Merkel, a behemoth of European politics for the last sixteen years, will soon retire from office leaving big shoes to fill – shoes that Olaf Scholz, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), will find spacious. With the SPD gaining the most electoral votes, it is likely they will be the principal partner in a ‘traffic-light’ coalition that sees Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) out of the federal government for the first time since 2005.
With the SPD historically being the party of Turkish-Germans, this critical voter constituency is one that will attract even greater attention. Will Olaf Scholz be able to force himself into the chasm left by Merkel, or will the ‘New Sultan’ Recep Tayyip Erdogan aim to fill the vacuum left in her wake instead? History suggests that Erdogan is seen as the chief political authority for many Turkish-origin people in Germany and other European nations.
Erdogan has consistently exploited a lack of social cohesion in Germany and Western Europe at large. Aiming to place Turkish-Europeans against their governments; the Nationalist-Islamist rhetoric he purports is incompatible with liberal democratic norms. Indeed, he has managed to foster a Turkish-German identity with himself at the fore. Although there is a great deal of importance attached to Turkish cultural maintenance, it is Erdogan’s leverage of faith that ultimately holds the key. Much has been noted of the Turkish-state efforts to consolidate a robust Turkish identity within Germany. This strategy is implemented through entities such as the ‘Diyanet İsleri Türk İslam Birligi’, an Islamic Turkish Muslim identity organisation that is prevalent in mosques across Germany and espouses Turkish Islamist nationalism. Another organisation of this sort is ‘Milli Gorus’, which has over 30,000 members in Germany.
It is through these behind-the-scenes organisations that Erdogan further instils his ideological preferences into the Germans he views as his subjects. Erdogan’s posturing and denunciation of ‘Eurofascism’ and ‘Nazi’ German social policy that he perceives as anti-Turkish, has irked European leaders and riled up Turkish-origin people in the EU alike. He has found most success through deeming European liberal-democratic custom as incompatible with – and often directly inflammatory towards – the Muslim faith. Perceived rampant secularism and a lack of state assistance when it comes to Muslim immigrant integration has led to Erdogan labelling Germany as an ‘enemy of Turkey’. He has willed on Turkish-Germans to not vote for German political parties, have more children, and crucially, not to culturally assimilate. Through this interference he has succeeded in setting Turkish-Germans against the German state – placing himself as the foremost political figure for many of them.
Erdogan’s posturing, along with his work behind the scenes, has had a palpable effect. Polling and statistics have shown ever increasing disillusionment with Germany. Brookings data has shown that Turkish-German attachment to Turkey rose from 40 percent in 2010 to 49 percent in 2015. During this period, attachment to Germany fell from 26 percent to 19 percent. 2018 data from the University of Duisberg-Essen also showed a lack of interest in German politics compared to Turkish politics, among Turkish-origin Germans. This is further echoed by DATA4U survey data from 2020. On a scale of 1-10, ‘Turkishness’ ranked 8.10 in importance among Turkish-heritage Germans – as opposed to a German identity importance score of just 5.37. It is clear as day that there is an uncomfortable degree of disillusionment amongst Turkish Germans – a form of national detachment that should worry those in Germany who prioritise social cohesion and migrant political incorporation.
2016 Münster University data also shows that 47 percent of Turkish-Germans believe that following the core tenets of Islam are more important than the laws of Germany. This is striking considering the role Islamist rhetoric plays in Erdogan’s appeal. Further compounding this, the same 2020 DATA4U survey also showed German political figure favourability. Merkel averaged a rating of 5.32 out of 10, overshadowing the likely incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s dismal rating 3.65.
Scholz’s low rating indicates a lack of respect for him among Turkish-Germans. With Merkel’s exit, the data suggests that more Turkish-Germans will soon pledge their political loyalty to Ankara than Berlin. Unfortunately for Scholz, with the SPD’s current coalition plans, his grasp on power is minimal. He will have no choice but to rely on Turkish-German votes. Given this, if Erdogan were to term Scholz an enemy of his diaspora – as he has with other European political leaders – Scholz could find votes swinging against him, with Erdogan seeing the balance of power swinging towards him.
The neo-Ottoman aspirations of the ‘New Sultan’ could be the solution to economic and political stagnation at home. Just as the Sultans of old looked westward with glee, Erdogan could look to re-establish his hegemony over Anatolia with a push west. Erdogan knows he can threaten social cohesion in European countries such as Germany through his Islamist-nationalist rhetoric which resonates with Turkish-origin people in Europe who feel disconnected from their domestic political institutions. Erdogan has a veritable toolbox of political mischief ready to unpack to exert further influence in Europe and to catalyse anti-authority sentiments in Turkish-origin communities in major European countries.
As the sun sets on Merkel’s Germany, Erdogan will see Scholz’s accession as a new dawn for pan-Turkish aspirations.