COMMENTARY — Europe braces itself for Erdoğan’s new push for the Turkish diaspora

By Abdullah Bozkurt

Ahead of both president and parliamentary elections on June 24, 2018, Turkey’s Islamist rulers led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their neo-nationalist partners have geared up to mobilize diaspora communities especially in Europe where pro-Erdoğan groups, financed by off-the-book contributions from secret slush funds and other schemes, are ordered to campaign to secure the votes of Turkish expatriates.

Erdoğan is intent on pulling out all the stops to push the envelope in raising tension with European allies during this election period in order to milk each and every vote by campaigning on religious fervor and nationalist euphoria. We’d likely see a fresh escalation of conflict, perhaps on a bigger scale than in the past, between Turkey and other countries where sizable Turkish communities exist. Instead of making compromises by working out deals that would be acceptable to both sides, the Turkish Islamists deliberately triggered tensions in the past with the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Germany. This time, they seem intent on taking it to a new level with a harsher diatribe and firebrand rhetoric.

Judging from remarks Erdoğan made during a prime-time interview on Turkish TV on April 21, the Turkish president is looking for new ways to provoke Europe, interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and mobilize his supporters in the diaspora. Stating that his plans for a campaign abroad are finalized, Erdoğan said, “God willing, I will address my fellow Turkish citizens in a sports hall that has a capacity of 10-11,000 people in a country whose name I will not disclose at the moment, while attending the meeting of an international organization there. And most likely, we’ll convene all [supporters in] Europe there, and we’ll deliver our speech with God’s permission.”

Asked about the position of several European countries that announced their opposition to Turkish political campaigns in their territories, the Turkish president responded by saying that his government efforts for a campaign would not easily be hindered. “They may cut off the ways at one point, but you make use of other ways,” he stressed, suggesting that methods to bypass restrictions would be employed by Turkey. This is the troubling mindset of the Turkish leadership that Europe is facing, and it would be an uphill battle to fend it off with so many Turks living in these countries. Erdoğan’s tactics were actually displayed in the Netherlands, where President Erdoğan personally ordered Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, the minister for family and social policy, to go after the Dutch government on March 11, 2017 revoked the landing rights of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, effectively barring his visit to the Netherlands.

The diaspora in the Netherlands as well as in neighboring countries was clandestinely mobilized by Erdoğan’s cronies to create a fait accompli for the Dutch government, which was forced to take extraordinary measures to contain the situation, when the far-right political movement was challenging mainstream parties. Thousands of Erdoğan fans clashed with Dutch police in Rotterdam, where 12 suspects were detained and at least seven were wounded. Adding insult to injury, two Turkish brothers who defied the police instructions and took part in a brawl were brought to Turkey by the Turkish government for a hero’s welcome. On April 5, 2017 Erdoğan personally hosted one the brothers in his palace in Ankara to honor him.

In last night’s TV interview, Erdoğan also lashed out at Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who said on April 20 that “[Erdoğan’s] Turkish leadership has been trying to exploit Europe’s communities of Turkish origin for many years,” adding, “Turkish election campaign appearances in Austria are unwanted, and we will therefore no longer allow them.” The furious Turkish president vowed that Austria would pay a price for this position, signaling further steps to block Austrian initiatives on international platforms. Turkey has already blocked Austria-NATO partnership in the alliance where a consensus is needed to move forward. This shows how far Erdoğan is willing to go in exploiting the domestic politics of Turkey to poison the country’s ties with allies and partners. In fact, in the same interview Erdoğan blatantly described strategic partners, the US and other NATO allies, as a “priority threat” to Turkey.

The most vulnerable countries for Erdoğan’s long arm in mobilization of the diaspora are Germany (1.4 million eligible voters), France (326,375), the Netherlands (252,841), Belgium (137,675) Austria (108,561), Switzerland (95,263) and Sweden (37,857). According to an April 2017 referendum that gave Erdoğan huge powers without checks and balances, his overall support among diaspora voters was 59,46 percent, which is substantial. In Germany, he received 63.07 percent of votes cast in the referendum. His support was 73.24 percent in Austria, 74.99 in Belgium, 64.85 in France, 70.94 in the Netherlands, 47.14 in Sweden and 38.08 in Switzerland.

The numbers clearly show Erdoğan is hugely popular among expatriate Turks in Europe, where the religious and nationalist policies of his government have made significant inroads into the diaspora, with huge resources available to the Turkish government. The disarray among opposition groups and the lack of a formidable challenger to his government, partially attributed to the decimation or co-opting of most opposition parties under Erdoğan’s 15 years of rule, have played a role in this picture as well. Let’s not forget that non-Turkish Muslim diaspora groups from the Middle East, Africa and Central and Southeast Asian countries were also lobbied by the Erdoğan regime. Rallies and town hall meetings organized by Erdoğan and his associates in Europe often draw Egyptians, Palestinians, Somalis, Bangladeshis, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis and other Muslims.

It is clear by now that Erdoğan has no intention of leaving power through democratic channels and will insure that he gets favorable results in the upcoming elections using each and every available means at his disposal. Free and fair elections under the state of emergency is no longer possible, and there is no independent or critical media left in Turkey with the exception of few newspapers with low circulation and limited reach. The election commission is in Erdoğan’s pocket, and the judiciary is completely subordinate to his autocratic regime. The opposition political parties lack robust financial resources and is crippled by problems in grassroots organizations, and civil society is severely repressed.

Nevertheless, Erdoğan would not want to risk his chances of getting re-elected even though the prospect of losing the election looks very dim under the current circumstances. As a result, he will mobilize all the assets he has invested in the diaspora to make sure of a win. This is not only about receiving votes from expats but also projecting Turkey’s perceived might to a domestic audience by bashing and bullying countries that are host to sizable Turkish communities. In any case, European countries should brace themselves for the worst from a man who has proven himself not hesitant to even use intelligence services to plot schemes in the middle of Europe. (

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