A referendum vote for a new constitution in Turkey is threatening to cause a diplomatic row with Germany. It has also created tension amongst the other European countries such as Austria and Netherlands.
On April 2017, Turkey will be voting for a new constitution, which has drawn criticism from within and the West. The problem with the new draft for the constitution is that it aims to fundamentally change the way Turkey is governed. The draft constitution is called as the “Turkish-style presidency.” It is because it is seeking to replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one. The presidential system will give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan all the executive power, a reminiscent of the first Turkish President Kemal Attaturk.
Apart from giving Erdogan the power, the constitution would also move away Turkey from its secularism as the incumbent government under the Islamist party AKP is trying hard to rule the country based on Islam.
During Attaturk’s time, Turkey was pushed towards secularism (which left many people angry) and under Erdogan’s time, the country is moving towards an Islamic country.
The difference during Attaturk’s and now is that majority of the Turkish people1 want Islam to be a predominant factor. Erdogan is also being able to garner support from the public based on the terrorist attacks Turkey is witnessing and also the 2016 July coup.
In the pretext of protecting Turkey, Erdogan is usurping all the powers in his own hands.
The arrest of the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel was also in this excuse of stopping the propaganda of spreading terrorism and protecting Turkey from further terrorist attacks. Yücel was accused of supporting terrorism propaganda in Turkey.
Hence, Erdogan is trying to garner support domestically as well as from the Turkish Diaspora.
The arrest of Yücel had already created tension between Germany and Turkey as Erdogan was accused of human rights violation and restriction on freedom of speech.
The problem deepened in the last week of February when the Turkish minister under the support of Erdogan wanted to garner support from the Turkish Diaspora staying in Europe. The Turkish ministers wanted to organise rallies in the foreign soil which was cancelled by the host authorities, hence leading to spat.
On 5 March, the German authorities2 withdrew permission for two rallies by the Turkish citizens in German cities at which Turkish ministers were to urge a “Yes” vote in a referendum next month. The cancellation of the rallies has led Erdogan to hit out at German authorities by accusing the German government “no different than the Nazi ones of the past.”3 Around 3 million Turkish citizens live in Germany and out of which around 1.5 million can cast a ballot in April. Erdogan is focusing on these 1.5 million Turkish citizens of Germany who are eligible to vote in Turkey. These 1.5 million Turkish citizens are strong supporters of Erdogan and he wants the support of them for garnering the majority support which is needed for the new constitution. Basing on the Diaspora support, Erdogan warned Berlin not to stop him from speaking in Germany if he wanted to. He said that “If you don’t let me in, or if you don’t let me speak, I will make the whole world rise up.”4
The German politicians along with the EU leaders have expressed their anger on Erdogan and have asked the German Chancellor Angela Merkel not to become weak on her dealings with the Turkish president. Germany, who is facing problems due to the flow of refugee from Syria, had struck a deal with Turkey last year to stop the flow of people from coming to Germany and Europe. Many European leaders feel that Erdogan is trying to take advantage of it.
Turkey’s relationship with Germany and other EU members has been undergoing rough phases since Ankara expressed the desire to become an EU member. The problem of the non-membership for Turkey has been because of the prejudices within the EU members which actually pushed Turkey towards a strong Islamic country. Although the EU members have shown the non-fulfilment of the criteria by Turkey as reasons to keep it away from the membership but the main problem is that the foundation of the EU, apart from common economic cooperation and peace and stability in Europe, was also of being a Christian club. Samuel Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations and the battles of Crusades cannot be overlooked in this context. Turkey and the EU is a classic case of these two, especially under Erdogan and his government.
However, the EU and Turkey has been having a working relationship with each other. Erdogan has been taking advantage of this working relationship with the EU. He has been able to divert the minds of the Turkish people, including the secularists (to a large extent), from moving away from the EU membership. The secularists’ Turkish people have been feeling the injustice being meted out on Turkey by not giving the EU membership. Erdogan and his government have been able to turn the country into an Islamic one by applying some of the EU criteria such as freedom of religion etc to build their own Islamist foundation.
Under the secularist government, religion was separate in Turkey and the Islamist political parties were not able to gain power leaving the majority of the people dissatisfied. The Turkish people under Attaturk were annoyed as they were not allowed to practice the Salafist Islam. However, under Erdogan’s government, the conservative form of Islam has come back; pushing the country to go back to the Ottoman Empire’s time where there was the seat of Caliphate was in Turkey.
Erdogan through his actions have proved his desire of turning Turkey into an Islamic state and move away from the West. He actually took advantage of the delay in Turkey’s EU membership and has been hinting on withdrawing Ankara’s membership proposal from the EU and joining the SCO5. The plus point for Erdogan and his government is been the economic growth and development the country has witnessed over the years under their power. Economic growth and high standard of living are the basic needs for the common people and Erdogan and his party has been able to provide it, resulting in strong popularity amongst the Turkish people. Hence, the draft of the constitution which is been put up for referendum (to a large extent) is leaning towards Erdogan and his government.
Meanwhile, Erdogan is also trying to play the NATO card with Europe in order to strengthen his own position. He is bringing Turkey closer to Russia as he understands that Europe and Russia is having a belligerent relationship. Turkey wants to take advantage of this factor too. Russia which has a huge problem with NATO is trying to bring Turkey into its camp in order to weaken EU and NATO alliance. The European leaders are being careful with the spat which Turkey and some EU members are having over the referendum. It is because they fear that the tension between them will be taken advantage by Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Russia, who is another ‘sovereign democracy’ where the President has become an authoritative power in the name of national security and stability of the country, is building strong partnership with Turkey in every sector—political, economic and defence. Erdogan and Putin’s style of rule are similar hence bringing them closer.
The EU leaders are worried with the actions of Erdogan both externally and domestically. Externally, Turkey’s actions are threatening to weaken the EU and NATO alliance. Domestically, the European leaders along with the German politicians feel that Erdogan is trying to stoke problem within Germany by creating problems between the Turkish citizens and German natives within Germany. They also feel that these rallies need to be stopped as these rallies might sow the seed of anti-democracy6 within Germany and other European countries.
Hence, the diplomatic spat between Turkey and Germany is double edged. Erdogan is trying to strengthen his power through the constitution and at the same time twist the arms of EU and NATO by coming close to Russia.
Disclaimer: The views are that of the author and not of the Council
*Sr. Indrani Talukdar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
1. The Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is an opposition party, has given its support to Erdogan and the draft of the constitution.
2. Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government had played no part in steps taken by city councils who, according to one mayor, acted purely on security grounds.
3. Merrit Kennedy, “Turkey-Germany Relations at New Low After Erdogan Makes Nazi Comparison”, NPR, March 6, 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/06/518805720/turkey-germany-relations-at-new-low-after-erdogan-makes-nazi-comparison (Accessed on March 7, 2017).
4. Merkel calls for calm over ‘Nazi’ accusations amid strained German-Turkish relations”, DW, March 6, 2017. http://www.dw.com/en/merkel-calls-for-calm-over-nazi-accusations-amid-strained-german-turkish-relations/a-37819933 (Accessed on March 8, 2017).
5. Moving to SCO is also because Europe is still reeling under the economic crisis of 2008 and the shift of economic power has gone to Asia. Another point to move away from the West and moving closer to Asia including Russia is because these countries are fighting for a multipolar world order where the US and Europe’s dominance is weakened.
6. “German politicians line up against ‘anti-democratic’ Turkish referendum campaign”, DW, March 3, 2017. http://www.dw.com/en/german-politicians-line-up-against-anti-democratic-turkish-referendum-campaign/a-37797622 (Accessed on March 8, 2017).