Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is going ahead with his visit to Germany amid tensions at home due to clashes between riot police and protesters in İstanbul’s Okmeydanı neighborhood as the country continues to reel from the deadliest mining disaster in Turkish history.
The visit not only comes in the wake of the mining disaster in the western district of Soma, which killed 301 workers and drew harsh criticism from the German press, but only a day after clashes between riot police and protesters in the Okmeydanı neighborhood left two citizens dead.
Erdoğan said the violence in Okmeydanı appeared to have special meaning ahead of his planned visit to Germany, where he will hold a rally addressing German residents of Turkish origin.
“Some are saying that it would be better for the prime minister not to visit Germany at this time. I am sorry but we will go,” said Erdoğan on Friday, despite criticisms from several politicians calling on Erdoğan to cancel the visit.
Erdoğan said that they should keep their advice to themselves. “If we are doing politics in Turkey, if I am the prime minister of this country, and if I have 3 million citizens living there [in Germany], I will go,” Erdoğan said.
On Saturday, the prime minister is scheduled to address Turkish citizens in Germany at a rally in Cologne organized by the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), a Turkish civil society organization based in Germany, at the Lanxess Arena. At least 16,000 supporters of the prime minister are expected to attend the event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the UETD’s founding. Erdoğan’s visit to Cologne is a part of his tour of European countries to woo voters after the introduction of a change to election laws enabling Turkish citizens living abroad to vote in their host countries without returning to Turkey.
Several politicians are concerned that Erdoğan will bring Turkey’s political polarization to German streets, despite an appeal by Chancellor Angela Merkel for him to take a sensitive tone. In her remarks to German daily Passau Neue Presse, Merkel recalled Erdoğan’s previous visits to Cologne and Berlin, indicating that he had not shown restraint on those occasions. “I am confident that he will do this [show restraint] on Saturday with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity,” she said.
Deputy Prime Minister Emrullah İşler, responding to increasing German criticism over Erdoğan’s visit, said: “The prime minister is a politician who knows very well what message, depending on the place, he should deliver.”
Speaking to TRT in Cologne, İşler noted that it was normal to see reactions in democratic countries, referring to reactions against Erdoğan’s visit to Germany. “However, it is we who decide on what we are going to say and where to speak. Our prime minister is a statesman and has also behaved with the sensitivity of a statesman,” İşler said.
While concerns that Erdoğan’s visit might lead to polarization have increased, several politicians have called on Erdoğan to act with “responsibility and sensitivity” during the visit.
Cansel Kızıltepe from Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) called on Erdoğan to use more fitting rhetoric and to weigh his words during the visit. Kızıltepe also touched on the increasing polarization in Turkey due to political turmoil, saying that the current situation in Turkey concerns him and many others in Germany.
Aygül Özkan, Lower Saxony’s new minister for social affairs, said that the autocratic approaches harm Turley both in the national as well as international arena.
Cemal Karakaş, an academic in Germany, underlined that the Turkish prime minister had the right to seek votes from Turks living in Germany; however, he said, people also have the right to protest Erdoğan.
“This is a very normal situation in liberal democracies,” he added.
Meanwhile, around 30,000 anti-Erdoğan protesters are due to gather nearby on Saturday. The Alevi community, critical of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AK Party), has called for a demonstration in Cologne to protest Erdoğan’s visit.
Under the motto “We say no to Erdoğan,” Turkish and Kurdish Alevis are preparing to protest the visit in Cologne’s city center. According to an announcement from the Cologne police department, nine groups will stage protests against Erdoğan on Saturday.
Some German lawmakers are concerned by what they see as Erdoğan’s inflammatory language and authoritarian behavior in dealing with demonstrations and in handling a corruption scandal that touched on former ministers. His expected candidacy in August presidential elections could further raise passions.
Erdoğan typically addresses a mass audience of expatriate Turks when visiting Germany. They are rousing patriotic affairs with thousands waving the Turkish flag. In 2008 he caused uproar by warning Germany’s largest minority against assimilation.
At least 16,000 supporters are expected at the 10th anniversary of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD).
The event also falls a year after anti-government protests swept the country, fired largely by a violent police crackdown on a small demonstration against development of a city park. Erdoğan has denounced protesters variously as vandals, terrorists and anarchists.
As many as 30,000 anti-Erdoğan protesters are due to gather nearby on Saturday, as well as a German far-right party, leading Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdoğan paper in Turkey to warn on its front page on Friday of a “trap”. Berlin, it suggested, wanted to hold Erdoğan responsible for stirring trouble.
