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Turkey’s presidential referendum and the (not so) curious case of the Turkish diaspora in Europe

Maybe it is time Europe looked at itself in the mirror and started discussing why more and more people, including Europeans, are walking away from the much-vaunted “liberal European values”.

Gulay Turkmen-Dervisoglu
1 June 2017

Wolfgang Sobotka, member of the Austrian People's Party (OVP) and since 2016, Austria's Interior Minister. Wikicommons/Michael Kranewitter. Some rights reserved.Last month’s presidential referendum in Turkey triggered a fierce debate about the voting pattern of Turkish citizens living in Europe. The high level of electoral support given to the constitutional amendments in countries like the Netherlands and Germany sparked a controversy among the European public that revolved around questions of ‘loyalty’ and ‘integration’. Who are these voters loyal to? Do they belong in Europe or do they belong in Turkey? Why do they display such support for authoritarianism in Turkey despite living in more liberal European countries?

Deeming the referendum results a sign of “failed integration” some politicians asked that these voters return back to Turkey if they are such ardent supporters of President Erdogan. Some right-wing politicians even suggested putting an end to the policy of dual citizenship to force these voters to make a choice between their “loyalties”. While the German chancellor Merkel said that Germany has no intention of cancelling dual citizenship anytime soon, the Austrian interior minister Wolfgang Sobotka suggested that those illegally holding dual passports should be fined 5,000 euros.

Yet, for all the attention it drew, except for a few insightful opinion pieces, this topic has ended up being discussed in broad strokes that ignore the complexity of the issue at hand. First of all, despite the media’s insistence on highlighting the Turkish diaspora’s support for constitutional amendments as all-encompassing a closer look at the results display that the Turkish citizens in Europe are actually quite divided in their stance. As the table below displays, despite the overwhelming majority of Yes voters in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria, the majority of voters in the UK, Switzerland and Sweden voted No (a pattern that is also visible in the USA and Canada).

Country

YES votes

NO votes

Belgium

76.7%

23.3%

Austria

73.7%

26.1%

Netherlands

70.9%

29.1%

France

64.8%

35.2%

Germany

63.1%

36.9%

Sweden

47.1%

52.9%

Switzerland

37.5%

62.5%

United Kingdom

20.4%

79.6%

More importantly, in all of these countries, the turnout rates were quite low. For example, in Germany, which has a community of about three million residents with Turkish roots, the turnout rate was 49%: out of 1,430,127 eligible Turkish voters only 697,435 voted in the referendum, and only about 400,000 voted in favor of the constitutional changes.

The same is valid for the Netherlands, where the total number of Turkish citizens stands at around 400,000 and where the turnout was 47%. Out of 250,000 Dutch Turks who were registered, only 118,322 cast a vote, and only 82,600 of those voted ‘Yes’. The same goes for Austria and Belgium where the turnout was 48.5% and 59% respectively. Had the European media and the public taken into consideration the low turnout rates they might have realized how hasty a conclusion is the claim that “the Turkish diaspora in Europe supports the curtailment of democracy in Turkey”. Such a meticulous evaluation of the results could have also helped to underline and discuss the equally important question of “why almost half of the Turkish diaspora in Europe have chosen not to vote”. Such a meticulous evaluation of the results could have also helped to underline… “why almost half of the Turkish diaspora in Europe have chosen not to vote”.

“All of this might be true but at the end of the day a considerable number of Turkish immigrants living in Europe voted against democracy, and we should all be worried about it” argues an article published in der Spiegel, on April 21, while another op-ed in the same outlet deems these results “bizarre”.

Similarly, the Austrian daily Kurier finds it “shocking and worrying” that a clear majority of Turks in Austria backed the introduction of an authoritarian constitution, and believes that this pattern should not go uncommented. I agree that it is quite worrying that a sizeable portion of the Turkish diaspora voted in favor of the constitutional changes that will give the president sweeping powers. Yet, I also believe that these results are far from “shocking” or “bizarre”, at least for those in the know.

Unwelcome factors

There are two main reasons that have led to this outcome. First is the composition of the Turkish voters in Europe. Many Turkish citizens living in countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Austria originate from conservative Anatolian cities and towns, where a majority of the residents voted in favor of the constitutional amendments in the referendum. Moreover, a significant number of these voters belong to working-class families who came to Europe as economic immigrants. This is in stark contrast to countries like the USA and Canada, where the number of high-skilled immigrants in the Turkish population is quite high.

In addition to educational and class background, ethnic and religious backgrounds of the migrants also play a vital role in determining voter behavior. For example, in the UK, where the ‘No’ vote stands at 79%, Kurdish and Alevite political refugees comprise a significant portion of the “Turkish” population. Similarly, Sweden and Switzerland, where the ‘No’ vote turned out to be 52% and 62% respectively, are both home to a sizeable Kurdish population who emigrated from Turkey as “political refugees”.

