Row with Dutch could boost Erdogan’s referendum campaign

Sunday 19/03/2017
Help from unlikely places. People walk past a poster of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirirm reading “Yes” in Istanbul, on March 15th. (AFP)

London - Turkey’s row with the Neth­erlands over its blocking of Turkish referendum rallies has stirred up anti- European sentiment that could boost President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chances of winning an April 16th vote to change the con­stitution and grant the presidency extensive executive powers.

Riot police clashed with Turkish protesters outside the country’s consulate in the Dutch city of Rot­terdam on March 11th after Turkish Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was barred from enter­ing the building and escorted back to Germany.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had been due to address a rally of expat voters in the city but his plane was turned back by Dutch authorities, who said they feared the meeting would inflame feelings ahead of their own general election on March 15th.

Erdogan told an election rally in Turkey the Dutch leaders were “Nazi remnants, they are fascists… I thought Nazism was over but I was wrong. In fact, Nazism is alive in the West.”

Addressing a later rally shown live on television, Erdogan ramped up the rhetoric against the Nether­lands, invoking the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina in which Serbian forces killed thou­sands of Bosnians who had sought refuge with a small contingent of Dutch peacekeepers.

The Dutch, Erdogan said, “have nothing to do with civilisation, nothing to do with the modern world. These are the people who murdered around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. We know their character. Sadly, they have not been able to become civilised. They haven’t become modern. They have not taken their place in humanity.”

Emotions in Turkey are running high. Erdogan supporters tweeted the number for Rotterdam police and urged Turks to call and play the Quran, the call to prayer or an Er­dogan campaign song to show their rage. Thousands of Turks obliged and dialled the number provided but police in the small town of Rot­terdam, New York, in the United States were left wondering why they were being inundated by the calls.

Meanwhile, a group of farmers in western Turkey said they were de­porting 40 Dutch dairy cows to the Netherlands and an Istanbul city councillor said he would slit the throat of his cow. Protesters in the Turkish Black Sea city of Samsun burned a French flag, apparently mistaking it for a Dutch one.

Whatever the geographical confu­sion of some government support­ers, there is a rich vein of resent­ment towards a European family of nations that has spurned Turkey’s albeit faint-hearted attempts to join for generations.

Turkey became an associate member of the European Economic Community in 1963 but it took un­til 1999 for the country to become a candidate for full membership and until 2005 for entry negotiations to start. Since then, out of 35 bench­marks necessary to join the Euro­pean Union, Turkey has completed just one.

After 14 years in power, polls indi­cate Erdogan is revered by half the population and loathed by the rest. The conservative Islamist president is seeking a “yes” vote in the refer­endum that asks the electorate to approve a new constitution giving the presidency sweeping powers, abolishing the office of prime min­ister and reducing the oversight of parliament.

Erdogan argues Turkey needs a strong presidency to tackle the multiple threats from the Islamic State (ISIS) in neighbouring Iraq and Syria, Kurdish separatists at home, regional instability and erstwhile al­lies he blames for last year’s failed coup.

The president and his support­ers have repeatedly sought to paint those campaigning for a “no” vote as being in league with terrorists and Turkey’s enemies.

In a country where scores of newspapers and media outlets have been shut down and 153 journalists, 13 members of parliament and 80 mayors jailed, the opposition has struggled to organise rallies or gain air time while “no” campaigners have been attacked in the streets.

Even so, polls have remained stubbornly close with the “no” sup­port slightly ahead in most.

Overall unemployment stood at 12.7% in December and youth unemployment was 24%, Turkish Statistics Institute figures released on March 15th stated. Economic growth is sluggish. The lira fell 17% against the US dollar in 2016 and a further 7% this year.

Lest anyone fail to take the threat of ISIS, Kurdish rebels and coup plotters sufficiently seriously, the spectre of a hostile, Islamophobic Europe could help bring doubters around to the president’s view of an embattled Turkey encircled by hos­tile powers.

Stoking nationalist feeling should also shore up the “yes” vote among supporters of a far-right party that was split by the decision to hold a referendum. The far-right usually gets about 10% of the vote in na­tional elections.

It also serves to discredit pro- Western secularists, derided as “white Turks”, who dominated political power for decades until Erdogan became prime minister in 2003. He has been president since August 2014.

Beyond the fracas, Turkey and the Netherlands enjoy strong trade ties — worth $6.5 billion in 2016. That should mean the current row will likely blow over once the refer­endum is out of the way, if not be­fore.

“Let’s not always be angry at Ger­many and the Netherlands. Maybe we should thank them just a bit. They have contributed to the ‘yes’ vote by at least two percentage points,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted government parliamentar­ian Huseyin Kocabiyik as saying.