In the past four decades, it has become a staple of Turkish politics to increase extreme nationalist rhetoric in order to mobilize voters at the expense of the Kurds, a perennial favorite as internal enemy. Like the AKP government, previous ruling parties have tended to intensify the already omnipresent discourse on (Kurdish) terrorism and the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known colloquially by its abbreviation, PKK) right before elections in order to secure nationalist votes. The AKP remained committed to this unwritten electoral script until the last national election, which was held in November 2016.
But over the course of its campaign for the constitutional referendum, the AKP presented a new enemy. This time, the threat was not hiding within but was found among the ‘fascists’ and ‘Nazis’ of ‘Islamophobic Europe’. When the German and Dutch authorities prevented Turkish ministers from holding campaign events in Germany and the Netherlands in March of this year, Turkish-European relations escalated drastically over the span of a few days. President Erdoğan, along with several ministers, delivered public speeches vociferously denouncing German and Dutch politicians; they even spoke of a holy war between Turkey and Europe. In these same speeches, they called upon members of the Turkish diaspora in Europe to fulfill their patriotic duties not only to participate in the referendum, but also to give birth to five children in response to injustice in Europe. At the height of international attention upon the undemocratic conditions inside of Turkey, the AKP government skilfully relocated the theatre of the campaign from Turkey to Europe, where roughly 4.6 million (former and current) citizens from Turkey reside. The Turkish diaspora in Europe found itself suddenly on the frontlines of the referendum campaign. Since then, German, French, Dutch and Austrian media have been constantly reporting about their Turkish immigrant populations and their potential stances on the referendum. The Swiss tabloid Blick, for instance, called upon the Turkish community in Switzerland to vote “NO” in the referendum – otherwise they would no longer be welcome in Switzerland. This divisive rhetoric is only helping the AKP government to mobilize its electorate abroad and at home, particularly amid public opinion polls in Turkey that suggest a looming loss for the AKP’s referendum. It also deepens the cleavages among the heterogeneous populations gathered under the umbrella of “Turkish migrants.” For too long, the European public paid no attention to the plurality and the differences among migrants from Turkey, grouping them conveniently as mere “foreigners” or “Muslims.” The introduction of the external vote by the AKP government is now making those political differences visible and accessible in Europe, which will become even more apparent in the coming years.
In 2013, the Turkish parliament extended the right to participate in national elections, national referendums, and presidential elections to over 2.8 million Turkish citizens living abroad. While this may not sound high in absolute numbers, the expatriate vote makes up the fourth largest electorate after the electorate in Turkey`s largest cities Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. Given the history of migration and displacement from Turkey, the number of external votes is high and focuses the spotlight of election campaigns on countries like Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, where most of the eligible expatriate voters reside. While the participation in the expatriate vote was rather low at first, the last national elections in November 2015 recorded the participation of forty percent eligible expatriate voters worldwide, a figure that is considerably high when compared to other countries with similar voting rights. The introduction of the expatriate vote has enabled a political mapping of the global diaspora from Turkey, who have so far voted in three elections. The results of these elections show that although the AKP is the primary beneficiary of the expatriate vote, achieving proportionally better results abroad than in Turkey, they are not the sole beneficiary. In the June 2015 elections, for example, the HDP was also able to win more seats due to votes cast in diaspora, receiving over fifty percent of the vote in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Finland.
In the upcoming referendum, the expatriate vote will be critical for the outcome of the referendum, which will legally manifest Erdoğan`s autocracy if passed. Since the AKP cannot suppress the opposition residing in Europe in the same way as it has through its disenfranchising measures at the domestic level, it has diverted the discussion away from the political conditions in Turkey by presenting itself as the victim of undemocratic procedures in Europe. The calculations behind the AKP’s strategy of escalation and polarization are not difficult to decipher, which makes it even more disappointing that Germany and Netherlands so readily fell for the AKP’s endgame. Instead of subjecting the political preferences of migrants from Turkey to scrutiny, these countries could have mounted a more convincing response by improving political rights for migrants without citizenship who have been excluded from decision-making processes in European countries where they have been living for decades. But, of course, this is not how things work in contemporary configurations of democracy that still rest on the idea of citizenship. In such configurations, refugees and immigrants remain at the fringe of the political, whether in Turkey, Europe, or elsewhere. As was the case with the recent refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, in which Erdoğan used Syrian refugees to increase his political leverage, migrants from Turkey to Europe have now become political instruments in the battle over the referendum. As Erdoğan already knows well from the refugee deal, Europe is a reliable partner in the instrumentalization of migrants for political gains.
[Bilgin Ayata is Assistant Professor in Political Sociology at the University of Basel. She received her PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University. She has published on transnational diasporic activism, the politics of displacement, foreign policy, genocide denial and memory regimes.]