Turkey’s diaspora politics on the eve of the presidential elections

Turkey’s diaspora politics on the eve of the presidential elections

Turkey’s first round of presidential elections will be held Aug. 10, 2014. With a law that passed in 2012, Turks living abroad are now eligible to vote for the first time in national elections. According to a report published by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is estimated that the total Turkish voter population abroad makes up some 5.5 percent of the total electorate. With the recent change in the law, expatriate Turks are expected to have a bigger turnout in the elections and become an important voter group that could change the outcome of the elections.

According to the Institute of Turkish Studies and Integration (ZfTI), 1.4 million Turkish citizens, currently living in Germany, are eligible to cast their ballots. Since the majority of Turkish voters reside in Europe, European capitals have turned into a regular stop before the elections. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of Turkey’s three official presidential candidates, recently visited Cologne, Vienna and Lyon to attend the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD). Erdoğan’s critics interpret these visits as a strategic move to attract expatriate votes and export the homeland’s political tension to Europe. Erdoğan has not received a warm welcome from the European media. Prior to these visits, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz expressed their concerns regarding Turkey’s assertive diaspora politics and asked Erdoğan to be more responsible and sensitive in discussing immigrant integration and Turkey’s domestic agenda in his speeches. While Turkish policy-makers argue that Turkey’s paternalism restores immigrants’ self-esteem and encourages their political and social participation, European policy-makers are worried that such intervention might prove counter-productive to the integration process and pit Euro-Turks against their host states.

The majority of Sunni Muslims who reside in Europe support Erdoğan and believe that paying attention to homeland politics does not hamper integration. Erdoğan’s electoral campaign and his warnings against assimilation, however, have led to a backlash among some expatriate communities, signaling that not every immigrant group approves of Turkey’s ambitious diaspora politics. Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cologne and Vienna in May and June to oppose Erdoğan’s visit, claiming the vote hunt in Europe would create further divisions within the Turkish community. The majority of Sunni Turkish organizations preferred to extend their support to the Turkish government rather than being a part of the large-scale anti-government demonstrations organized in Europe after the Gezi Park protests. By contrast, the leading secular Kurdish and Alevi organizations marched in anti-government rallies in different European cities. These groups argue that Turkey’s diaspora agenda is biased, as it has mostly focused on interacting with Sunni Islamic organizations. The tension and fragmentation between Sunni and Alevi groups have become worse than ever before. Spokespersons of the secular Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg (TBB) and the Alevi Union Federation (AABF) in Germany note that their support for the Gezi Park protests has exacerbated their relations with the homeland and deepened their alienation.

Alevis feel more resentment, as the majority of people who died in the Gezi Park protests were of Alevi origin. The anti-government protests organized by the AABF in Bochum in 2012 attracted 50,000 people, and the demonstration held in Cologne last year attracted 100,000 people. On May 24, 2014, at the turn of the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, 150,000 people attended the anti-government protest organized by the AABF in Cologne. The growing number of protestors shows that the homeland’s diaspora agenda has attracted more criticism lately, particularly from Alevi organizations.

A stronger collaboration needs to be forged between the homeland and host states to build healthier and more grounded relations with Turks living in Europe. Moreover, policy-makers should be wary of the growing gap between Sunnis and Alevis and alleviate polarization by reaching out to different immigrant communities evenly.

*Z. Ayça Arkılıç is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.