Critics in Germany say it is insensitive to give such a speech 11 days after Turkey suffered its worst ever mining accident, in which 301 miners died.
They also oppose giving Erdoğan a platform when there is deep doubt in Europe about the direction Ankara is taking – two months before he is expected to stand for a presidency he aspires to turn from a largely figurehead role to that of a strong executive head of state.
Erdoğan, for his part, portrays his government as fighting an international conspiracy to undermine Turkey as an emerging power in the region. His outspoken manner constitutes part of his appeal in his conservative Anatolian heartland.
Merkel told the Saarbruecker Zeitung paper in an interview published on Friday: “I assume he knows how sensitive this event is, especially this time, and that he will act responsibly.”
But she acknowledged Berlin was “concerned about some developments in Turkey, such as actions against demonstrators, attacks on social networks and the situation for Christians”.
The two leaders spoke by telephone on Thursday, Merkel’s office said, with Erdoğan, by far the most popular politician in Turkey, outlining plans for his visit.
“You can hope that Erdoğan will be sensitive but you cannot expect it,” said Gokay Sofuoglu, co-leader of the Turkish Community in Germany organization, noting that people were very divided about the visit. “He will use the event to win votes.”
“Anybody who knows him also knows that whether it be loss of life, or corruption allegations, he always manages to twist events to boost his own support,” he said.
Last month, when German President Joachim Gauck criticized Erdoğan’s leadership style and curbs on civil liberties, the Turkish premier responded: “Keep your advice to yourself.”
The UETD says their anniversary event will be somber in tone to reflect mourning for the miners and it is unrelated to the presidential poll. But critics feel Erdoğan’s very appearance in Germany is inevitably an appeal for support from expatriate Turks, significant voters after changes to the electoral system.
Some 3 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany and 1.4 million Turkish citizens can vote, a number equivalent to the electorate of Turkey’s fifth largest city Adana, according to the Institute of Turkish Studies and Integration (ZfTI).
Under previous rules, expats could only vote at Turkey’s borders. Around 62 percent of those who did in 2011 backed Erdoğan’s AK Party, but few of those eligible voted.
Erdoğan, in power for more than a decade, has weathered a bitter power struggle with an influential Islamic preacher, as well the graft scandal he says was engineered to undermine him. Most recently he was accused by critics of insensitivity in denouncing protests over the mining disaster.
His two-week closure of social networking site Twitter and a block on access to video-sharing platform YouTube earlier this year drew condemnation around the world, yet he remains hugely popular among Turkey’s poorer and more religious voters.
“We want to show Erdoğan that he has more opponents in Germany than supporters and that here we can demonstrate, unlike in Turkey. We want him to see there is a democratic culture here, and he is undemocratic,” said Yilmaz Karaman, a spokesman for Germany’s Alevi Community who are organizing the protest.
Alevis are a religious minority in mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey who espouse a liberal version of Islam and have often been at odds with Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted government.
Events in Turkey in recent years have shocked a diaspora whose divisions mirror those at home.
“Erdoğan has really taken Turkey places. People should be grateful. Of course he has a temper. But calling him a dictator is ridiculous. He works and works for our country,” said 70-year-old Hasan Oz, a retired machine operator living in Germany for 45 years. He plans to vote for Erdoğan as president.
But a friend sitting with him at a street cafe in Berlin, who declined to give his name, thought differently.
“Erdoğan did a good thing in curbing the military and the economic strength is very admirable. But during the last years the balance between economic reforms and democratic reforms got lost, and now people’s freedoms are being restricted.”
German media reported that in Europe, and particularly in Germany, all eyes are fixed on Erdoğan’s visit to Cologne, while what kind of rhetoric Erdoğan will bring along on his visit to Germany remains to be seen.
German media have been questioning whether the tension that started between Turkey and Germany during the visit of German President Joachim Gauck, who criticized Erdoğan’s leadership style, to Turkey last month will be reflected in Erdoğan’s visit.
While some believe that Erdoğan may give moderate remarks, others are concerned that he may further escalate tension between the two countries.
Stating that the controversial reports published in Turkish and German media before Gauck’s visit to Turkey had increased tensions, Deutsche Welle recalled the remarks of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who said: “If you come and say that there is no justice or rights in Turkey, we will also so the same thing to you.”