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Belgium’s Turks lose enthusiasm for Erdoğan

by editor

SAINT-JOSSE-TEN-NOODE, Belgium — Lampposts in northeastern Brussels are adorned with pictures of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. On some, his face is scratched out with black marker.

It shows the challenge the long-serving president faces ahead of Sunday’s knife-edge election against Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) — even in an EU country whose 220,000-strong Turkish minority historically supported him.

In 2018, Erdoğan’s AKP party bagged 75 percent of the Belgian vote. That level of support appears shakier this year.

Ünver Serpil, 45, a local supermarket owner, voted for the long-serving president in 2018. This year she abstained.

“I know that Erdoğan is the best candidate but I also know some things are wrong,” she said. “He’s too imposing,” she added, pointing to Turkey’s “catastrophic” economic situation.

Every lost vote matters for Erdoğan.

There are some 3.4 million eligible Turkish overseas voters — 1.5 million of them in Germany alone. That makes Belgium, with its 153,000 registered voters, a minnow in comparison, but what’s happening on the streets of Brussels does show how support for Erdoğan has evolved after 20 years of ruling Turkey.

At stake this year is the democratic direction of the country, analysts say, as well as Ankara’s relationship with the West and Russia at a time when Turkey is plagued by a crippling economic crisis and the impact of a devastating February earthquake that killed 50,000.

Belgian Turks are “quite unique” in that most originally came from the same rural town of Emirdağ in central Anatolia in the 1960s mainly to work in Belgium’s mines, according to Kadri Tastan, a senior fellow and Turkey expert at the German Marshall Fund think tank.

“They’re very nationalist and also quite conservative,” he said, adding that since they don’t feel the effects of Turkey’s economic crisis, they tend to vote for Erdoğan mostly for “ideological and religious reasons.”

Although there aren’t any polls of Belgian Turks, the opposition senses that some opinions on Erdoğan have shifted.

Voter registration increased by 10,000 voters this year, according to Derya Bulduk, CHP president for Belgium, adding she is confident that a majority of those will be for the opposition.

While there are no official polls on the subject, support for Erdoğan in Belgium appears to be waning | Victor Jack/POLITICO

“Unfortunately an autocracy has set in — not one that’s discussed but one that’s lived in a cruel manner,” she said. “People went to the polls because they know things need to change.”

Still, Bulduk said she ran a “relatively low-key” campaign after the CHP’s 800 volunteers in Belgium paused their campaigning for seven weeks to focus on raising donations for earthquake victims.

Social media campaigning was also reduced to avoid tensions with AKP volunteers, she said, pointing to a recent incident when activists threw eggs at the CHP’s Brussels headquarters and clambered onto its balcony with knives in a bid to cut down an election banner.

Nurettin Dereli, a member of the AKP’s electoral commission in Brussels, agreed the campaign was “monotonous” compared to previous years, when lawmakers from the ruling party in Turkey were blocked from getting visas and campaigning in Belgium. 

The AKP doesn’t have the status of a party association in Belgium, he added. That left door-to-door visits as the only option for the party’s informal network of roughly 150 volunteers nationwide.

Still, he denies a big surge in support for the CHP. Any new votes this year will be split “50-50” with the opposition, he said, adding that even if the AKP loses some support it’s “a good thing for Turkish democracy that [people] are free to vote.”

Voting in Belgium ended last Sunday, after which the ballots were transferred to Cologne in Germany before being counted.

“The main issue from our perspective is really the independence of our home country because we have seen direct attacks against our president,” Dereli added, citing the threat of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party and “economic attacks” against Ankara.

“We need a strong leader,” he said.

But it’s unclear that’s enough to galvanize Belgium’s historic AKP voters.

Murat, 30, a public security officer in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, voted for Erdoğan in the last election but this year couldn’t be bothered to go to the polling station in northern Brussels.

“This is a guy who’s done many things for his country,” he said, but added: “I just didn’t feel like going to the Atomium to vote.” 

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