Erdogan’s Dutch Crisis Is Actually A Godsend For The Turkish Leader

The Dutch problem has created an external threat for Turkey that forces critics to close ranks with Erdogan for a national referendum that would alter the constitution to hand him sweeping powers

Demonstrators face Dutch riot police outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, Netherlands — REUTERS
Mar 15, 2017 at 8:12 AM ET

On Saturday night, as news broke that Dutch police were forcing a Turkish minister to leave the country, a steady trickle of indignant men and women made their way past bar patrons on Istanbul’s Istiklal street.  They joined a crowd that had assembled before the Dutch Consulate, furious over what was seen as Europe’s latest shot at their country and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Protesters waved the modern red and white Turkish flag alongside the ancient blue and white banners used by Turkic leaders who would found the Ottoman Empire as camouflaged soldiers posted up in front of the consulate gates. “Dutch bastards! European Bastards!,” a man screamed into a megaphone from the top of a truck parked in the midst of hundreds. In between the chanting, the truck blared Erdogan’s speeches set to background from Dirilis, the wildly-popular television soap opera depicting the birth of the Ottoman Empire. The crowd stayed through the night and most of the next day, and at one point a man climbed on the consulate’s roof to replace the Dutch flag with a Turkish one.

The Netherlands crisis is a boon for Erdogan, an external threat that forces critics to close ranks with him only a month before a national referendum that would alter the constitution to hand him sweeping powers. On April 16, Turks will vote “yes” or “no” on a set of constitutional amendments that would leave President Erdogan with control of the Parliament and the courts.  In Turkey, the referendum has been billed as an existential battle between Erdogan’s supporters and those wary of him – a motely crew of leftists, Kurds, secularists and even some Islamists.  If he wins, Erdogan could stay in power until 2029.

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Erdogan is extremely popular with conservative Turks, who have lived through decades of real and imagined illiberal secularism.  He has repeatedly said he needs the vast powers to ensure the progress he has made – lifting a ban on the headscarf and liberalizing the economy to allow millions of conservatives to enter the middle class – is not undone.  A “no” vote, Erdogan has said, would be “evil,” and a concession to terrorists, traitors, and Islamophobes.

Half the Turkish electorate has apparently not bought Erdogan’s narrative, and polls show the referendum will be decided by one or two percentage points, making the votes of millions of expats living in Europe indispensable.

The Dutch decision to bar Erdogan’s surrogates from campaigning – steps usually reserved for two nations at war – has naturally been a godsend for Erdogan, a confirmation of a long narrative of victimization at the hands of the West.

Turkey under Erdogan has steadily drifted away from Europe, and Erdogan, instead of accepting it as a result of his own obsession with totalitarian rule, has blamed the tension on Western hate for Islam.  In 2015, Turkey was poised to take a giant step in its five decade courtship of the European Union – Brussels offered visa-free travel in exchange for the return of millions of migrants and refugees.  Yet that deal was stillborn, as Erdogan scoffed at demands from Brussels that Turkey reform counter-terrorism laws.

“Double standards are no longer hidden,” Erdogan told his supporters.  “They have been keeping Turkey waiting at their door for 53 years…I am saying now that the EU’s approach to Turkey is Islamophobic.”

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The need to reform those laws has become crystal clear in Turkey since the failed July 15 coup.  Under a state of emergency that allows rule by decree, at least 40,000 people have been jailed on terrorism charges, and more than 100,000 civil servants fired and stripped of their passports.

Bombings and attacks by the Islamic State and the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have continued despite the vast crackdown, but Erdogan has laid the blame for that violence on the West.  European countries like the Netherlands are home to millions of Kurds, and many seem to flaunt the EU’s legislation against support for terror groups like the PKK by holding regular rallies against Erdogan that feature the separatist group’s flags and portraits of its fighters, billed as martyrs.

“You enable terrorists, and then say that this is all in the name of democracy,” Erdogan said last year as it became clear the deal with the EU was falling apart. “You go your way, we will go ours,” he said, dismissing the idea of Turkish membership in the EU.

To deal with the security problem, Erdogan has since said, Turkey needs to pass the constitutional amendments and centralize power in the President’s hands.

With the Netherlands, France, and Germany deciding to bar Erdogan’s surrogates from campaigning for those constitutional changes, Erdogan can now definitively tell his supporters the root of the terrorism problem lies not in Turkey but in Europe.

The rise of Geert Wilders, who for many in the Islamic world is the face of Western bigotry, has similarly helped to confirm Erdogan’s victimization narrative.

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A veritable bottomless well of bigoted sound bites that may soon lead the second largest block in Parliament, Wilders has pledged to ban mosques, the Koran, and Muslim immigrants, and turned Erdogan’s narcissistic campaign to lead the Islamic world on its head.

Last year, Wilders delivered a video message for Turks saying “you will never join the European Union” because they had elected Erdogan, and Europeans “do not want more, but less Islam.”

On the eve of Dutch elections, Wilders told supporters Turks living in the Netherlands were a “fifth column,” and if they supported “the crazy and harsh remarks of Mr Erdogan,” they should “go to Turkey and never come back.”

Wilders’ popularity has not gone unnoticed in Turkey, nor has the lukewarm response he has received from the current Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.  In a televised debate Tuesday, Wilders told Rutte “You are being held hostage by Erdogan.  Close the Dutch borders.” Rutte’s response was to offer feeble excuses that such a policy was impractical, that it was a “fake solution.”

Rutte has said his government’s decision to bar campaigning by Erdogan surrogates, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, was meant to stave off violence from far-right groups who have pledged to follow through on Wilders’ rhetoric.

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That rationale has been ridiculed in Turkey by Çavuşoğlu, who claims he spent weeks trying to get permission for rallies in the Netherlands.  “You [Dutch officials] started to tell me, ‘Mr. Minister, if you come now, Wilders’s votes will increase. Please, come after the election.’ Is this my problem?,” Çavuşoğlu said.

European governments, Erdogan said this week, have become “toys of racist and fascist parties,” and have turned into “Nazis” and “Fascists.”

For decades now, Erdogan has told Turks that they are part of an ascendant “New Turkey,” one that will return them to the glory of the Ottoman Empire.  The only thing standing in their way, Erdogan insists, is an Islamophobic Europe that harbors the PKK and wants Turkey to fight terror with one hand tied behind its back.  Whatever the outcome of the Dutch elections, it is clear Erdogan has come out the victor in this game of global realpolitik, and on April 16, he may be able to muster enough votes to lead  the country until 2029.