Germany Sees Turkey’s Narrow ‘Yes’ Victory as a Sign of Resistance to Erdogan’s Agenda

By James Carstensen | April 18, 2017 | 1:53am EDT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a summit in Istanbul on May 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Ozan Kose,Pool)

Berlin ( – German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she respects the decision of Turkish citizens to support constitutional changes that will hand sweeping executive powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but warned of the need to respect democratic values and dialogue.

Germany, home to a three million-strong ethnic Turkish community, watched the referendum process warily. But rather than express concern over the implications of the outcome of Sunday’s vote some leaders here see the narrow margin of the “yes” victory (51.41 percent) as a sign that despite his best efforts, Erdogan’s bid for more power faces significant resistance.

In a joint statement with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel highlighted how the Turkish vote revealed “how deeply Turkish society is divided” and called for political dialogue to address concerns over the transition to the new presidential system in Turkey.

The Social Democrats (SPD) candidate for chancellor in this year’s election, Martin Schulz, similarly drew attention to the split. “The close outcome of the referendum shows that Erdogan is not Turkey,” he tweeted.

SPD lawmaker Axel Schaefer warned that even a democratic vote could have negative consequences for democracy. Pointing to Germany’s own history, he compared the situation to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s.

“The Erdogan referendum is leading Turkey into absolutism and the 1933 German parliamentary election led Germany into the abyss,” Reuters quoted Schaefer as saying.

Sahra Wagenknecht, leader of the Left Party, warned of “a dictatorship through manipulation,” and called for an immediate halt to Turkey’s E.U. membership talks.

Ahead of the referendum, tensions arose between the E.U. and Turkey, particular in E.U. member states with large Turkish populations like Germany.

The majority of Turks in Germany who were eligible to take part in the referendum voted “yes,” indicating that political rifts in Turkey will continue to play out in Germany as well.

Germany and Turkey are already grappling with various disputes. The German government’s decision to block Turkish politicians from lobbying in Germany prompted Nazi comparisons from Erdogan, and Turkey continues to detain a German-Turkish journalist whom Erdogan has accused of being a “terrorist spy.”

On the eve of the referendum Michelle Müntefering, who heads the Turkey committee in the German Parliament, described the atmosphere as “certainly one of the most difficult phases in Turkish-German relations.”

Greens party leader Cem Özdemir, who is of Turkish descent, said the changes approved in the referendum would be a tipping point that would necessitate a re-evaluation of Turkish-German relations.

“The freedom of the press and freedom of expression in the country is already almost non-existent,” he said in the daily news program Phoenix. “With the reform, these conditions would be vindicated in the constitution, making President Erdogan omnipotent.”

Developments in Turkey could have implications for Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union.

Speaking after the referendum, Erdogan signaled that his first task would be to reintroduce the death penalty in Turkey. The E.U. warned earlier that reinstatement of capital punishment would bring Turkey’s accession talks to a halt.

Another critical question raised by Erdogan’s push for power is the fate of the E.U.-Turkey migrant deal, and specifically whether Turkey will continue to honor its agreement to take back those migrants arriving on E.U. territory who do not apply for asylum or whose claims are rejected.

However, Gerald Knaus, a policy consultant who helped broker the agreement with Turkey told German media Monday that despite tensions, Turkey is unlikely to rescind, due in part to the fact the deal includes an E.U. commitment to provide Turkey with six billion euros ($6.39 billion) by 2018.

“We must not forget that the Turks themselves proposed this agreement,” he told the Tagesschau daily. “Turkey has said it will take people back, expecting a few thousand, which is not a particular burden for Turkey, which is the country with the most refugees in the world.”

Nonetheless, European concerns remain over the referendum procedure and the constitutional changes themselves.

Turkey’s government says the changes are needed to improve economic and political stability. Critics see the move, which would enable Erdogan to remain in office until 2029 but as a powerful executive president, as a step toward one-man rule.

In their statement Merkel and Gabriel noted that both the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and the Council of Europe’s legal body, the Venice Commission, had expressed “serious doubts” about the referendum being held under fair conditions.

The ODIHR is the election-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The Council of Europe is a 47-member s grouping formed in the aftermath of World War II and responsible for the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.

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