According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, around 6 million Turkish citizens live abroad. Around 90 per cent of this population lives in Western Europe. In the last decade, concurrent with a global increase in diaspora policies, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has systematically designed and implemented policies targeting the Turkish population outside Turkey. External voting is one such policy. Turkish citizens abroad cast their votes for the first time in the 2014 Presidential elections at polling stations around the world.
Since then popular support for the ruling AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has provoked much controversy, especially within continental Europe. The most recent example was a debate in Germany over the photo of two German footballers of Turkish origin – Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan – taken with Erdogan one month ahead of the 2018 elections. The basic premise in these debates is often that having political ties with Turkey is a sign of failed “integration” and of lacking “loyalty” to democratic values and norms.
Important as these questions over loyalty and democratic culture are, they are insufficient to understand why Turkish citizens outside Turkey vote as they vote. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the focus on loyalty and belonging risks homogenizing a diverse range of voting preferences.
Even though the ruling AKP and President Erdogan have been gaining on average higher share of votes abroad than they have been within Turkey, a decomposition of votes abroad by single countries demonstrates a more complex picture. The second is that focusing on the “vote” itself, risks overlooking how and to what ends voters are mobilized; voting is, after all, only the final step of a longer process. In the rest of this essay, I will shed the light on these two aspects by mainly focusing on Western Europe.
We should be wary of not conflating the motivations of the Turkish ruling elites with the motivations of the voters themselves. For President Erdogan, getting the support of the diaspora might serve to consolidate his power whereby for the electorate voting for Erdogan-AKP might be caused by the feelings of empowerment.
Voting behavior of Turkish citizens abroad1
Between the 2014 presidential election and the June 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections,2 the number of registered voters abroad increased from about 2.8 million to 3 million. During the same period, the voter turnout rate also increased from 18.9 per cent to 50 per cent.
The vote shares of both the AKP and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been higher abroad than in Turkey in each of the three parliamentary elections between 2014 and 2018. In June 2018 parliamentary elections, AKP’s vote share within Turkey was 42.56 per cent whereby it was 51.73 per cent abroad. Similarly, HDP gained 11.7 per cent of the votes in Turkey whereby its vote share abroad was 17.31. A similar trend was also visible in the June and November 2015 elections.
Political parties’ vote shares across countries manifests that the AKP’s vote share in Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Austria was higher than its overall vote share abroad. For instance, AKP gained, in the June 2018 elections, 56.3 per cent of the votes in Germany, 63.35 per cent in the Netherlands, 65.08 per cent in Belgium and 63.24 per cent in Austria. In the June 2015 elections, AKP’s vote share in Germany was 53.65 and between 60-65 per cent in the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria.
HDP, on the other hand, gained significantly more votes in Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and the UK than its average abroad votes. In June 2018 elections, HDP’s vote share was 37.27 in Sweden, 40.96 in Switzerland, 48.2 in Finland, and 49.34 in the UK. A similar trend was also present in the June 2015 elections with HDP gaining 43.19 per cent of the votes in Sweden, 47.51 per cent in Switzerland, 57.8 per cent in Finland, and 59.31 per cent in the UK.
This variation in the vote shares of the AKP and HDP reflects emigration patterns from Turkey abroad. As a consequence of the Labor Recruitment Agreements signed with Germany in 1961, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands in 1964, France in 1965, and Sweden in 1967, Turkish citizens, of both ethnically Turkish and Kurdish origin, arrived in Western Europe in the 1960s as workers. Family unifications started in the 1970s.
Around the same time, a first wave of émigrés, mainly Kurds and Alevi’s, arrived in the UK and continental Europe. A second wave followed in the aftermath of the military coup in 1980. Political immigration continued during the second half of the 1980s and the ‘90s during the war between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Why are votes abroad important
Thinking of the voting behavior of Turkish citizens abroad as a question of loyalty and democratic culture ignores this diversity in their electoral preferences. It also obscures the fact that voter turnout rates abroad, despite the increase between 2014 and 2018, still remain at a relatively low rate of 50 per cent. In other words, 50 per cent of the eligible voters do not vote.
Does this mean that they are more loyal to the countries that they live in than those who vote? Or that they have a more solid democratic understanding? How can one reconcile not voting with one of the core principles of democracy: political participation? None of these questions adequately addresses the importance of voting abroad.
At a material level, external voting had a direct effect on the outcome of presidential elections and the 2017 referendum. For instance, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won 50.8 per cent of the eligible votes within Turkey in the 2018 Presidential election, barely winning in the first round. The 894,585 votes casted for him abroad did not determine his electoral victory but contributed to it. Similarly, votes abroad were also quite influential in the 2017 referendum, constituting around 19 per cent (256,000) of the total difference (1.37 million votes) between the YES and NO votes.
Beyond their material implications, votes abroad are also symbolically important for two reasons. The first is the extension of political participation to citizens abroad as part of the Turkish state’s concerted efforts at forming a diaspora population. Given that dual citizenship continues to remain a contested topic in some European countries, a relatively large portion of Turkish citizens only hold Turkish nationality.