Yet, “background variance” is not the only explanatory factor in understanding the Turkish diaspora’s voting pattern. A second, but more important, reason is the political psychology of those who voted ‘Yes’. Because of a problematic integration process, which could be summarized as “too little too late”, Turkish immigrants still feel unwelcome, even in Germany and the Netherlands, where they constitute the most sizeable immigrant groups. Turkish immigrants still feel unwelcome, even in Germany and the Netherlands, where they constitute the most sizeable immigrant groups. Ethnographic research in these communities has displayed that, despite living in these countries for up to four generations, they still feel like “foreigners”, and for good reason. In an environment where the European governments treated the Turkish immigrants as “guest workers” who would “soon” return back to their countries, it was all too easy for the Turkish population to create ghettos that would allow them to continue their lives as if they were in Turkey. By the time European governments had started introducing integration policies the walls around these close-knit communities were already too hardened to break down. The racist attacks (including acts of arson) on the Turkish community in the 1990s, the spike in prejudice and hatred towards “Muslims” after 9/11, and the recent global revival of right-wing exclusionary rhetoric have only aggravated the situation and furthered the distance between “incoming” and “receiving” communities. All of this contributed to the labeling of Turkish immigrants as “notoriously hard to integrate”.

In such an atmosphere, in 2010, the AKP opened the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, a special agency aiming to address the needs of Turkish citizens abroad. This was followed in 2012, by the passing of a law granting the Turkish diaspora the right to vote in Turkish elections in countries of their residence. These changes indicated how seriously the AKP takes the Turkish diaspora as an electoral bloc and it has not gone unnoticed on the part of the Turkish citizens. Excited by this unprecedented attention and affection, which transformed them into important actors who could have a say in Turkey’s future, they have embraced the AKP’s emerging role as their “caretaker”. Excited by this unprecedented attention and affection, which transformed them into important actors who could have a say in Turkey’s future, they have embraced the AKP’s emerging role as their “caretaker”.

Add to this the fervent speeches of President Erdogan, which have not only honed their religious and ethnic sensibilities but also conveyed to them the ‘respect’ they have long sought for. For example, in a speech he gave in Cologne in 2011, Erdogan urged the Turkish community to “integrate but not assimilate”. “You are part of Germany but you are also part of our great Turkey” he declared. Such statements have turned Erdogan into a “savior”, a “hero” in the eyes of many Turkish citizens abroad, who have been stigmatized by European governments and largely ignored by previous Turkish governments.

How "liberal" is Europe?

What the recent referendum campaign has done, as Maria Kolnova aptly points out, is to further the importance of the Turkish diaspora in that the diaspora vote is no longer a matter of domestic politics for President Erdogan. It now functions as a convenient tool for managing foreign politics, as displayed by the recent diplomatic conflict between the Turkish and Dutch governments, which entailed the Dutch government barring Turkish officials from campaigning for the referendum on Dutch soil. By triggering such political crises, where Turkey is cast as the “victim”, Erdogan is constantly inflaming the sensitivities of the Turkish diaspora who feel forced to prioritize their loyalties and defend Turkey against “intolerant Europeans”. That is why it would not be wrong to read a considerable amount of the ‘Yes’ votes cast by Europe’s Turkish community more as a form of protest than outright support for “authoritarianism”. As professor Detlef Pollack, who has conducted extensive research among Germany’s Turkish community, puts it: “It is an expression of defiance, assertiveness and resentment”.

As is clear, the voting pattern of the Turkish diaspora is too complex to be limited to the question of “why Turkish citizens living in liberal European countries vote for authoritarianism at home”. By framing the puzzle as such, not only do we overlook the fact that half of the eligible Turkish voters did not vote, but we also undermine the role of explanatory factors like voter background and emotions in determining voting patterns.

Moreover, shifting the focus of the debate to this question does nothing more than feed essentialism. After all, Turkish citizens are not the only ones in Europe who have recently voted for leaders/parties that display authoritarian tendencies. In a political climate where the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders managed to get the support of 13% of the voters, France’s Marine Le Pen received 34% of the votes in the second round of the presidential election, and Germany’s far-right AfD keeps increasing its popularity (to the extent that it got 24% of the votes in the state elections in Saxony-Anhalt), it is more than unfair to single out Turkish voters’ behavior as “shocking” and “bizarre”.

Maybe it is time Europe looked at itself in the mirror and started discussing why more and more people, including Europeans, are walking away from the much-vaunted “liberal European values”. As worrying as support for authoritarianism is, it is unfortunately a global phenomenon, and unless we stop essentializing certain communities it will only spread further.

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