Until Friday, most political observers in Germany thought Angela Merkel’s biggest opponent in September’s upcoming election would be Martin Schulz, the unknown, but pugnacious Social Democrat who has captivated an electorate lukewarm about a fourth Merkel term.
But in a tiny town in southwest Germany, a new, more potent rival may have emerged this week to challenge Ms. Merkel and claim the spoiler role – Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the de facto leader of 1.5 million Turkish voters who live and work in Germany.
Mr. Erdogan wasn’t in Germany himself, but he let it be known through cabinet members that if Germany didn’t start to “behave,’’ he might void his country’s deal on Syrian refugees. Turkey last year cut off the flow of refugees into Europe in exchange for €6 billion in E.U. aid and political concessions to loosen restrictions on Turks traveling in the 28-nation bloc.
The reason for his latest threat was the decision by Gaggenau, a village 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Stuttgart on the French border, to cancel a speaking appearance by Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. Mr. Bozdag was to speak yesterday to the Union of European-Turkish Democrats, an association of ex-pat Turks living in Germany, in the town’s meeting hall.
Town supervisors had revoked the speaking permit, citing security reasons and concerns that Mr. Bozdag’s visit would attract too big a crowd for the “Festhall’’ and the local police to handle. Following the decision, someone called in a bomb threat to the hall, forcing police to close it.
There are about 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany – most descendants of “guest workers’’ brought in to rebuild Germany after World War II – and half still vote in Turkish elections.
Mr. Bozdag wanted to stump for Turkish votes in Gaggenau ahead of his country’s April 16 national referendum, in which Turks are being asked to change their constitution to create a stronger presidency –and give Mr. Erdogan more power.
The referendum has split Turks in Germany, although some polls show many are in favor and Mr. Erdogan’s support is strong among ex-pats.
The German ex-pat votes could swing the election and Mr. Erdogan is pulling out the stops.
Mr. Erdogan let it be known through his cabinet members that if Germany didn’t start to “behave,’’ he just might void his country’s deal on Syrian refugees.
He had plans to send his economics minister, Nihat Zeybekci, to Cologne-Porz, a big Turkish neighborhood in northwest Germany, on Sunday but officials there balked at issuing a permit. Mr. Zeybekci is reportedly trying to arrange an appearance on the same day in nearby Leverkusen, the industrial headquarters city of pharmaceutical maker Bayer, instead.
Traveling in Tunisia on Friday, Ms. Merkel defended Gaggenau’s actions, saying such decisions were made at the local level.
Two members of Mr. Erdogan’s cabinet attacked Germany in unusually direct terms.
Mr. Bozdag, traveling in eastern Turkey today, called Gaggenau’s decision to cancel his speaking appearance a “fascist move,’’ according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, accused Germany of trying to prevent a “strong Turkey.’’ If Germany wanted good relations with Turkey, he said the country should “learn to behave.’’
The escalation raises the odds of an unpleasant, last-minute political surprise for Ms. Merkel, who is running neck-and-neck with Mr. Schulz in the polls. If Mr. Erdogan follows through on his threat and lets refugees flow back again into Germany, it could tip the election to Mr. Schulz.
The new crisis with Ankara sheds unwanted attention again on Ms. Merkel’s decision to forge an E.U. deal with Mr. Erdogan, whose government later threw thousands of Turks into jail after last year’s botched coup attempt.
Relations between Germany and Turkey, already strained by Germany’s long-standing resistance to Turkey’s bid for E.U. membership, have been steadily deteriorating.
Turkey last year refused to let German politicians visit Bundeswehr soldiers stationed at a NATO base in Incirlik in southern Turkey. When German lawmakers passed a resolution condemning the action, Mr. Erdogan gave an interview in which he singled out and attacked the German-Turkish members of the Bundestag, questioning their Turkish heritage and loyalty.
That prompted a German television satirist to read a vulgar ditty about Mr. Erdogan on air accusing him of bestiality, among other things. Mr. Erdogan sued for slander in a German court, but the case was thrown out. Last month, Turkey jailed a Turkish-German journalist, Deniz Yücel, on charges of inciting terrorism and sedition for articles about emails allegedly hacked from the account of Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister and Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Ms. Merkel this week criticized the jailing of Mr. Yücel, a freelance correspondent for Die Welt. Mr. Erdogan in turn accused Ms. Merkel of trying to interfere in Turkey’s referendum.
Today, in the heart of Swabia in southwest Germany, Mr. Erdogan in effect let it be known that if Ms. Merkel meddles in his electoral plans, he will meddle in hers.
Kevin O’Brien is the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To reach him: firstname.lastname@example.org