkish citizens living abroad were largely disenfranchised, and though they lobbied the government to organise overseas voting, Ankara largely didn’t care. The nationalist AK, however felt it was important to tell Turkish citizens that the state would protect them wherever they were, especially for the diaspora in Turkey. Zeynep Sahin-Mencutek and M. Murat Erdogan (no relation to the president) wrote in a 2015 paper on Turkish diaspora voting: “Increasing attention to emigrants is closely related to the historical power asymmetry particularly between Germany and Turkey. Germany used to determine how far Turkey could be involved in issues related to Turkish citizens abroad, such as issues of dual citizenship. However, during the AKP period, Turkey found an opportunity to challenge this inequality and redefine bilateral relations thanks to its economic development and political reforms.”
Establishing an unassailable regime
Erdogan’s goal is the establishment of an unassailable authoritarian regime, but more democratic leaders will want to do something similar when it comes to their expat voters. Expats and dual citizens can swing major elections. Arguably, the UK referendum on European Union membership, which the ‘Leave’ side won by 1.3 million votes, could have had a different result had the UK government given more consideration to organising voting among the almost five million Brits living overseas. After the 2015 general election, the UK government had promised to work toward allowing citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years to vote, but by the time of the 2016 vote, the 15-year restriction is still in place (though the government has since reaffirmed its intention to make all expats eligible to vote). Many of the eligible voters failed to receive their ballots in time for the referendum. Polls among the UK expat community indicated that it was more pro-European than the country as a whole, and an effort to mobilise them could have saved David Cameron from an inglorious defeat
Emmanuel Macron, the leading centrist candidate in the French presidential election, has not made the same mistake. He campaigned recently in London, with its estimated 300,000-strong French community, and raised funds in Brussels, Berlin and the US. Generally, expats — especially educated ones — are a strong resource for centrist parties. Italians living abroad, for example, backed former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in last year’s political reform referendum, which he lost.
In the US, the electoral college makes it difficult for the roughly 2.6 million eligible American expats to swing a presidential election, but they can play a role in states such as Florida in a very close race. The US parties, however, aren’t making much of a play for them — and that’s probably a mistake. Despite the current backlash against migration, expat populations will only keep growing.
An increasing number of countries is organising votes abroad for their expats and even granting them the right to be elected. Tunisia has parliament seats reserved for representatives of its diaspora. As for countries of immigration, they will have to get used to hosting campaign stops for foreign politicians, even those considered unsavory or undesirable.
Erdogan’s campaign may make the German government nervous, and his emotional accusations are over the top, but the restraint Merkel’s government is showing in not banning his supporters’ rallies is a good example to others.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.