Echoes of the Turkish Constitutional Referendum in Germany

05/2017  | Reading time: 12 minutes

Two weeks ago a scant majority of Turkish voters expressed their support for a constitutional reform which – as many fear – indicated a farewell to an already shattered democratic system as well as to the Western orientation of the only Muslim country ever to come close to EU membership. I do not undertake here, though, to analyse all the ramifications this decision is set to carry. My intention is rather to give a picture of the reactions the result triggered in Germany and shed light on the curious electoral behaviour of the Turkish voters living there.

The Results

April 16 may mark a watershed not only in Turkey, where the consequences of the constitutional referendum will be the most pronounced, but also in those countries of the European Union, where the majority of the Turkish voters opted for the changes Recep Tayyip Erdoğan so eagerly wanted to realize. In relation to the significance of the reforms, which aimed at vesting the president with wide-range political powers and paved the way for authoritarian rule, the slight victory of its proponents (51.3%) appears to be hardly convincing. Indeed, it is dubious whether, without the support of the Turkish diaspora, the pro-Erdoğan camp would be able to speak of any success. One of the most curious results came from Germany, where almost two thirds of those turned up at the ballot boxes answered with “Evet” (Yes) to the formulated question.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan surrendering to the wish of the voters
Source: spiegel.de

Political reactions

First German political reactions shortly after the result become known were rather reserved. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel (SDP) limited themselves to recognize the outcome and express their hope that after a fierce political clash Erdoğan will engage in a respectful dialog with the opposition. Gabriel reiterated, moreover, that the events do not necessarily affect the Turkish EU membership prospects, but the introduction of death penalty, one of the most often formulated promises during the campaign, certainly would put an end to them. Martin Schulz, chancellor candidate of the SPD, pointed out that Erdoğan does not represent the opinion of the whole populace and advocated for human rights and democracy. Others from the two leading parties as well as Christian Lindner, head of the FDP, though, uttered more harsh words regarding the consequences and demanded that the negotiations on Turkey’s EU accession be (temporarily) over. Voices of criticism as to the irregularities experienced by OSCE representatives, which cast doubt on the entire legality of referendum, were also prevalent.

The assessment of the electoral behaviour of the Turkish voters living in Germany proved to be an even harder task. As the first waves of consternation and disbelief calmed down, political statements began to revolve around the future of domestic Turkish–German relations. Interior minister Thomas de Maiziére emphasized the importance of a constructive dialogue to prevent the respective cultural circles from drifting further apart, while Cem Özdemir, leader of the Green Party and a son of Turkish immigrants himself, called his fellow citizens to commit themselves to their new homeland and express their respect for the constitution. Some members of the CDU went yet a step further and demanded more stringent rules for the practice of dual passports.

Interpretation attempts

The integration success of those with Turkish roots have nevertheless been a highly contested topic, especially since Angela Merkel officially declared multiculturalism “gescheitert” (failed/unsuccessful). The recent question regarding this failure sounds: How could people, who live in one of the most prosperous country in the world, enjoy the blessings of democracy and have various freedom rights, make a political decision which is a clear refusal of the principles these achievements represent?

The migrant expert Serhat Karakayali, writing for Der Spiegeldid not consider the results exceptional. He called attention to the lingering political schizophrenia of many voters who have supported the national-religious AKP in Turkey but favoured left-wing parties in Germany because those espoused the issues migrants and workers found most relevant. They are not at all averse to the idea of democracy but identify it simply with the rule of the majority and disregard such conceptions as separation of powers or constitutionality. In their point of view, the actions of Erdoğan, being crude or not, are democratic and the critical voices coming from their “Vaterland” seem to be misplaced and offensive. Erdoğan knows too well how to play on their emotions, and the problems he and the Turkish media under his control addresses, such as racism and antimuslim sentiments, are – at least partly – real. Nevertheless, failed integration alone is not a satisfactory explanation for the president’s success since many, who have gained negative social experiences in their chosen home, do not necessarily harbour tendencies for radicalism. As Karakayali points out, sociocultural milieus and religious identities, which have survived even in the third generation, as well as a widespread inferiority complex were also important factors in shaping political preferences. Another democratic problem become manifest in the behaviour of some prominent Turkish politicians who took active role in the campaign pushing openly for Erdogan’s authoritarian reform plans. Therefore, Karakayali suggests that the big parties, which, in the past, were eager to welcome to their rows any leading figure from the Turkish community regardless of their real political convictions, must draw honest consequences from recent processes and acknowledge that political gains alone cannot justify such potentially destructive practices.

