Turkey vs. Holland: Turkish foreign policy at the service of domestic policy

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak investigates the nationalistic discourse surrounding the recent diplomatic incident between Turkey and Holland, and the extent to which it has contributed to increased support for Erdoğan, shortly before the decisive referendum on changing Turkey's system of governance.
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"Special Service for Demonstrators! This is Russia.  Look, this is France. Paraguay, don't touch. This is Holland!" 

On March 11, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued orders to refuse to permit the landing of a plane carrying the Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to the Netherlands, and to block the path of Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies Fatma Kaya in front of the Turkish embassy in Rotterdam. She was later deported. While the Turkish ministers sought to hold mass rallies in the Netherlands and other European countries to recruit support among the Turkish diaspora for changes in Turkey’s system of government, Rutte feared that these gatherings could strengthen support for the radical right in the Netherlands just a few days before the elections for prime minister. What began as a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the Netherlands, stemming from the conflicting interests of each country, continued as a means of gaining domestic support, with social networking sites (SNS) becoming a key tool for mobilizing the masses to the struggle.

On April 16, a referendum will be held in Turkey on potential reforms to the governing structure. The “Yes” camp that advocates changing the system seeks to increase the power of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an unprecedented way by entrusting him with the powers of the prime minister. On the other hand, the opposition “No” camp is working to keep the parliamentary system intact. Whatever the decision, as long as Erdoğan continues to serve as Ankara’s undisputed leader, the position of prime minister will likely continue to serve as a rubber stamp for his decisions. However, this does nothing to diminish Erdoğan’s efforts in the aggressive campaign to ensure change in the system of government.

In addition to campaigning throughout Turkey, the Turkish president is working to strengthen his image among the country’s citizens living beyond its borders. A law allowing Turkish citizens living abroad to vote in elections, but not in referenda, was passed in 2002. However, when Erdoğan saw the high percentage of support he received among the overseas electorate, 50% and 56% in his favor in the June and November 2016 elections[1] respectively, he signed an additional presidential decree in January 2017 permitting Turkish citizens abroad to vote in referenda as well.[2] In light of this decision, the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Minister of Family and Social Policies embarked on a campaign of persuasion in Europe, aimed at securing the support of Turks living there in the April referendum on proposed governmental reforms. Unsurprisingly, they chose to focus on Germany and the Netherlands, where there is a high concentration of eligible Turkish citizens totaling more than 1.5 million voters. However, Erdoğan’s ambitions conflicted with the political interests of the current German and Dutch governments who are not interested in emphasizing the presence of foreigners in their countries for fear of strengthening the power of the right-wing parties. Therefore, they acted to prevent the Turkish ministers from implementing their plan. Other European countries, including Austria, Denmark, and Belgium joined them.

Turkish users of SNS did not remain indifferent to events. Immediately after the news of the diplomatic incident was published, many called for people to go out and demonstrate in Rotterdam and at the Dutch embassy and consulates in Turkey. In the wake of these calls, hundreds of Turks gathered in the central square of Rotterdam with Turkish flags and protested against the decision of the Dutch government. The extreme right-wing leader Geert Wilders reacted harshly to the demonstrators, whom he called, “traitors who once again proved that they are not Dutch.” Meanwhile, Turkish crowds surrounded the Dutch embassy in Ankara, and blocked the main entrance gate of the Dutch consulate in Istanbul despite the strong police presence there.[3] A Turkish demonstrator managed to reach the roof of the consulate and replace the flag of the Netherlands with the Turkish flag, declaring “Allahu Akbar” while doing so. The image of the protester on the roof of the consulate was shared tens of thousands of times, and became a symbol of Turkey’s victory over the Netherlands in the current campaign.

Tension between the Netherlands and Turkey escalated following Erdoğan’s statement calling the Dutch prime minister a “fascist” and claiming that Europe was degenerating into Nazi Germany. The tension increased when Erdoğan further claimed that the West, as a whole, was working to revive the conflict between the “cross and the crescent.”[4] These words intensified the heated discourse against Europe and the West, and the perception of Islamophobia. Strong criticism was also voiced by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who presented the conduct of the Dutch and German leaders as an expression of their official opposition to the change of government in Turkey. According to Yıldırım, the Turkish people should prevent European interference in Turkey’s internal affairs. Unexpectedly, Turkey’s opposition leader, chairman of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, supported the intensification of the measures against Europe, apparently in order to be seen as taking a clear stance on a foreign policy issue.

It was not for nothing that the leader of the opposition took this path. As in previous cases, Erdoğan once again proved that crisis with a non-Muslim foreign country strengthens his support among the Turkish people, a phenomenon well-known from the previous election campaign, during which Erdoğan had quarreled with Israel. In recent public opinion polls, the results were evident in a two percent increase in support for Erdoğan, as well as in the wide-ranging discourse in the Turkish SNS, in which the public expressed solidarity with the government, with the publication of tweets such as “‘Yes,’ Europe is trembling”, “Fascist Holland”, and “The Nazi dogs can’t stand in front of us.”[5] The SNS discourse included uploading photographs of young Turks stabbing oranges. The imagery behind the oranges is derived from the Dutch Royal House of Orange, and is more widely known from the jerseys that the national soccer team wears in international competitions.

As the storm subsided, secular-minded users began criticizing the behavior of supporters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), presenting them as ignorant and as “sheep” incapable of independent thinking. A satirical video, distributed on WhatsApp and other networks, presented a “guide” for distinguishing between the Dutch flag and those of Russia, France, and Paraguay, to prevent the “sheep” from making mistakes and burning the wrong flag.

The diplomatic crisis between Turkey and the Netherlands, and European countries generally, illustrates how Turkey’s foreign policy serves as a political lever for domestic policy, engendering increased support for Erdoğan. Turkey’s foreign policy is influenced by multiple parameters related to the EU, including the delayed condemnation of the failed coup attempt there, the lack of real progress in the process of Turkey’s accession to the EU, and the results of the UK referendum on departure from the EU. This is compounded by growing anti-Western discourse among the Turkish public. All of these contribute significantly to the hardening of Erdoğan’s positions vis-à-vis the Europeans, which could pave the way for Turkey’s withdrawal from the accession process and move it out of Europe’s sphere of influence, an idea that Erdoğan has discussed in public. SNS played a key role in mobilizing the support of the Turkish masses for the struggle in Turkey and the Netherlands, encouraging them to take to the streets and protest on behalf of their homeland. However, even this mass support could not obfuscate the rivalry between Erdoğan’s supporters who saw the dispute as an expression of Islamophobia and the secular camp that saw it as an unnecessary, blind following of the president.

[1] 7 Haziran Genel Seçim, Milliyet; 1 Kasım Genel Seçim, Milliyet.

[2] “Yurt dışında yaşayan 1 milyon kişiye referandumda oy kullanma imkanı,” Sputnik, January 9, 2017. 

[3] #Hollanda #Roterdam

[4] #HilalileHaçlıMücadelesi #İslamofobi

[5] #EvetAvrupaTitriyor #FascisttNetherlands #FascistRutte #NaziİTleriYıldıramazBizleri