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Why Erdoğan is chasing Turkey’s overseas voters so hard

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is campaigning to greatly expand his presidential powers in an impending constitutional referendum. To win, he needs votes from the huge Turkish diaspora. His government is going after them with gusto – and in the course of just a few days, those efforts threw up a fully-fledged diplomatic fracas.

The Netherlands, staging an election of its own, stopped political campaigning by Turkey’s officials on its own territory, used dogs and water cannons to disperse Turkish demonstrators in Rotterdam, and barred Turkish ministers from addressing rallies.

The Erdoğan government was livid. Ministers called the Dutch “Nazi remnants”, threatened to retaliate in the “harshest ways”, including with sanctions, and sealed off the Dutch embassy and consulate in Turkey.

The stand-off dragged in other countries, too: Germany, Denmark and France all expressed their strong support for the Dutch, and NATO officials intervened to demand respectful relations among its members.

This is not a normal turn of events. Turkey has been campaigning for several years among the Turkish diaspora in Europe, including on Dutch territory, without any incidents like this. So why did this stand-off take place, and why now?

Part of the reason was of course the overlap with the Netherlands’ own parliamentary elections, which were already in the international limelight before the Rotterdam incident. Populist candidate Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom (PVV) have for years been campaigning against what they call the “Islamisation of the Netherlands”, railing against immigrants and open borders. The sight of Erdoğan’s authoritarian, nationalistic politics playing out on Dutch streets handed Wilders an opportunity to rail against the Dutch government’s supposed weakness, and to decry its support for migrants and the EU.

In the end, Wilders’s party underperformed at the polls, and the incumbent prime minister won a resounding victory – but the spectacle of the days before the election was sobering nonetheless. And leaving the Dutch election aside, something else is happening, too: while Erdoğan has been stirring up foreign voters to win elections for years, the way he is using them is changing.

Home and away

Large-scale voting from abroad is a relatively new political phenomenon. Its effects are still poorly understood, and it is more associated with the “low politics” of party dynamics than with the “high politics” of inter-state relations. In countries that allow dual citizenship and voting from abroad, parties often develop “extraterritorial” campaigns to harness the diaspora vote.

Many countries solicit emigrants for votes all over the world, and for many reasons. Latin American countries lead the charge. Mexican politicians, for instance, sometimes campaign in California, home to millions of emigrants. Even where they are not fully enfranchised, or where casting an absentee vote is difficult, Latino diasporas are considered important for the resources they can lend to political campaigns, or for the influence they wield over family members who can indeed vote domestically.

Overseas voters are also important for democracies that have emerged from conflict (Croatia, Kosovo), or which have seen many citizens disperse across the EU (Romania, Bulgaria).

Protesting outside the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul. EPA/Cem Turkel

This is all a matter of “low politics” – the nitty-gritty of campaigning and electoral calculation. Turkey’s efforts to get its diaspora voting began in a similar vein. Although Turkish leaders were for years interested in maintaining the Sunni Islam religion among emigrants, the diaspora vote really came to the fore with the rise of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) at the turn of the 21st century.

Once in government, the AKP began taking the Turkish diaspora very seriously as an electoral bloc; it not only granted citizens abroad the right to vote in parliamentary elections, but also opened a special agency dedicated to the needs of Turks abroad, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities. The diaspora vote has duly been a priority in the various elections held since the AKP first took the helm.

But just as Erdoğan’s style of government morphs into something more authoritarian, the role of disapora voters is changing too. His government’s pursuit of Turks abroad is moving into the realm of “high politics”. This is no longer a purely domestic political matter, but a part of Turkey’s increasingly contentious foreign relations.

The new era of creeping Turkish authoritarianism sits at odds with the country’s aspirations to join the EU, a project that seems more implausible by the day. Erdoğan is also now threatening to break a deal with the EU to accept refugees from the Syrian crisis, in the process both reducing people to bargaining chips and dialling up international tension.

The countries with whom he is sparring cannot have forgotten that they are host to millions of Turks, many of them citizens with the right to vote for a Turkish president. By taking his domestic referendum campaign abroad and getting into rows with foreign governments, Erdoğan has not only fired up the Turkish diaspora, but also turned the relatively simple business of getting emigrants to vote into an incendiary foreign policy weapon.

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