BERLIN: In the run-up to Germany’s September 24 election, voters in the city of Cologne were surprised to see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan look down at them from campaign posters.
To be sure, Erdogan is not trying to take the job of Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he is engaged in a raging war of words.
Rather, Erdogan’s face is meant to promote the tiny “Alliance of German Democrats” (ADD) party, which is campaigning in Cologne, a bastion of the three million-strong Turkish community.
The posters offer a clue to which alternatives Erdogan had in mind when he urged German Turks last month to vote against Merkel’s conservatives and other “enemies” of Turkey.
He accused her Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens of playing a game of “the more you beat up Turkey, the more votes you get” and said that opposing them was “a struggle of honor”.
The direct ballot-box impact is expected to be negligible, given that only around one million of Germany’s 61 million eligible voters have Turkish roots, and that two-thirds of these tend to vote SPD.
Nonetheless, Germany fears that Erdogan is sowing discord among Turkish expatriates and reopening old wounds from the Turkish “guest worker” experience of the 1960s and 1970s.
Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Justice Minister Heiko Maas recently warned that Erdogan is spreading “propaganda” through state media, political groups and Ankara-controlled mosques, spelling “a threat to the democratic culture of Germany”.
And the chief of domestic security service BfV, Hans-Georg Maassen, has warned that Turkey’s MIT secret service has been active in Germany, surveilling and intimidating Erdogan critics.
The largest Turkish community abroad has produced stars in German cinema, politics and sports, but it still broadly lags the rest of society in income, creating some lingering resentment.
For many Muslims, a sense of alienation has been fueled by a rise in far-right hate speech and attacks since the large refugee influx of 2015 and a string of jihadist attacks in Europe.
Alexander Gauland of the anti-Islam Alternative for Germany (AfD) party sparked outrage recently when he said Germany’s integration commissioner Aydan Ozoguz should be “disposed of in Anatolia”.
Erdogan has for years rallied ethnic Turks in Germany, about one million of whom can vote in their ancestral homeland. Around 60 percent of these have backed his Islamic-rooted AKP party.
In 2008 Erdogan caused a storm in Cologne when he called the “assimilation” of newcomers a “crime against humanity”.
He again stoked the Turkish pride of some 20,000 flag-waving followers there in a 2014 event, while outside protesters waved banners that read “corruption, sharia, sultanate—Erdogan, you’re not a democrat”.
Tensions rose sharply when Germany’s parliament last year voted to declare the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians a genocide, and Erdogan accused Turkish-German MPs of having “tainted blood”.
Ties further deteriorated after Turkey’s failed 2016 coup and subsequent mass crackdown that has left tens of thousands behind bars, including a dozen Germans or dual citizens.
Erdogan has meanwhile accused Germany of sheltering followers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he blames for the coup attempt.
“A deep chasm is running through Turkey, and also through the Turkish-German community,” said Yunus Ulusoy, 53, of the Center for Turkey Studies and Integration Research.
“The Turkish political landscape has always been divided— between left and right, secular and religious, Kurds and nationalists. What’s new is the intensity of the division, and the focus on a single person, Erdogan.”
A Berlin doner kebab shop worker, asked about Erdogan, spat out an expletive, then looked over his shoulder at another guest sitting a few tables away and quickly added that he didn’t really know much about politics.
Baklava shop worker Dilara Yilmaz more charitably said Erdogan had “put Turkey in a good position in the world … the roads are better, everything is better now in Turkey. I see it when I go back.”
Ulusoy said the message that “Erdogan is building a strong Turkey can resonate, especially when combined with the experience of migration, of exclusion and discrimination that some Turkish-Germans have.
“Erdogan says: no matter where you are, what citizenship you hold, if you feel you belong to Anatolia, to Turkey, then you are my brothers and my sisters.”
Despite the tensions, Bekir Yilmaz, Berlin’s Turkish community leader, took a relaxed view and said that German Turks “are sufficiently empowered to decide who and what they vote for”.
In a similar vein, Germany’s Turkish community leader Gokay Sofuoglu said “we don’t need lessons in democracy” and that Erdogan should end his “paternalistic attitude toward Turks in Germany”.