New kingmakers: Putin or Erdogan?

The president of Turkey and his wife campaigning
Ankara, March 7, 2017: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and his wife Emine Erdogan campaigning before a constitutional referendum (source: dpa)
  • Anti-Turkish sentiment played a pivotal role in the Netherlands election
  • Turkey bashing is on the rise in other European Union countries that are holding elections in 2017
  • Politicians in Europe and in Turkey are escalating this conflict on purpose, for electoral gains, even though it harms both sides’ fundamental, long-term interests

During the presidential campaign in the United States, and especially after the victory of Donald Trump, it was alleged that Russia’s intelligence services had hacked the Democratic Party’s campaign. While it is probably true that Russia is closely watching all political movements, as intelligence organizations normally do, and possibly hacking some of them, an objective observer finds it hard to believe that the Kremlin set out to influence the outcome of the American electoral process.

U.S. prosecutors have launched an investigation into the matter, but the proceedings appear motivated more by a desire to clear the political atmosphere than any belief that convincing evidence will be found.

Accusatory finger-pointing

In the European Union, speculation is rife that Russia may now try to manipulate the French presidential elections in favor of National Front leader Marine Le Pen and the German national elections on behalf of the opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The established European parties are, in fact, petrified by the rise of the so-called populist movements, labelled in many cases as extreme. All this accusatory finger-pointing at Russia appears to have more to do with the desire of nervous elites to find a scapegoat in case the new movements succeed than with the existence of any real evidence against the Kremlin.

There is, however, a new political phenomenon in play. Before the Dutch elections, there was widespread fear that the nationalist but economically socialist movement of Geert Wilders might become the country’s strongest party and push aside the coalition between the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the social democrats in the Labor Party (PvdA).

The VVD managed to remain the strongest force in parliament, which was widely celebrated in Europe as a major defeat for Mr. Wilders – an avowed socialist, a proponent of the Netherlands leaving the EU and the most vocal enemy of immigrants. But what do the actual returns say? Mr. Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) has become the second strongest fraction in the Dutch parliament and increased its seat count by a third; Mr. Rutte’s VVD lost 20 percent of its seats, while the social democrats have been nearly annihilated.

New kingmakers: Putin or Erdogan?

Mr. Rutte now faces the steep challenge of having to forge a coalition of four parties if he is to continue as prime minister. So yes, he has succeeded in keeping Mr. Wilders out of government, but it is very hard to call the election outcome his success. And certainly, it has not been a defeat for Mr. Wilders.

Also, it may be fairly said that in this election campaign foreign factors played a pivotal role. These factors were Turkey, its forthcoming constitutional referendum on strengthening presidential powers, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Posturing and grandstanding

Prime Minister Rutte took a tough and uncompromising stand against attempts by the Turkish administration to promote its referendum among the Turks living in the Netherlands. As Turkish officials responded to the ban by hurling insults at the Dutch, there was a burst of internal support for the embattled prime minister.

Mr. Rutte’s slick slogan that he was doing something about the problem with Turkey while Mr. Wilders was happy to just tweet from his sofa, also made the rounds. As a result, it cannot be ruled out that the prime minister got his votes more on the strength of anti-Turkish sentiment among the public than from any trust in their leader. Mr. Rutte’s “success” arrived with compliments from Ankara.

Such stratagems may prove unhelpful to the EU.

Austria’s foreign ministry already has issued a harshly worded statement that further EU accession negotiations with Turkey should be excluded. The Turkish reaction has been predictable. The exchange immediately increased the popularity of the Austrian government and its foreign minister – at the expense of the opposition.

Unfortunately, it also appears that members of the German government are not above employing anti-Turkish bombast to attract voter support. This does not bode well for the national elections that Germany will be holding in six months.

The other side of the coin is that the anti-Turkish rhetoric being raised in Europe only pumps up the popularity of President Erdogan in Turkey. It allows him to boost his own grandiloquence to ever higher levels and almost certainly will help him win the referendum.

Long-term damage

This unfortunate spectacle – orchestrated by both sides for short-term electoral gains – is ruining important relations between the EU and Turkey. The real disaster is that it does not merely damage relationships on the level of governments, but it also poisons the involved societies with toxic emotions.

There is a difference between being concerned about developments in Turkey, which can be legitimate, and simply stoking the furnace of populist enmity. The hard fact of geopolitics is that Turkey and European countries need to work together, independently of their preferences on the issue of governance.

One can only conclude that while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support is not crucial to the more or less radical opposition parties in Europe, some European governments have chosen to stir anti-Turkish emotions as a potentially decisive instrument in their electoral campaigns. Thus, it is President Erdogan who has become the EU’s involuntary kingmaker.

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