Merkel’s dilemma: Germany’s polarising ‘Turkish issue’ returns
To prevent such developments, mainstream parties need to shape political discourse, instead of being shaped by it.
In August 2017, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) co-leader Alexander Gauland proposed to ‘dispatch’ the then Federal Commissioner for Immigration, Refugees and Integration, Aydan Özoğuz (SPD), back to Anatolia. Some weeks later, the AfD party entered the German Bundestag following the September 2017 general elections.
Özoğuz, for her part, silently disappeared from the scene when Merkel’s grand coalition government was renewed. It is striking that the ruling parties did not prevent Özoğuz’ disappearance from front-stage politics after she had become a target of what is perceived to be Germany’s new far-right giant, the AfD.
Importantly, the German Volksparteien revitalized the ‘Turkish issue’, this time unfolding in the domestic-foreign policy nexus between Germany and Turkey. Reignited transnational connections between Erdoğan and his Germany-based supporters made the Volksparteien adopt a consistent harsh commentary, a position long adopted by the AfD. Why did these governing mainstream parties make such concessions to the populist radical right AfD party? What sequence of events secured such a tacit acceptance of what had been solely an AfD stance?
Germany’s ‘Turkish issue’ returns
From late 2015 onwards, Merkel was eager to rapidly defuse the growing domestic dissent against her government’s decision to welcome refugees to Germany. She fixed the EU-Turkey refugee deal with Turkey in order to secure European borders. In May 2016, the Christian Social Union (CSU) leader, Horst Seehofer, questioned this deal, blamed Merkel for being susceptible to blackmailing by Turkish President Erdoğan, which triggered another national cultural identity scandal (besides his plea for an upper limit for refugee inflow). Mainstream parties were indeed deeply divided in regard to the ‘Turkish issue’. In contrast, the AfD was the only party to retain a consistent stance, opposing Turkey’s ‘despot’ Erdoğan and proposing return migration to his Germany-based supporters.
Amidst stormy Germany-Turkey relations, the current health minister, Jens Spahn (CDU), fuelled the ‘Turkish issue’ further: he questioned Turkish Germans’ loyalty and dual citizenship because of their support for Erdoğan. Research shows that this perception of Turkish-Germans’ alleged devotion for Erdoğan is distorted though. In contrast to Spahn, Özoğuz framed general scepticism over dual belonging as outdated. This event not only exposed Grand Coalition government dissent over the ‘Turkish issue’, but also revealed an SPD zigzagging in identity politics to a remarkable extent. Özoğuz articulated liberal stances, while former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel proposed that Social Democrats had lost touch with social democratic voters who, till now, have withheld their assent from ‘postmodern anything goes slogans’.
The CDU zigzagged as well. Late in 2016, CDU party members voted in favour of revoking Germany’s dual citizenship regulations at a federal party congress, which Merkel staunchly rejected immediately after. The Union parties were deeply divided between the liberal Merkel stance on one hand, and on the other hardliners, including the aforementioned Seehofer, calling for a harsher reaction to Erdoğan and the revocation of dual citizenship rights of Turkish Germans based on a supposed ‘conflict of loyalties’.
The Germany-Turkey blame game hardened stances: the disgruntled Erdoğan urged Turkish Germans to boycott the established parties (notably the Union parties, the SPD and the Green party). Paradoxically, this meant greater leverage for the AfD in the election results. In a follow-up TV debate, the Volksparteien drifted a long way to the right: both party leaders, Merkel and Schulz, engaging in competitive zeal to demonstrate who could show a stricter stance against Erdoğan once (re-)elected. A stance once initially and exclusively espoused by the AfD now occupied the centre of the political stage.
Gauland (AfD) vs Özoğuz (SPD)
“…invite her to Eichsfeld and then show her what specific German culture is. After that, she will never come here again, and we will then be able to, thank god, dispatch her to Anatolia.” Gauland’s timing was telling, he was reviving the ‘Turkish issue’ some three weeks before voters cast their ballots in September, while Özoğuz’ op-ed appeared in May 2017.
Gauland’s infamous attack was immediately condemned across the political spectrum. Proposals for ‘removing’ an immigrant political actor to her supposed ‘homeland’ moves far beyond what is ethically and morally acceptable in German mainstream political discourse. However, Özoğuz disappeared when Merkel’s fourth cabinet assembled in early 2018, and has not been given any highly visible role since.
Creeping land grabs
The recent controversy over the ‘Turkish issue’ has resulted in mainstream parties taking a hard line on issues of immigration and national identity, on which in the end they did not deliver. This painted a picture of a divided and incapacitated Berlin Republic, facilitating a climate fertile for the AfD’s winning formula: oppose the ‘corrupt elites’, for ‘the German people’s’ nation. The cathartic story of ‘Umvolkung’ (ethnicity inversion) has been most powerfully depicted by Gauland: “Someone wants to take this Germany away from us. And, dear Friends, this is something like – one would call this an invasion in the past – a creeping land grab”. The promise of an ‘ethno-national rebirth’ for native white Germans resonates well in such a climate.
Further, short-sighted cosying up to the far right has distinctly backfired: the presence of the AfD party has caused mainstream parties to end up drifting even more towards the right than they would have initially conceived. In the worst-case scenario, the conservative (white) native voters they seek to address deeply distrust those mainstream ‘opportunists’, and those who trusted in them before are disappointed by the mainstreams’ drift to the right.
The case of Özoğuz and the ‘Turkish issue’ can be understood as a concession to the far right. To prevent such developments, mainstream parties need to shape political discourse, instead of being shaped by it. With their attempts to attract both sides of the cleavage, German parties only exacerbated voters’ disenchantment with politics and facilitated the present growth of AfD – ultimately driving mainstream centre parties to cosy up to far-right stances.
With the return of the ‘Turkish issue’ Angela Merkel, globally praised for defending western liberal values, was thrown into a quandary. In fact, she defended and appeased key immigrant political stakeholders (such as journalist Ferda Ataman) when she found herself torn between the ‘Alexanders’, ‘Horsts’ and ‘Aydans’. However, Merkel failed when it came to responding to the mainstreaming of divisive rhetoric – though she is clearly not the only one to blame for that. One might ask who, other than her, has the power to push through unifying compromises given her political reputation over the past decade.
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