Erdoğan, the Turkish Referendum, and European Politics: A Conflict of Free Speech?

At a March 5 Women’s Day rally in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan compared German officials to Nazis after German authorities cancelled Turkish referendum rallies for the approximate 1.4 million German Turks eligible to vote.

“Your practices are not different from the Nazi practices of the past,” Erdoğan said. Erdoğan’s remark came after German officials withdrew permission for referendum rallies in Hamburg, Gaggenau, Cologne and Frechen. Erdoğan suggested that the move was anti-democratic and accused Germany of “systematic pressure” and intervening in the campaign in favor of a “no” vote in the referendum. Germany stated that decisions to cancel rallies were made on security concerns, not referendum vote preferences. Connecting to his Nazi remark, Erdoğan said that Germany should not try to provide Turkey with “democracy and human rights lessons.”

In response to Erdoğan’s Nazi comparison, the German government called for calm and a “cool heads to prevail” approach. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that such accusations were not justifiable, accusing Erdoğan of minimizing the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazi state.

“Comparisons with Nazis always just lead to one thing — to belittle those crimes,” Merkel stated at a Berlin business forum. Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert referred to the situation as “a deep-seated disagreement which makes us very concerned.”

“We reject the policy identification of the democratic Germany with that of National Socialism. National Socialist comparisons are absurd and not acceptable,” he said, later stating that “The Federal Republic of Germany and Turkey have a close economic relationship; they are also partners in the fight against terrorism.”

Turkish referendum campaign events sparked controversy across Europe, especially in countries with sizable Turkish populations. Through these campaigns, the Turkish cabinet aims to gain the support of Turks living abroad and expand President Erdoğan’s power. “We go wherever we want to talk to our citizens,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt  Çavuşoğlu said.

The referendum campaign puts Merkel’s government in an awkward position. Mr. Erdoğan’s Turkish and German argue that Erdoğan wishes to use Western democratic freedoms to further consolidate his anti-democratic powers at home. The opposition also accuses Erdoğan of using their right to free speech in Germany while denying to citizens in Turkey. But Turkish officials accuse Germany of stifling free speech after they were blocked from campaigning on German soil. “They try to cancel all our programs by putting pressure on them in an unprecedented way. It is an entirely repressive system,” Çavuşoğlu said.

Çavuşoğlu also accused German authorities of “systematic pressure” on German-based Turks, saying Berlin was intervening in favour of a “no” vote in the referendum. He said Germany should not give Turkey “democracy and human rights lessons”.

The referendum scheduled for April 16 includes a new draft constitution that would increase the powers of President Erdoğan. According to the BBC, the changes include:

  • “The role of prime minister would be scrapped. The new post of vice president, possibly two or three, would be created.
  • The president would become the head of the executive, as well as the head of state, and retain ties to a political party.
  • He or she would be given sweeping new powers to appoint ministers, prepare the budget, choose the majority of senior judges and enact certain laws by decree.
  • The president alone would be able to announce a state of emergency and dismiss parliament.
  • Parliament would lose its right to scrutinise ministers or propose an enquiry. However, it would be able to begin impeachment proceedings or investigate the president with a majority vote by MPs. Putting the president on trial would require a two-thirds majority.
  • The number of MPs would increase from 550 to 600.
  • Presidential and parliamentary elections would be held on the same day every five years. The president would be limited to two terms.”

The major change would be transitioning Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential republic. Many believe that “modernizing” Turkey’s constitution would gather support from parties across the political spectrum. In reality, the referendum has instead become one of the most controversial political changes since the current constitution was drawn up after the 1980 military coup headed by General Kenan Evren.

Turkish support for Erdoğan is divided, with one side of the country viewing him with reverence and the other with hatred.  Erdoğan and the government argue that the proposed reforms would help to ease decision-making, avoid coalitions that held Turkey back in the past, and overall allow Turkey to progress by suppressing extremist attacks. With a president directly elected by the people, the government argues, it is no longer needed to work with the prime minster to enact laws.

Erdoğan’s governing conservative Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) or Justice and Development Party relied on parliamentary votes from the far-right MHP (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, “Nationalist Movement Party”) to lead the country to a referendum. Opposition is led by the centre-left CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi ,“Republican People’s Party” and the pro-Kurdish HDP (Halkların Demokratik Partisi ,“Peoples’ Democratic Party”) parties; the latter has been portrayed by Erdoğan’s government as linked to terrorism. Those that oppose the referendum are against Erdoğan’s movement towards an authoritarian government, with aggressive rhetoric and widespread persecutions after 2016’s coup.

“The Turkish nation has never allowed a Hitler and it will not allow Erdoğan to get away with this,” MHP leader Devlet Bahceli said. The use of aggressive rhetoric in the referendum campaigns showcases how alienated Ankara has become from not only Western Europe, but has also negatively impacted Turkey’s status as an applicant candidate for EU membership. In order to gain support from Turkish communities abroad and thus introduce an autocratic presidential system, provoking other countries with such aggressive rhetoric as Nazi comparisons in order to show an overall strong government. This is especially important in its employment in Germany, where one of the largest communities of Turks outside of Turkey settles, many descendants of Gastarbeiter (“guest worker”) that came in the 1960s.

The parliamentary elections in June and November 2015 reflect the popularity of Erdoğan and his AKP party both in Turkey and abroad, as a majority of the German-Turkish community voted in his favor. Maintaining an active influence in Turkish communities abroad has become a key part of Erdoğan’s hegemonic foreign policy plan. In order to gain support from the German-Turkish community, Erdoğan has promised a hegemonic leadership approach in addition to strength and security. In an attempt to maintain strong influence over all Turkish communities, Erdoğan has developed a more authoritarian-autocratic government course that monopolizes power by attacking democratic principles such as freedom of speech and the press.

The more authoritarian Turkey has become in its attack on democratic principles, the more it becomes alienated from Germany.  Germany, considered the leading country of the EU, is faced with losing a predictable and reliable partner.

“My brothers, now they think Erdoğan is supposed to come to Germany. I would come if I want to. I could come and set the world on fire if you don’t let me come in, or you don’t allow me to talk,” Erdoğan said.

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