Erdoğan at home, Erdoğan in the world
“Peace at home, peace in the world” is not just a sentence uttered by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It has also been the motto and the foreign policy guidance of Turkey for many years.
One may argue whether Turkey really had peace at home with the ongoing Kurdish problem and the ongoing freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion issues, and one may argue whether the supposed peace at home contributed to the peace in the world. But at least it was a good target.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has been introducing new definitions to Turkish foreign policy since he came to power in 2002. As long as the new definition helped Turkey’s convergence with Europe, it was applauded at home and in the world. Turkey, for example, had more sympathy in the Islamic world when it was closer to European Union, up until a few years ago.
Erdoğan’s rally in the German city of Cologne today, May 24, sets a new example that he has started to define domestic and foreign policies in each other’s terms.
Let me explain what I’m trying to say. Right after his win in the March 30 local elections, Erdoğan decided to hold a series of rallies in a number of European cities, on the eve of Turkey’s presidential elections in August. These would be the first ever Turkish elections where the people will directly vote for the president, (rather than the Parliament), while they would also be the first elections where Turkish citizens outside of the country could cast votes wherever they live. The around 3 million Turkish citizens in Europe, and 1.8 million in Germany, are therefore important for all parties.
Erdoğan has not officially announced his candidacy yet, but in order not to be in a position where he is starting an election campaign in another country - in this case Germany - it was neither Turkish embassies, nor the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) that have taken permission for the rallies. Instead, they have been organized by the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), a pro-AK Parti association, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary.
German politicians have expressed concerns that they do not want Erdoğan to “carry Turkey’s problems” into their country. On May 22, Angela Merkel reportedly had a 35-minute talk with him, while also making her views public in an interview that she believed Erdoğan would speak “responsibly” in the rally.
She has declined to give Erdoğan an audience on this trip, and German politicians from almost all parties have been trying to convince Turkish citizens not to go to the rally. That was obviously going to backfire, not only because AK Parti sympathizers from all over Europe have been organizing Turks to travel to Cologne to join the rally, but also because many Turks in Europe think both Turkey’s relative economic success and Erdoğan’s aggressive attitude toward the West in general have made them proud for the first time in decades since arriving as guest workers.
Increasing xenophobia with rising unemployment, as well as Islamophobia especially after 9/11, had an adverse effect on the Turkish population in Europe. For many, especially those of rural origin who were having difficulties melting into a post-industrial Christian society, tend to see Erdoğan as a natural leader.
Erdoğan, on the other hand, thinks he can follow the same political line in the world that he has been following at home. The dose of his political stance has escalated since the March 30 election win. His protest against the top judge of the Constitutional Court over a speech on freedom of expression and the media; his walkout from the Council of State ceremony because he did not like the speech of the chairman on the Union of Bar Associations; his physical attack on a protester in Soma, where 301 miners had died in the biggest ever mine disaster in Turkish history; are all examples of this new dose.
On May 22, Erdoğan escalated his attitude even further when he strongly criticized, almost insulted, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), during his speech at the congress of Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB). He then left the hall without listening to the reply of Kılıçdaroğlu, who had actually been sitting in the front row.
At an AK Parti meeting on May 23, Erdoğan said there were those who thought he should cancel Germany rally, but he vowed not to and said he would instead tell the “truths about Turkey” to the Turks in Europe, to European politicians, and to the critical European media.
It is hard to tell what kind of outcome this new policy line will produce for Erdoğan, for Turkey, for Europe and for Turkish-German relations.