Tens of thousands of people across Europe have cast their ballots in early voting in Turkish elections over the weekend, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan counting on diaspora support as he battles to cling to power.
Officials said early indications suggested a record turnout among Turkey’s 3.4mn overseas voters, who have historically backed Erdoğan, after polling stations opened just over two weeks ahead of the main election on May 14.
The Turkish government has embarked on a voter drive it says is aimed at boosting democratic participation by increasing the number of polling stations across Europe and pumping out messages on the importance of taking part.
Abdullah Eren, head of the state-run body responsible for the Turkish diaspora, insisted the motive was not to bolster support for Erdoğan, who was fighting the toughest re-election battle of his 20 years in power as Turkey’s deep economic malaise dented his support.
“We’re not interested in what party they vote for,” Eren said. “For us, the important thing is that we remove obstacles to citizens exercising their rights.”
Officials from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) openly say they expect higher turnout to benefit them, given that members of the diaspora who are eligible to vote have backed the president strongly in the past.
In a message to diaspora voters on Saturday, Erdoğan said he expected them to “hurry to the polls and make history on May 14”.
But the notion that higher turnout would benefit the president was disputed by Hülya Coşkun, a regional official with the German arm of the opposition People’s Republican party (CHP).
She predicted high mobilisation among well-educated opposition supporters, who she said had sometimes sat on the sidelines. “This time they see the importance of voting,” she said. “The political winds in Turkey are affecting the political winds here.”
Experts say the impact of the diaspora, whose votes made up 3 per cent of the total at the last parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018, is sometimes overplayed. But the group has the potential to swing parliamentary seats and, in a presidential contest that polls suggest is neck-and-neck between Erdoğan and his main rival Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, every vote counts.
“It’s going to be really close,” said İnci Öykü Yener-Roderburg, an expert on migration at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “Even if just half of diaspora voters use their votes, it could make a difference.”
Nowhere is more critical to the outcome than Germany, home to a 3mn-strong Turkish diaspora, of whom 1.5mn are Turkish citizens who are eligible to vote.
Opposition parties complain that Erdoğan has mobilised huge resources in Germany, including about 900 mosques funded and run by the Turkish state.
On Saturday in Essen, an AKP stronghold in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a steady stream of minibuses organised by an AKP lobby group shuttled mostly elderly and disabled voters into the city from satellite towns. Thousands more people made their own way to the Grugahalle conference centre, which has been turned into a polling station replete with Turkish flags for the 13 days of overseas voting.
A majority expressed fulsome support for Erdoğan, citing a range of reasons including the president’s forceful presence on the world stage and grand infrastructure projects completed under his watch.
“Erdoğan has helped Turkey to stand up proud,” said Derya Bulut, a 33-year-old pharmacist from the town of Lünen, who was born and raised in Germany.
Many spoke of experiences of discrimination in Germany, where unlike EU citizens, most members of the diaspora have been forbidden from holding dual citizenship, forcing them to choose between their Turkish and German passports.
Gülten Ekinci, a nurse from Dortmund who moved to Germany when she was a child, expressed distress that patients frequently asked her to remove her headscarf. “I’ve been here for 40 years but they don’t care that I work here, I pay my taxes — because I’m a Muslim,” the 48-year-old said, adding that Erdoğan had stood up for the rights of devout women like her.
Many dismissed concerns about the Turkish economy even though the lira has plunged in value in recent years and inflation has soared.
Several voiced anger at the German federal government for initially refusing a request from Ankara to double the number of polling stations in the country.
The vocal support for Erdoğan has fuelled a popular but false perception in Germany that most or all members of the country’s Turkish community are diehard backers of a leader viewed by many in Europe as an autocrat.
Erdoğan has performed better in the country in the past than in Turkey, gaining 65 per cent of the German vote in presidential elections in 2018 compared with 53 per cent overall. But the picture is distorted by the fact that only about half of the country’s Turkish population — which includes exiled Kurds, leftists, academics and journalists as well as the religious conservatives who have traditionally backed Erdoğan — are Turkish passport holders who are eligible to vote.
When eligibility and turnout are factored in, it becomes clear that less than 15 per cent of the country’s Turkish community voted for Erdoğan in 2018.
Nonetheless, the diaspora’s participation in the Turkish elections triggers regular soul-searching about what some Germans see as failure of integration, even as figures such as agriculture minister Cem Özdemir and BioNTech founders and Covid-19 vaccine pioneers Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci have risen to the top of business and politics.
Gülistan Yüksel, a Turkish-born member of the German Bundestag, hopes that the ruling coalition’s drive to allow multiple citizenships will help foster greater engagement with German democracy and public life among some parts of the diaspora and “strengthen their sense of belonging”.
She has found herself questioning the wisdom of overseas voting for the diaspora, even though it is supported by the Turkish opposition.
“People in Turkey are often angry at German-Turks,” she said. “They say: ‘You live in a state with the rule of law in Germany, but you vote for the opposite in Turkey’.”
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