In Germany, for instance, which has the biggest population with Turkish descent in Europe, only about twenty per cent of this population has German and Turkish passports. Against this backdrop, external voting rights, even though parliamentary seats for citizens abroad have not been introduced, are likely to have an empowering effect by strengthening feelings of belonging with Turkish politics. Secondly, given the considerable number of Turkish citizens living in Western Europe, the Turkish state is aware of the importance of maintaining political ties with this population that can be used as a leverage in relations with European countries.
Given the material and symbolic importance of the votes abroad for the Turkish state, the increase in the number of registered number of voters and voter turnout rate between 2014 and 2018 should not come as a surprise. Indeed, the increase in the turnout rate shows that mobilization of voters is crucial. How has this happened? In the short run, election campaigns played an important role.
Even though the election law that was amended in 2008 does not allow for campaigning abroad, political parties and even government officials attempted to run campaigns, ending in conflict (with the German and Dutch governments) ahead of the 2017 referendum. Germany, Austria and the Netherlands refused to let President Erdogan campaign on their territory for the 2018 elections.
Consulates have become key organizations in the mobilization of citizens. In early June 2018, for instance, Turkish consulates were reported to have sent letters signed by Turkish President Erdoğan to registered citizens living in Germany, asking for their votes in return of the services provided. Outside of campaign season, as well, consulates play an influential role in building ties with the citizens abroad.
They provide citizenship services, organize cultural events during national holidays, and increasingly engage with improving the lives of citizens abroad. Even though consulates all over the world arguably play similar roles, what is striking in the Turkish case is their close association with a political party. Consulates have become the first formal point of encounter abroad between Turkish citizens and the AKP, leading to the formation of an understanding that services provided at the consulate are services provided by the party.
In addition to the consulates, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, an organization that was established in 2010 also plays an essential role in mobilizing citizens abroad. In contrast to the policies of previous governments before the AKP, the creation of the Presidency symbolizes a systematic effort to formulate a diaspora policy which combines multiple aims: improving the lives of those in the diaspora, foreign policy ends, increasing Turkish influence abroad, and diaspora building.
Civil society actors have also been influential in the mobilization of the diaspora. One particularly influential actor is the Union of European Turkish Democrats (recently renamed as Union of International Democrats). Founded in 2004 in Germany, the Union defines its mission as to increase the visibility of European Turkish diaspora in the societies they live in through contributing to their social, economic and political development. Having offices all around Europe, the Union acts as a lobby organization for President Erdogan and the AKP. President Erdogan’s election rally in Sarajevo on 20 May 2018 took place as part of the sixth assembly of the Union.
Consulates, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, and the Union for International Democrats work towards promoting Turkish language and culture abroad among populations with Turkish origin. Also influential in this are the DITIB mosques and Yunus Emre Centers.
One of the key tasks that these organizations systematically undertake is to combat Islamophobia and related discrimination in Europe. In parallel to mobilizing constituencies to vote, these government and non-government organizations and arguably partake in the making of a “Muslim” diaspora out of a highly diverse Turkish population abroad.
The ongoing debates in various European countries that focus on questions of loyalty and democratic culture obscure the question of why external voting is important and how it is mobilized. For the Turkish state, the diaspora population is strategically important not only for foreign policy but also domestic policy purposes. The emphasis of both the government and non-government actors on the “Muslim-ness” of Turkish populations abroad should be interpreted along these two axes.
In the context of the increasing social and political anxieties across Europe over Muslim immigration and integration, the Turkish state conveniently positions itself as the defender of its “Muslim” citizens abroad and their off-springs. In the domestic sphere, such positioning contributes to the image of a “strong and unified state and nation,” which in turn aides him remain in power.
How much of this resonates among the Turkish citizens abroad? What motivates the electorate to continue to vote for Erdogan and the AKP? How are criticisms alleging a lack of loyalty because of support for Erdogan and the AKP perceived by Turkish citizens abroad? Although certainly not the only factor, the image of a “strong and unified state and nation” plays an influential role in the support for President Erdogan and the AKP in Europe.
My on-going research on the political attitudes of the Turkish population and their children living in Berlin so far demonstrates that both the discourse and the existing policies of the Turkish state towards Turkish citizens abroad make them feel empowered.
Against this backdrop, we need to better understand the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that shape an individual voter’s interest in participating in home country politics. Instead of starting with the assumption that political participation in one’s home country demonstrates a lack of belonging in the host country, we should put more effort in understanding how and why voters are motivated to participate into the politics in their home countries. Confining the discussion about “the” voting behavior of “the” Turkish diaspora to questions of belonging and loyalty risks conflating the motivations of voters with those of politicians.
1 The data used here is compiled by the author using the Supreme Electoral Council website archives (http://www.ysk.gov.tr/tr/secim-arsivi/2612) and the election archives of the daily Cumhuriyet (http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/genel_secim_2018_24_haziran).
2 During this period, there have been two parliamentary elections (June and November 2015) and one referendum in 2017.