Analysis

Erdogan's Angry PR War on European Soil

The Turkish president is not fazed by bans against political rallies in Germany and refuses to miss any opportunity to convince his electorate abroad to support the new constitution.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an Istanbul rally, March 4, 2017.
Yasmin Bulbul/AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a very short temper, and once again he's let it explode. Erdogan, who has a very hard time keeping the lid on when he opens his mouth, warned on Saturday: “I will make the world rise up.”

This warning, on which Erdogan did not elaborate, came just two days after he levelled the following accusation at Germany: “Your practices are not different from the Nazi practices of the past,” he declared at a political rally in Istanbul.

A short time after that vicious insult, urgent telephone calls took place between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and his foreign minister, Mevlüt avusoglu. The two foreign ministers were due to meet Tuesday to calm things down.

Both sides are now praying that Erdogan will not start beating the drums of war again and ruin their diplomatic efforts.

Erdogan’s fury was sparked after Merkel and/or her intelligence services reportedly refused to allow Turkish ministers to appear at mass rallies of Turkish citizens to be held on German soil, in an attempt to convince them to vote “Yes” in a referendum slated for April 16. Such a vote by a majority will allow the approval of a new constitution and grant Erdogan sweeping new powers.

At first it was the city of Gaggenau that banned the Turkish Justice Minister from holding a political gathering, and then Berlin officials told Turkey’s minister for the economy, Nihat Zeybekci, to find a different venue for a similar rally.

Now Germany may face the most threatening challenge yet if Erdogan himself defies the ban and tries to appear before his voters in that country.

The president does not plan to miss any opportunity to try and convince his electorate to support the new constitution – whether he appears personally or sends senior party officials to represent him instead.

The Turkish community in Germany, which numbers some three million citizens with the right to vote in the referendum, along with another million Turks living in other Western European nations, are a critical audience for Erdogan.

Although the number of eligible Turkish voters in Europe seems negligible when compared to the number of those residing in Turkey – some 55 million – it is critical when it comes to Erdogan’s lofty aspirations to become the first executive president in his country's history.

Opposing him are the Kurds, supporters of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party, liberals and a host of others, so every vote could make a difference.

Even though Erdogan won a 52-percent majority in the last presidential election, in 2014, he has not succeeded in attaining the requisite majority in the parliament that would allow him to change the constitution without calling a referendum.

Despite his popularity and the fact that he has no competition that would undermine his status, Erdogan can't be certain that the vote will not have a humiliating result that would put paid to his desires, or end in a very slim victory that would testify to the erosion of his legitimacy.

At the same time, it seems that he will be able to rely on the nationalist sentiments prevailing in the Turkish community in Europe, and in particular on the mounting feeling among this diaspora that, since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, they now have a “father.” In the last election, Erdogan won 67 percent of the vote among these populations.

Even if he does not declare it publicly, Erdogan’s unconcealed aspiration is to be the “father of the Turks,” just as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, was called.

Despite their deep ideological differences, Erdogan’s strategy is beginning to approximate that of Ataturk. For some time, since 2002, Turkey has been ruled continuously by the same party, something that also happened in the era of Ataturk.

The president's control over all the machinery of the government and the military has thus been established over a period of 15 years, and was heightened enormously after the failed coup attempt last July. Like his predecessor, Erdogan dictates the structure and functions of the legal and education systems, and now, by amending the constitution, he seeks to wield the monopoly of power that Ataturk enjoyed.

The constitutional amendments that have been approved by the parliament would cancel the position of prime minister of Turkey, and vice presidents would replace some ministers. The president could declare an emergency situation by dint of the new constitution, under which no-confidence votes and the posing of parliamentary questions would be cancelled, while the process of impeaching the president would become almost completely impossible to implement.

Erdogan would be permitted to serve as the chairman of his political party, too, alongside his position as executive president. This means he could control the makeup of parliament and set legislative priorities, in addition to having veto power. In addition, when necessary, the president could also dissolve the parliament, which would in effect complete the process of blurring the lines between the legislative and executive branches, and also with the judicial branch.

Similar to the situation in Israel, in which Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev claims that the Likud’s 30 seats in the Knesset give the government the right to run wild – Erdogan and his AKP talk about “the will of the people” as primary justification for amending the constitution.

The people want a strong government after years of weak rulers that end their days in military coups, says Minister Yildirim. The comparison to Israel stands out especially in the security justifications that Yildirim gives for making constitutional changes: “After April 16, the lives of the terrorist organizations will end – ISIS, [the Kurdish] PKK and the movement of [exiled Turkish leader] Fethullah Gulen,” he declares.

Erdogan does not really need these constitutional changes to fight terrorism. The Turkish military operates freely and also attacks the PKK in Iraq and Syria unhindered; within Turkey itself the army is conducting a bloody campaign against the PKK, too, as well as against the pro-Kurdish parties – but nothing surpasses the justification of “national security” when it comes to enlisting support from the public, which has suffered a number of murderous attacks over the past year from terrorist groups.

This is how the campaign to increase the power of the Turkish president has turned into a personal referendum of public support for Erdogan’s security strategy and his war on terror. As if they are saying, whoever votes against amending the constitution is a supporter of terrorism.

Apparently, the same goes for European nations, and Germany, Holland and Austria in particular, which are preventing Turkish ministers from wooing voters on their soil: In Erdogan’s words they are “supporters of terror.” After all, how can one not let Turkish ministers speak at rallies at a time when “terrorists” such as representatives of the PKK in Europe are operating freely?