Turkey officials may be gloating after a German election this week ushered into parliament a right-wing party for the first time in six decades, but the results will also make Ankara’s efforts to repair frayed relations with Europe even trickier.
Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, but her victory was overshadowed by the record 13.5% votes for the anti-Muslim Alternative for Germany (AfD). Unease with immigration as well as tensions with Turkey were central in the AfD’s surge.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has sparred with Merkel in recent months, said anti-Turkey rhetoric eroded support for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Now, the CDU faces tough coalition talks with two other parties in what may prove to be a wobbly government.
“Why are you trying to use us in your election in Germany? You’ll see, they won’t be able to form a government. It will take them months,” Erdogan said during a televised speech Sept. 26. “They think that if you bash Turkey, you’ll win points … but you can’t, you will lose.” He added, “They are constantly working to harm Turkey and the Turkish people.”
During the German campaign, the SPD and CDU leaders debated halting European Union accession talks with Turkey amid an undemocratic slump under Erdogan.
But it was Erdogan who first dragged Germany, as well as the Netherlands, into his own campaign for a constitutional referendum to expand his executive powers back in April, referring to both countries as “Nazis” after they barred Turkish politicians from campaigning for his plebiscite among Turkish expatriates.
Then, he urged ethnic Turks voting in Germany to boycott the CDU, SPD and the Greens, led by Turkish-German Cem Ozdemir, in the poll, calling them “enemies of Turkey” for their criticism of his crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt that has jailed 50,000 people, including German journalists Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu and human rights campaigner Peter Steudtner.
In turn, Germany slapped a rare travel warning on Turkey and warned companies against investing in Turkey, where some 6,800 German firms do business, according to Bloomberg. Germany is Turkey’s biggest trade partner.
“The debate in Germany on refugee flows and relations with Turkey were very prominent in the campaign … and contributed to the electoral gains of the AfD,” Guenter Seufert, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Al-Monitor.
“The detentions [of German nationals] on shaky legal grounds are perceived by average Germans as an act against Germany, even if it is a daily occurrence in Turkey,” he said. “There is a feeling that the Turkish government is provoking Germany, but it has instead shown that it has less influence and leverage among an international audience.”
Erdogan is also angry that Germany has refused to extradite coup suspects and clamp down on Kurdish groups associated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, which has waged an insurgency in Turkey since 1984. NATO member Turkey retaliated by restricting access to German troops stationed at Turkish bases.
But Germany’s estimated 3 million ethnic Turks may be among the biggest losers in the election.
“Tough times lie ahead for Turks, because Merkel is likely to change her immigration policy to win back votes she lost to the radical right. Dual citizens will be forced to make a choice, and obstacles will emerge for companies that want to invest in Turkey,” columnist Mehmet Tezken wrote in Milliyet Sept. 27.
Seufert said the relationship could heal if Turkey eases restrictions on civil society. The Sept. 25 release from prison of journalist Kadri Gursel, a contributor to Al-Monitor, may signal a shift, he said.
Erdogan has said he expects things will return to normal after the German election. But Merkel’s loss of votes may force her to maintain a hard line on Turkey.
“Erdogan successfully injected himself into the political debate in Germany and obviously influenced the decision of many Turks in that country. But whether he will manage to extricate himself from this successfully remains unclear. This is why the results of the German elections can hardly be considered a political victory for him,” wrote columnist Semih Idiz for the Hurriyet Daily News.