Why Turkey's diaspora voters may be crucial in tight-run election

President Erdogan has long courted Turks abroad, but some younger voters are looking for change, experts say

Voters queue at the Turkish embassy in Berlin to cast their ballots in the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections. EPA
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Just days remain until Turkey goes to the polls on Sunday, in presidential and parliamentary elections set to determine the future of the country that has for two decades been led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Polls predict a tight run-off between the President and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his main rival, the head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kilicdaroglu, backed by a six-party opposition alliance.

While election rallies draw large crowds across Turkey, thousands of people abroad have also queued at Turkish consulates and embassies to cast their votes over the last two weeks — with the diaspora set to have a key say in the outcome.

Diaspora votes will play an “important role” in the elections, said Dr Ebru Turhan, an associate professor at the Turkish-German University in Istanbul, citing the influence the diaspora had on Turkey's 2017 constitutional referendum.

“The voting preferences of the Turkish diaspora and especially in Germany played a pivotal role in the referendum race which was won by the ‘yes’ camp by a very close margin,” she told The National.

Voting at foreign missions closes on Tuesday, while some Turks living abroad will be travelling back to Turkey to cast their ballots in person on Sunday.

More than three million Turkish citizens live across Europe. It is estimated that half of this number are eligible to vote.

Ankara has said diaspora voter turnout has surpassed that of 2018, with more than one million people casting their votes. At least 200,000 new voters in the diaspora are eligible to go to the polls this year.

It is Ali Mercan's first time voting. The 19-year-old law student in Lyon holds French and Turkish citizenship.

He told The National that “2023 will be decisive for the future of Turkey … it seems that these elections aren’t about choosing a candidate or a party, but a political regime”.

“To me, these elections are much more like a referendum,” said Mr Mercan.

“Would you like to return to a liberal democracy, or would you prefer this authoritarian presidential regime?

“I’m happy to be able to vote in this election, I love both of my countries and the situation in Turkey needs to be urgently addressed.”

President Erdogan has sought to harness the power of the diaspora, establishing government-linked institutes and NGOs across Europe and encouraging Turks from abroad to run for seats in the Turkish parliament.

In 2018, a German ban on Turkish presidential campaigning pushed his support in Germany to more than 65 per cent — higher than in Turkey.

Mr Erdogan's AKP has pushed new polling stations and bussed voters to the 16 polling stations across Germany, home to the largest Turkish community outside of the country and a largely pro-Erdogan voter base.

“Erdogan gets more votes because of the perception of Turks in Europe,” said Dr Murat Erdogan, a professor at Ankara University on migration and the Turkish diaspora.

While the diaspora tend to vote left-wing in European elections, he said, Mr Erdogan is popular due to his “strongman” image.

Turkish citizens cast their ballot in Berlin. About 1.5 million Turks in the diaspora are eligible to vote. Getty images

“They see Erdogan as a very important leader globally who can present Turkey better than any other.

“More than 50 per cent were born in Europe but they don’t feel German, or French, or Belgian, but Turkish. It shows us how problematic integration policies are” added Dr Erdogan.

President Erdogan, in power since 2002, has entrenched his image as a defender of Islamic values and a fiery leader, defending Turkish identity against the West.

Experts say these values have helped him maintain a strong support base in Europe.

But this image has come under scrutiny in recent months, following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck southern and central Turkey and northern and western Syria on February 6. It killed almost 51,000 people in Turkey and almost 8,500 in Syria.

Turkey's government faced criticism for its response to the disaster and questions were also asked about the quality of buildings in affected areas.

Mr Erdogan also cancelled a string of engagements last month, at least some due to illness, raising concerns about his stamina.

“Turks in other countries gave a lot of aid and tried to help Turkey [after the earthquake], but at the end of the day, the biggest problem was the trust in government and government institutions. It was critical in changing their image of a “powerful Turkey” and that of Erdogan,” said Dr Erdogan.

“The Turks like strong politicians,” added Mr Mercan.

“It’s important to remember the opposition has long misunderstood or ignored people’s real problems.

“Secularism and political equality are good bases, but people don’t forget the past, when religious displays were banned in public and Turkey had a bad international standing.”

While young first-time voters are likely to head to the opposition, Kilicdaroglu’s CHP and allied parties are unable to carry votes as well as Erdogan's AKP among many of the diaspora.

A country in crisis

“It's a critical election. I think Erdogan will have the same support as before, but any extra turnout will go to the opposition,” added Dr Erdogan.

In parliament, however, “the opposition has 600 candidates and not one single Turk from Europe, he said, noting many European-born Turks have returned home as parliamentary deputies in recent years.

“There is a lack of policy on their side, and Erdogan uses this. It’s not just an emotional vote, for some in the diaspora, [Erdogan] is the realistic choice.”

Dismissing foreign support is a “huge mistake” on the opposition’s part, he says, but “it is difficult to compete with Erdogan as he has all the bureaucratic instruments. Diplomats, imams — they’re all with Erdogan.”

Ihsan Kurt is an expert on migration and lives in the Swiss town of Prilly, where he has served on the local council for more than two decades.

He cast his vote in Geneva, backing Mr Kilicaroglu.

“Turkey is governed by an Islamic nationalist regime. The country is in a political, economic and cultural crisis. This government can't manage these political crises” he told The National, saying Ankara has become more authoritarian in the last 10 years

“I think the AKP will get the majority in Germany and France, but this is absolutely not the case for Switzerland and the UK,” he said.

“The diaspora here is well integrated and largely secular,” he added, “they are very interested in what is happening at home.”

“The majority here in Switzerland will vote for Mr Kilicadorglu and the left.”

“The hope I have for Turkey is a democratic Turkey, an open Turkey which respects human rights and minority rights.”

Updated: May 09, 2023, 1:31 PM