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.