President Erdogan can raise a crowd. As he travels to every corner of his huge country in the month before elections that could return him to the palace for another five years, tens of thousands turn out in sports halls, city squares and purpose-built rally grounds. His acerbic, bombastic public appearances, stage-managed with rock-star entrances and booming music, have become a hallmark of his brand of polished populism.
The 15,000-strong crowd who gathered in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo earlier this month might have been smaller than Erdogan is now used to, but their dedication made up for their numbers. Most had come from Western Europe, Turks from Germany, the Netherlands and Austria who had travelled on coaches for 24 hours just to spend one hour close to their hero. As I wandered around the grassy area outside the city’s Olympic Stadium before the doors opened, asking people why they had come, I was met with quizzical looks and identical answers. “For Tayyip!” I was told by teenagers, housewives and retired old men alike.
Erdogan has been banned from holding his rallies in those countries that they had travelled from, and so he came to Bosnia, whose Muslim president is a firm ally willing to do any of his bidding. Most of the crowd were bussed in by the rally’s organisers, the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) – a lobbying group for Erdogan’s AK Party. Such grassroots organisation has long been a hallmark of Erdogan’s politics, right from the start of his career as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. This rally was no different, with local organisations ferrying people from poor outlying neighbourhoods to the centre of the city. But the vote of the European Turks is especially important for Erdogan, for it is they who could sway victory for him next month.
First, the raw figures. There are around three million Turks living in Europe with eligibility to vote in the motherland. Leaving aside those in the UK, who are largely secular and anti-Erdogan, they form some of the president’s strongest constituencies. In last year’s constitutional referendum, which can be viewed as a popularity poll on Erdogan himself, the German Turks voted 63 per cent in favour, the Dutch 70.1 per cent and the Austrians 73.23 per cent. The overall referendum result (albeit following some extremely questionable counting rule changes at the last minute) was 51.3 per cent in favour, with a margin of just 1,240,091 votes. Though the turnout rates in these countries was lower than in Turkey it still means that the émigré vote contributed at least half of the victory margin. In theory, they could have an even greater impact next month.
The Turks who live in mainland Europe are largely descendants of the gastarbeiter, the poor rural Turks who went there to work in the 1960s. For many years they were denied citizenship in Germany, where the majority live. Even now they are allowed to take German nationality, many choose instead to take a Turkish passport – despite the fact that most have never lived in the motherland. The places their forebears came from are now Erdogan’s heartlands, and they vote accordingly. Furthermore, any tensions they might feel with their adopted societies are played back to them when Erdogan criticises Europe. Little wonder, then, that this was the theme of his Sarajevo rally. “Those European countries that call themselves the cradles of democracy have failed!” he boomed, to rapturous reply chants of ‘Allahu Akhbar!’ and ‘Sultan Erdogan!’
Many in Turkey are furious that the European Turks – who enjoy all the freedoms and privileges of a life in Europe and yet continue to support Erdogan as he drags Turkey into authoritarianism – are able to vote and possibly to shift the balance of this coming election. It is not a problem confined to Turkey. In Hungary, the émigré vote goes overwhelmingly to Viktor Orban; and in Bosnia, those who left during the war and never came back are more attracted to the hardline nationalists, of whatever stripe, than those who returned.
Why is it that the experience of living in a more liberal, more developed country might make someone less liberal when it comes to voting at home? In the case of Turkey, many of Erdogan’s flaws might be masked to his supporters overseas. They do not see the food prices soaring in the Turkish shops or friends and neighbours arrested and losing jobs – only the showman who claims to be sticking up for their rights.
Undoubtedly, the atmosphere in Europe also plays into it. The rise of far right parties and anti-Muslim sentiment is manna for Erdogan, who needs his base to be fearful so that he can pose as their saviour. In this atmosphere, as counterintuitive as it is, it might be the best tactic to allow him to spew his vitriol on European soil – and so rob him of most of his ammunition.