On April 16, over 53 million Turks will head to the polls and cast a vote in the country’s constitutional referendum. This is shaping up to be an equally seminal and divisive moment in Turkey’s history. If the answer is Yes, Turkey will adopt a presidential system of government with the current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, becoming head of the government alongside the office’s existing role as head of state.
Polling indicates that it will be a very close call, with the lead changing hands multiple times in recent months. As a result, both sides of the campaign have looked beyond Turkey’s national borders towards the country’s sizeable diaspora, of which many live in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, and who are eligible to vote. Senior members of the government have sought to give speeches at rallies in these countries in order to garner support for a Yes vote. This has resulted in serious diplomatic tensions.
In Germany, several events have been cancelled, and the German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maiziere, said that a Turkish election campaign has no place in Germany. Christian Kern, the Austrian Chancellor, has even demanded an EU-wide ban on election campaign appearances. More recently, Erdoğan has labelled the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants and fascists” and demanded an apology, after Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was barred from landing in Rotterdam. Another Turkish minister was deported after being prevented from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam
So are the reactions of the Dutch, Germans and Austrians justified?
Various politicians in these countries have argued that they believe the referendum will turn Turkey into an authoritarian state, and so their countries should not provide a platform to campaign for a Yes vote. However, given that there is no objection to ARD (one of Germany’s public broadcasters) running a video explicitly calling for people to vote No, such a stance seems more than a little hypocritical.
Questions of substance, so long as they do not break the law, should not determine whether politician can go to a foreign country and campaign for a political goal. In an increasingly globalized world (to borrow a tired cliché) this is simply a necessity, with more people moving for work than ever before. And there is certainly precedent for it. Three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron addressed a rally in London and there were no outpourings of indignation. In 2008 Barack Obama addressed a rally of 200,000 people in Berlin while campaigning to be US president. The Guardian likened the event to a pop festival. If many of your citizens live abroad, you should be able to address them directly, if only to keep them engaged in the political process of their home country.
Why then the strong reaction to Turkish politicians doing the same?
Perhaps it is because the dispute goes to the very heart of the status of the Turkish diaspora in these countries, and by extension to the immigration debate currently sweeping politics in Europe. Turkish communities have long faced accusations that they are not doing enough to integrate themselves in their new homes. Supporting a referendum which many European politicians view as disastrous reopens those old sores.
On that view, the political reaction to Turkish politicians attempting to campaign abroad is simply a reflection of European governments’ worry about appearing soft on immigration. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, faces an election today and is neck-and-neck with Geert Wilders, who has campaigned with a “Stop Islam” slogan. In Germany, Angela Merkel has faced repeated calls that she is too soft on immigration.
European politicians should not bow to such pressures. If they are going to claim that the Turkish constitutional referendum is ushering in a new area of authoritarianism, they should be wary not to emulate the very thing they are trying to prevent.