The Turkish diaspora and the constitutional referendum

By Bahar Başer

Why did Turkish citizens living in liberal countries abroad vote for authoritarianism at home? And why are we only asking this question now?

A Turkish citizen living in Hungary casts his vote in Budapest. Souce: Euroactiv/EPA/Noemi Bruzak

On the 16th of April, citizens at home and abroad voted in a choice between continuing the Republic’s parliamentary system and a new ‘Turkish style’ presidential system – in essence legalising the executive powers already given to the president under the ongoing state of emergency.

Many interpreted the proposed constitutional amendments as a definitive step towards one-man-rule in Turkey, with the changes allowing the president to appoint and remove ministers, judges and key government officials.

The result went in favour of the ‘yes’ campaign, which won just over 51%. of the vote; giving President Erdoğan further control over all aspects of Turkish politics and society, and weakening the control mechanisms that, despite malfunctioning, had worked to constrain his power.

However, the result was controversially marked by the Supreme Election Council’s arbitrary decisions to accept ballots lacking the official stamp as valid, with numerous other violations documented by observers. 

This outcome looks likely to have a further negative effect on Turkey’s already troubled relations with the West. The referendum campaign had already sparked tension with European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, who had banned the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from holding ‘yes’ campaign rallies in their countries, citing security concerns.

In response, AKP politicians (including the President) accused Dutch politicians of being Nazi remnants and played on growing Islamophobia in Europe by making reference to the ‘yes’ campaigns as fighting the “crusaders”. These tensions have benefited non-democratic discourses in Turkey and Europe, hindering minority struggles in both contexts.

Countries such as Sweden and the UK have managed to maintain their distance from these discussions as the majority of their eligible voters voted ‘no’. But in countries such as Germany and Austria, journalists, experts, politicians and academics are questioning why many Turkish voters opted for authoritarian changes, despite the fact that they had lived in liberal democracies for many years.

Here, the discussion has again begun to revolve around the supposed failures of integration; with senior politicians raising the prospect of revoking dual citizenship rights, and voices from the extreme right even calling for Turks who voted for the AKP to be deported.

In this context, we need to ask: do the referendum results really indicate a negative correlation between integration and support for the AKP? Are the Turks in Sweden and the UK better integrated than their compatriots in Germany and the Netherlands? And, more importantly, how did these countries not see this coming?

The growing importance of  diaspora votes

Turkish migration to Europe on a mass scale started almost five decades ago, but Turkish migrants initially only had limited voting rights, requiring them to cast their vote either in Turkey or at the exit points at airports.

However, since 2012, Turkish citizens abroad have had the right to vote at designated points in their country of residence, with the referendum the 4th time that diaspora votes have played a significant role an electoral contest after the 2014 presidential election, the June 2015 national election and the November 2015 snap election.

In 2014, the participation rate was so low that it did not make much difference to the overall result. However, year by year, the number of voters registered abroad has increased and the participation rate has skyrocketed.

As can be seen below, the participation rate at the presidential elections of 2014 was often less than 10%. But starting with the June 2015 elections, the percentage increased visibly. And by the snap election later that year, it seems that even latent diaspora members decided to cast their votes in what was a hotly contested election, called after the AKP had lost its parliamentary majority for the first time.

Other than in Sweden, the referendum saw a continuation of this trend, with participation rising in the countries listed below. 

A heterogeneous diaspora, a heterogeneous result

Germany has the highest number of Turkish migrants in Europe, with a sizeable Turkish community also living in the Netherlands. Although they are referred to as ‘Turkish’ migrants, these groups actually consisting of Kurds, Alevites, Assyrians and Arab Christians among others. On this basis, it is worth comparing Germany and the Netherlands, where there is strong support for the AKP, with Sweden and the United Kingdom where support for the opposition seems to be more dominant.

Notably, it seems the background of the Turkish migrants in these countries played a significant role in whether there was an overall ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. In Sweden, there is a sizeable Kurdish community. While in the UK, the majority of the eligible voters come from a Kurdish, Alevite, or Kurdish/Alevite minority background, which helps explain a larger ‘no’ vote.