Jubilant supporters of Erdoğan in Berlin
Source: tagesspiegel.de

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, likewise, put the blame on the German politics which readily embraced multiculturalism as an antidote to the vilified German nationalism but left out of consideration those phenomena that did not fit into its worldview. As the newspaper argues, the policy towards migrants and their descendants was shaped by a wrongly understood tolerance and generosity. Equating integration with coercive assimilation and, consequently, demanding little active effort from the minority, however, proved to be a mistake in the long run. Erdoğan’s emotionally filled and aggressive campaign exploited the weaknesses of this lenient approach, cast Germany’s elite indirectly as an adversary of the Turkish diaspora and suggested that his supporters, who feel excluded, could regain self-respect and give voice to their discontent by voting for him. But such mantras are self-fulfilling because they inhibit successful integration endeavours. It has to be noted, however, that well-educated members of the Turkish community took a stand against Erdoğan and appeared both surprised and concerned at the sights of the results. They induce a reflection on the reasons why many Turkish feel let-down and see the need for an open intra-Turkish dialog to resolve the serious internal differences.

As the Die ZEIT pointed out, voter turnout in Germany, in contrast to Turkey, was relatively low (86% versus 46%), which means that from the 2.9 billion people with Turkish migration background – not each of them is entitled to vote – only 15% favoured expressively the path Erdoğan proposed. To understand their attitudes, it is fundamental to get a clear picture of their background. Both in Turkey and in Germany, the president’s most eager supporters maintain close links to the underdeveloped Turkish countryside, live in the same religious-conservative milieu and feel socially sidelined. Consequently, they are prone to emotionally-driven decisions. In view of this, hindering representatives of the AKP from campaigning in EU countries was rather a miscalculation which only strengthened Erdoğan’s camp. As a conclusion, the Die ZEIT proposes that Germany learn from its earlier mistakes and do more to provide for effective democratic value transfer during the current migration wave.

Results in German cities
Source: dw.com

What will come?

All the experts agree that the ensuing years will be characterized by a severe tension in the German–Turkish relationship. There are at least three reasons for this. Firstly, the results show that Turkey will probably not follow the Western path and acknowledge the values it is based on, nevertheless, Western countries will need it as a pivotal part of their security architecture. Secondly, as the Der Spiegel argues, there is little hope that the president’s supporters, who are captivated by his misogynic and totalitarian views, will change their attitudes. And thirdly, Erdoğan, while branding anybody opposing his intentions as a terrorist, closes the doors on future negotiations.


To see the wider picture, it is worth mentioning that Turkish voters from other European countries with a long tradition of representative institutions, like Belgium, France, Denmark or Norway, also approved of the planned presidential system, whilst those from Canada and the United States took a clear stand against it.

Overseas results
Source: statista.com

The counterexamples suggest that full-fledged democracy in itself has neither fostered nor impeded the spread of authoritarian sentiments. Accusing the whole Turkish diaspora of non-democratic attitudes and engaging in cultural-determination-focused argumentation would also lead us astray. Real explanations require digging deeper – a task which politicians and scholars cannot allow themselves to avoid since the consequences burying their head in the sand may be serious for the Western democratic stability.


Opening pic by spiegel.de

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