AUTHORITARIAN DESCENT Turkey, Europe and the Crisis of Democracy

In Germany, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters are regularly accused of opposing democratic values. Torsten Albig, the premier of the German state of Schleswig Holstein, says Europeans also need to take a look in the mirror.
Winner? President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Picture source: Reuters

The returns, on first glance, may come as a surprise. About 63 percent of German Turks who participated in Turkey’s constitutional referendum voted to increase President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power, a far greater margin than voters actually living in Turkey.

This outcome has caused handwringing in Germany and triggered a debate over whether or not the community of 3.5 million people of Turkish origin in Germany are fully integrated into society and share the country’s democratic values.

Torsten Albig, the premier of the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany, believes the outcome of the Turkey referendum demonstrates how people in general, not Turks in particular, are susceptible to the allure of the strongman.

“The voting of Turks in Germany is not an expression of a failed integration policy,” Mr. Albig told Handelsblatt. “It clearly shows that the campaign of an anti-democratic politician can catch on in a democratic population - not just in Turkey but also in all of Europe.”

Only 13 percent of people of Turkish origin in Germany voted for Erdogan. Torsten Albig, Premier, Schleswig Holstein

Not every one agrees with Mr. Albig. Integration policy is a fierce bone of political contention as Germans prepare to cast their ballots this year. Mr. Albig will face voters in another closely watched regional election in May as the country prepares for federal polls in September.

The national election has been couched as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government, which opened Germany’s borders to a million migrants and refugees in 2015. Mr. Albig’s center-left Social Democrats are Ms. Merkel’s junior coalition partners.

Leading members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has tried to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiment, called for Turks in Germany who backed Mr. Erdogan to leave the country.

“Erdogan's fifth column should go where they like most and also where they being – in Turkey,” said Alice Weidel, a member of the AfD’s executive committee. The far-right party, which at one point was polling as high as 13 percent nationally, has seen its support decline to single digits as of late.

Mr. Albig rejected the argument that the referendum result somehow demonstrates that people of Turkish origin in Germany are not committed to democracy. A closer look at the numbers reveals that a small but significant minority backed Mr. Erdogan, while most German Turks didn’t vote at all.

According to government statistics, there are around 1.4 million Turkish passport holders living in Germany who were eligible to vote in Mr. Erdogan’s referendum. Only around 660,000 actually cast ballots, and among them about 416,000 backed the constitutional changes.

“Only 13 percent of people of Turkish origin in Germany voted for Erdogan,” Mr. Albig said. “Voter participation was very low. Don’t forget that.”

There are also signs of such developments in other European states such as Hungary. We in Europe are moving toward a crisis of democratic identity. Trosten Albig, Premier, Schleswig Holstein

Nevertheless, Mr. Albig made clear that Mr. Erdogan’s political course is inconsistent with European values. Throughout Europe, calls are growing for Brussels to break off EU membership negotiations with Turkey once and for all.

“Erdogan is doing everything he can to distance his country from Europe,” Mr. Albig said. “I have strong doubts that a Turkey which behaves anti-democratically and wants to reintroduce the death penalty can have a place in Europe.”

The slide toward authoritarianism, however, is not limited to Turkey. The European Union increasingly clashes with current member states such as Poland and Hungary over the separation powers, the rule of law and freedom of the press.

“There are also signs of such developments in other European states such as Hungary,” Mr. Albig told Handelsblatt in an interview. “We in Europe are moving toward a crisis of democratic identity.”

Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Thomas Sigmund is Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau chief and chief of political reporting. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]