The Turkey-originated migrants in Sweden and the United Kingdom are not necessarily better integrated than the ones who live in Germany, the Netherlands or Austria. Rather, a variety of factors such as class, education, ethnic and religious profile can be seen to have influenced the overall result.

We should also keep in mind that in these countries the overall participation rate was less than 50%, meaning that half of the eligible voters did not vote. Therefore, these results only reflect a certain percentage of Turkish-originated migrants’ interests and ideology. Despite this, those who did not vote and those who voted ‘no’ will also have to bear the consequences of the stigmatization that has been growing since the ‘yes’ result was declared.

While the AKP’ and Erdogan’s provocative discourse is no doubt fueling anti-immigration sentiment, the actions of European governments are isolating migrant communities. Aggressive policies from both sides create a vicious cycle, nourishing each other, while at the same time putting the Turkey-originated citizens, who neither support Erdogan, nor the xenophobic policies of their resident countries, between a rock and hard place.

The AKP and President Erdogan’s actions have been growingly anti-democratic over a significant period of time. Utilising this result for populist discourse now, in the midst of increasing xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, is surely only benefiting the extreme right in European countries. Looking at the results, one can clearly see that support for the AKP, and consequently to the ‘yes’ campaign, was already statistically visible in Germany and the Netherlands from the 2014 presidential elections. It is worth considering then, why this support has become such a big issue only now.

The political factor

The growing importance of the diaspora vote has attracted the attention of political parties in Turkey, who have transnationalized their electoral campaigns in response and included European countries in their election tours. In particular, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have all become highly important battlegrounds.

And over the last ten years, the AKP has put significant effort into mobilizing citizens abroad, while other political parties have often only recently opened European branches.

Rather than treating them as remittance machines, the AKP has created actors within the diaspora; developing a new elite who invest significant time and effort in politicizing their communities by forming (often state funded). Therefore, no-one should be surprised that the AKP received plenty of votes abroad. They have worked hard for their success.

As one interviewee explained while I was gathering data for my book: “we felt like nobodies for Turkey. Since the AKP came, we are feeling like somebodies.”The AKP has worked hard to make the Turkish diasporans feel wanted and included when the leaders of previous political parties had never even paid a visit to European capitals to canvas for votes.

Turkey is not the only country to have extended external voting rights to its citizens abroad. Numerous democratic and non-democratic countries have done the same in the past. Indeed, Laurie Brand has elegantly shown that authoritarian states often expand voting rights abroad in order to get support at critical junctures and exert their sovereignty.

The Turkish case is therefore not unique. And the question of why Turkish voters opted for a non-democratic regime in their country of origin while living in liberal democracies (where they often argue for further rights) can not solely be confined to discussions about integration.

Instead, the answers lie in years and years of academic research on diaspora identity, homestate engagement with citizens abroad, and a host country’s social, economic and political environment.

Rather than making the ‘yes’ result an excuse to stigmatizing Turkish communities, it is necessary to examine these factors all together in a much more complex manner. As the data shows, the result should not have come as a surprise considering the outcome of elections since 2014. Therefore, we also need to ask “why this question now?”.

The figures used in this article have been taken from as access to Supreme Election Council was sporadic at the time of writing.

  1. In the United Kingdom ??, there is a very-high level misunderstanding between Turkish authorities and the British authorities about the diaspora’s democratic rights as well as the Turkey’s diaspora in the United Kingdom ??- as the Turkish authorities have been mispredicting the numbers of Turkish citizens in the United Kingdom ?? as it is very clear in England, United Kingdom ?? there is a one consulate there as well as the English county of the United Kingdom ??. There must be at least 6 consulates of the county of England (İngiltere – İskoçya değil – ya da Birleşik Krallık ??’ın tamamı değil). London – Birmingham – Liverpool – Manchester – Sheffield – Southampton. Consulates are necessary as England is the biggest county of the United Kingdom ??. (County = Küçük Devletçikler [Türkçe – Turkish]).


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