On 14 May 2023, elections will be held in Turkey: for the Turkish parliament and the Turkish president. It is well known that opposition parties have a hard time in Turkey. In general, opposition parties are not banned in Turkey. However, this does not apply to the left-wing Kurdish party HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party). Kurdish parties have been repeatedly banned in recent decades, and more often their funding has been cut off. Currently, proceedings are in progress to ban the HDP. In addition, there have been repeated irregularities in elections in the past – despite international election monitoring. Therefore, it is important that there is also critical observation of the elections from outside Turkey. The EU and the Council of Europe in particular have a role to play here.
However, it is not only about election observation in Turkey. According to Turkish electoral law, Turkish citizens who live permanently in other countries also have the right to vote. They can exercise their right to vote at the Turkish consulates in the countries where they live. For these Turkish citizens, voting has already started: They can cast their votes at the consulates from 27 April to 9 May.
Some observers of political developments in Turkey believe that this election could change the political power structure in Turkey. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, the current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has an opponent in the leader of the social democratic CHP (Republican People’s Party) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who many believe can prevail against the incumbent.
Moreover, after some to-ing and fro-ing, the opposition parties have agreed to cooperate in the elections. Of course, this also benefits Erdoğan’s challenger Kılıçdaroğlu. Due to the fact that the HDP is subject to banning proceedings, the HDP decided at the beginning of April not to run in the Turkish parliamentary elections. Instead, HDP candidates will run on the list of the Green Left Party (Yeşil Sol Parti). There has been cooperation between the Green Left Party and the HDP for some time. This decision may be a disappointment for some. But politically, it is a wise decision. It allows the HDP to pre-empt a ban that might have excluded the HDP from participating in the election shortly before the election date.
Finally, the earthquake of 6 February 2023 in Turkey exposed Erdoğan and his party, the AKP (Justice and Development Party), as incapable of acting. The earthquake, which was one of the strongest and most devastating in Turkey’s history, mainly affected Kurdish settlements in Turkey. The slow start of aid to the earthquake victims is seen as an expression of an anti-Kurdish policy. Many people in the Turkish earthquake areas are probably also aware that the number of victims was also so high because the Turkish state failed to ensure earthquake-proof construction, although it is known that Turkey is an earthquake zone. Against this background, political observers consider it realistic that there will be a shift in political power in the election on 14 May.
The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) had already stopped its military actions against Turkish security forces (apart from self-defence measures in case of Turkish attacks) shortly after the earthquake, in order to avoid obstructing rescue operations for the earthquake victims. As the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) stated in a press release dated 3 April 2023, the ceasefire has been extended until after the elections on 14 May. Nevertheless, the statement continues, the Turkish army has continued its attacks on Kurdish targets.
A change of power in Turkey would certainly also be in the interests of the EU and NATO. The political course of NATO member Turkey towards Russia – and not just since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine – has increasingly met with criticism. The blocking of the NATO membership applications of Finland and Sweden has increased displeasure with the Turkish president even more, even though he has meanwhile given up his veto against the Finnish accession. On the other hand, the EU and NATO do not want to drive Erdoğan completely into Putin’s arms, and with regard to Ukrainian grain deliveries Erdoğan has proved useful. This, in turn, means that the EU and NATO, despite all their criticism against Erdoğan, are ultimately rather restrained. Clear support for the opposition and democratic forces in Turkey would probably be the wiser way to shift the political power balance in Turkey back in favour of democratic structures.
There is another point that is important in this context: the right of Turkish citizens living abroad to vote. Many of them have been living in the EU for many years as labour migrants. A large Turkish community lives in Germany. In total, Germany has 2.9 million people of Turkish origin. Of these, 1.5 million have a Turkish passport and are therefore entitled to vote. This corresponds to 2.5 per cent of all eligible Turkish voters. Of these, an above-average number support Erdoğan. In the 2017 constitutional referendum, for example, around 63 per cent of eligible Turkish voters living in Germany voted in favour of Erdogan’s plans (only 51 per cent in Turkey). In the 2018 presidential election, Erdoğan obtained 64.8 per cent of the votes of eligible Turkish voters living in Germany (52.6 per cent in Turkey). That is significantly more than, for example, in the USA (17 per cent) or the UK (21 per cent). There is much debate in Germany about the reasons. Presumably, Germany’s failed integration policy plays a central role.
There has also been irritation in Germany in the run-up to the current elections. Normally, elections take place in the 16 Turkish consulates in Germany. However, this means that voters who live outside the urban centres often have to travel 100 km or more to the nearest consulate in order to vote. So the Turkish side had planned 10 additional polling stations separate from the consulates this year. However, the foreign ministry only approved one additional polling station. The cancellation came just before the start of voting on 27 April. This caused irritation and incomprehension among all Turkish parties, as they had already announced the addresses of the additional polling stations. Not surprisingly, many Turkish voters perceive this as unfair or even an affront.
Another critical point is that according to reports in the German media, the opposition parties had considerably fewer financial resources at their disposal for the election campaign than the AKP. In addition, organisations close to the government, such as the mosque association DITIB, the German branch of the Turkish religious authority, or the AKP’s lobby association UID, interfered massively in the election campaign in favour of Erdoğan and his AKP. Among other things, these pro-government organisations offer bus trips to the Turkish consulates in Germany. The opposition parties simply lack the money to do this. The German daily Frankfurter Rundschau reported on these unfair election conditions in Germany on 27 April 2023.
Two days later, on 29 April, the Frankfurter Rundschau reported on irregularities in the elections at the Turkish consulates general in Frankfurt and Cologne. In Frankfurt, AKP supporters allegedly tried to cast their votes twice. Election observers from the CHP and the Green Left party were at least able to prevent this electoral fraud. Journalist Deniz Babir from Medya Haber told the Frankfurter Rundschau that he and his TV crew were not allowed to record this incident with their cameras and had to leave the premises of the consulate general.
The Frankfurter Rundschau also reported attempts at manipulation from Cologne. The article states:
“At one ballot box, the chairman of the ballot box is an imam who told an elderly woman to put her stamp on the AKP. The election observers then warned the man,” reports the opposition supporter. In other cases, the polling chairpersons allegedly pointed to the symbol of the AKP when handing the ballot papers to the voters. This is another point at which the Green Left Party and CHP election observers are said to have intervened.
The journalist Nizam Baran reported that in Cologne only media close to the state, but not opposition media, were allowed to report from the consulate general.
If the majority is clear, Turkish voters living in Germany do not play a decisive role. However, in the case of a very close election result, they can tip the scales. That is why it is important to keep a critical eye on the elections not only in Turkey but also in Germany. After all, some of the major media in Germany are taking on this task.
Jürgen Klute was a Die Linke (The Left) MEP and spokesman for the Kurdish Friendship Group in the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014. Since December 2016, he has been editing the Europa.blog.