Germany could prove to be a decisive factor in President Erdogan’s plans to secure greater power – through the large number of Turks living in the country with a Turkish passport.
Europe’s largest economy has more than 1.4 million people of Turkish origin eligible to vote in parliamentary elections, or roughly as many as Bursa, Turkey’s fourth largest city after Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. And Berlin has the largest community of Turks outside their country with more than 200,000 – of whom 140,000 are eligible to vote.
Mr. Erdogan calls them “our strength abroad” and is counting on their support.
After a 12-year run as prime minister, he has been Turkey’s president since August. In that largely ceremonial function, he is supposed to be non-partisan, above the political fray.
Mr. Erdogan’s party requires a two-thirds majority, or 367 seats, allowing it to rewrite the constitution.
Instead, Mr. Erdogan has campaigned aggressively for his Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP. He has turned the ballot into a one-man effort to rewrite the constitution and strengthen presidential powers.
His critics speak of an attempt to establish a quasi-dictatorship. His supporters, on the other hand, praise him for trying to replace the secular system of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, with a government based on Islamist values that puts religion at the center of public life.
To change the system, Mr. Erdogan’s party requires a two-thirds majority, or 367 seats, allowing it to rewrite the constitution.
Polls suggest that the AKP will likely win the most seats in parliament in the Sunday elections but whether it will have enough seats to change the constitution outright or hold a constitutional referendum is too close to call.
The main question in the election is whether Turkish voters will opt to reign in Mr. Erdogan and deny him, at least for now, his plans for systemic change and entrenching his own power.
Berliners of Turkish origin are not indifferent to the politics of their president but are hesitant to voice their opposition to the AKP in public, for feat of repercussions in Berlin and in Turkey.
Such is the case with a group of Turks who agreed to discuss the upcoming election and share their views on their president with Tagesspiegel, on the condition they be given fictitious names and not be photographed.
“I don’t want any trouble,” said Atila, who runs a small store in the Schöneberg neighborhood and doesn’t want to risk offending any of his customers. His neighbor, a baker, also of Turkish origin, recently called him a “traitor to his country,” because he had criticized Mr. Erdogan’s party
Atila, 39, and his wife Ferda, 27 have two children, and live in Schöneberg in central Berlin. Ferda’s older sister, Özlem, and her husband, Mehmet, also joined the discussion.
Ferda, Özle and Atila were born and raised in Germany. Their parents immigrated to Germany from Izmir and Anatolia, and are now spending their retirement years in both Turkey and Germany. Mehmet, in his mid-40s, spent his childhood and adolescence in Turkey. He came to Germany 20 years ago.
The conversation quickly turned to Islam. All four are devout Muslims and say their faith in Allah helps them cope with everyday life. They fast during Ramadan, but Mehmet is the only one who prays regularly. He is from a family that takes its religious obligations very seriously, he said. His father is an imam at his mosque.
The economic slowdown has led to higher unemployment, currently at 11.2 percent, the highest in four years.
Mehmet would like his wife Özlem to wear a headscarf and pray as he does, but he tolerates the fact that she doesn’t do either. Mehmet was the only member of the group who defended the Turkish president and the AKP’s policies without reserve. Özlem stayed out of the conversation, saying she has never lived in Turkey and doesn’t know enough about it.
“Twenty years ago, perhaps two out of 30 families in Turkey owned a home and a car,” Mehmet said. “Today, all own homes and two cars. Erdogan has done amazing things. He has achieved 7 percent economic growth. Just look at the hospitals and how good they are today.”
Mehmet said the dusty country roads they used to drive along when he was a child are now three-lane highways.
His brother-in-law Atila disagreed. “What economic growth are you talking about?” he asked. “It’s all built on debt, with borrowed money from abroad. The whole thing will reveal itself as a disaster after the election.”
Turks haven’t seen their education improve, he added, because the country doesn’t invest in it. The president and his aides are just as corrupt as the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, the country’s largest opposition party. Mr. Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, established the party in 1923.
“The AKP has only done things for its own people,” Ferda said. Those who live in Erdogan’s housing complexes are doing well, she noted, while other neighborhoods are just as run-down as always.
Ferda voted in an absentee ballot for the CHP, not because the party represented her interests, but for strategic reasons. “My main concern is that the AKP doesn’t receive a two-thirds majority,” she said.
Her uncle Sinan, 76, joined the group later. He came to Germany as a student and has been living in the country for 50 years.
“Erdogan did some good things when he first came into office,” Sinan said, noting that Mr. Erdogan had deprived the military of its power, reformed the healthcare sector and kick-started the economy. “But now he behaves as autocratically as a Sultan. I don’t like that.”
Sinan also voted in an absentee ballot for the CHP, even though he believes the AKP is the better-positioned party. He said it’s important to force the AKP to return to the policies of its early years by forcing the party to form a coalition government.
Atila, who argued so bitterly against Mr. Erdogan, said he decided not to vote. “No party represents my views and has honest policies.” But Turkey, he was quick to add, still means a lot to him, partly because he is so frustrated by Germany.
Anyone who asks Turks in Berlin about Turkey and Mr. Erdogan is quickly drawn into a conversation about Germany and about issues of identity.
Germans, Atila said, complain to him in his store every day about how bad they think the Turks are. His black hair and five o’clock shadow, he believes, is enough for some people to see him as a terrorist sympathizer. When he challenges their clichés, customers ignore him. “I’m not taken seriously,” he said.
Atila has received several letters from a government agency, asking if he would like a German passport, but he doesn’t want one. “I will always be a second-class citizen, even with a German passport,” he said.
Simit, a 31-year-old teacher whom Tagesspiegel met in a Turkish breakfast café in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, is familiar with the frustrations of so many Turks in their twenties living in Germany. But in contrast to Atila, he said this is precisely why Mr. Erdogan appeals to many young Turks in Germany. “He is the first Turkish politician who is interested in us here in Germany,” Simit said.
Turks in Germany are anxious to see the election results, in both senses of the word.
Whether Mr. Erdogan will succeed with his plan remains to be seen but he has a huge and influential support base. He won 52 percent of the presidential vote in 2014 thanks to the economic boom on the Bosporus. Under his leadership as prime minister, the economy grew 6 percent annually. In 2010 and 2011, Turkey joined China to lead the world with economic growth of 9 percent.
But the economy has been sputtering over the past two years, forecasted to grow only 3 percent this year. Mustafa Sönmez, an economist, projects per capita income in 2015 to drop to 10,000 from $10,537 in 2014.
The economic slowdown has led to higher unemployment, currently at 11.2 percent, the highest in four years. Those are the official figures but some labor experts say the real level is 20 percent.
Also, the foreign venture capital that fueled the economic boom of the past years began to dry up in 2013. “The reasons are high interest rate expectations, the wars in Iraq and Syria and investor concerns over domestic stability,” Mr. Sönmez told Handelsblatt.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. Claudia Keller is an editor with Tagespiegel. Gerd Höhler, Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Turkey, contributed to the story. To contact the editors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org