Analysis

Erdogan, Netanyahu Play Politics of the Diaspora to Get Ahead at Home and Abroad

Local politics played on a global scale can become explosive as seen last week in the Netherlands. But it is becoming more and more common.

Portraits Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lie on a US flag in flames during a parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in Tehran on July 01, 2016.
Atta Kenare, AFP

Many countries allow their citizens living abroad to vote in their elections. Some, like France and Italy, even have members of parliament representing expatriates in international constituencies. However, expatriate voting is rarely seen as significant and candidates and parties don’t put much effort or resources into courting these votes. The recent furore over the attempts by Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan to send his ministers to campaign for him in the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark ahead of next month’s referendum on expanding presidential powers is a sign of a new trend. Leaders of countries with large diasporas are beginning to see advantages in running a global campaign. It is of course also a sign of Erdogan’s concerns that the result in the referendum could be close, but there are other angles.

>> Why Turkey-Europe spat degenerated into Nazi epithets, attack dogs and diplomatic mayhem | Opinion <<

Erdogan is an extremely smart politician and he understands that beyond votes, having influence over communities in foreign countries can bring him additional benefits both in domestic politics and foreign policy. Erdogan is in the perfect position to take advantage of the fact that with the internet and cheap air travel, large communities of work migrants can easily continue to maintain a close relationship with their countries of birth.

Turkish demonstrators outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, Netherlands, March 11, 2017.
BAS CZERWINSKI/AFP

Many of the Turkish citizens who emigrated over the last 50 years to Western Europe continue to live in their own communities, speak Turkish and keep abreast of events back in the homeland. In today’s Europe, which is dealing with an identity crisis, increasing tensions with migrant communities, the growing challenges of nationalism and populism to the European Union, the politics of Turkey and Europe play into each other.

>> Europe shows Erdogan it can also wield policy from the gut | Analysis <<

Europe is still reeling from Erdogan’s decision in the summer of 2015 to allow, probably also to encourage, a million Syrian refugees to cross over to the continent. Germany’s politics may never be the same again. Neither has Erdogan forgotten how Europe’s leaders found it hard to hide their glee in the first hours of the military coup last year, before it became clear the generals had failed to seize power. He is still motivated to find ways to cause embarrassment to his European counterparts. These showdowns with Europe benefit him both at the ballot box and give him more leverage abroad.

A man reads an issue of Gunes, a Turkish pro-government daily newspaper, with on its front page German Chancellor Angela Merkel depicted in Nazi uniform with a Hitler-style moustache, labelling the German leader "She Hitler", on March 17, 2017 in Istanbul, Turkey.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP

And he’s not alone. Russian President Vladimir Putin has for years been using the presence of large Russian-speaking communities across the world. Their alleged persecution has given him the pretext to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as keeping a Russian military presence in various former Soviet satellites. Further afield, he has utilized Russian communities in Israel, the U.S. and Germany as outposts of influence.

Another leader who has begun using similar tactics is India’s Narendra Modi, who in 2015 held a mass rally with 60,000 British-Indians at London’s Wembley Stadium. It was seen as such a successful political event that then-British Prime Minister David Cameron joined him, in the hope of attracting more British-Indian voters to his own Conservative Party.

And of course you can’t discuss the politics of diaspora without mentioning the masters of the art – Israeli politicians and even leaders of the pre-state Zionist movement. From Chaim Weizmann to Benjamin Netanyahu, using Diaspora Jews (and, in recent decades, expatriate Israelis) as a source of support both at home and abroad has been a staple of Israeli politics. Yet another Jewish invention that has gone global.

Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, center, waves to the crowd after speaking at a community reception in his honor at Wembley Stadium in London, U.K., on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. British and Indian companies agreed on 9 billion pounds ($13 billion) of deals as Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the U.K. in almost a decade.
Simon Dawson/Bloomberg