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Turkish Referendum Campaign Rallies Blocked In Europe

Mar 13, 2017
Originally published on March 22, 2017 9:46 am
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to talk more now about that attempt by the Turkish government to hold a campaign rally in the Netherlands for an election happening back in Turkey. As we heard, the Dutch government blocked the rally, and the German government has done the same thing there, leading to some harsh criticism from the Turkish president. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now to talk more. And, Peter, just how big a controversy is this at this point? What brought it on?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, there's this big referendum vote coming up next month. And it would dramatically change the system of government here. And the ruling party wants a yes vote to give more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and they're scrounging for all the support they can get, including from some of the 5.5 million Turks living abroad. Most of them are in Western Europe. There is 1.4 million in Germany, people who could vote if they care to on April 16. And that's actually where this started, in Germany. Turks went there, but they were blocked from holding a campaign event.

The local authorities said, nope, security problems, you can't do it. And then President Erdogan compared them to the Nazis for this ban, which of course angered some Germans, as you can imagine. And then the same thing happened in the Netherlands, and this is where it really flared up. More Nazi comparisons were thrown around, and tensions really soared.

CORNISH: Remind us again what exactly they will be voting on in Turkey.

KENYON: Well, in some ways, this would make Turkey's government appear similar to the U.S. system. The president would become the chief executive in - like in the U.S. The prime minister would be eliminated. But analysts say the comparison with America's democracy is misleading because Turkey just doesn't have the kind of institutional checks and balances the U.S. does. Critics say the institutions Turkey does have are growing weaker every year as President Erdogan accumulates more power. Now, the other side, of course, is the security factor. There have been a failed coup, multiple terror attacks. Many Turks simply want a strong leader, and that means President Erdogan.

Now, there's one other thing I want to throw in here. It's actually illegal under Turkey's general election law to campaign abroad. But that provision doesn't happen to have any penalties if you violate it. And this isn't the first time Turkish politicians have gone abroad looking for votes. It is, however, the first time they got such a big backlash for doing so.

CORNISH: Peter, in the meantime, what's been the reaction from voters, from people in Turkey, to these European bans on campaign events?

KENYON: A lot of anger, and it is dominating the news here - pictures in every venue and video of Dutch riot police using clubs and dogs to disperse Turkish ex-pats who were demonstrating at that Rotterdam rally. There are a few voices calling for calm, but tensions are very high. The Dutch ambassador has been told basically don't come back till further notice. Turkey's president says the Netherlands will have to pay the price for its actions.

CORNISH: In the meantime, how are these disputes - I mean, as we mentioned, first with Germany and now with the Netherlands - actually changing the dynamic of the campaign back in Turkey?

KENYON: Yeah, I think they are actually, Audie. I mean, early on, there were signs the government wasn't really happy with the yes campaign and how it was going. Some of their allies seemed to be splitting off on the fringes. But now even opposition parties are rallying behind Erdogan's very tough line against the Netherlands and Germany. One ruling party lawmaker says the yes vote is already up two points, and he predicts a much higher turnout among Turks abroad. Now, we have to say the polls here aren't really reliable, but analysts do agree that if anybody benefits from this nationalist anger at Europe, it's probably going to be the yes campaign, and that, of course, is the effort to make President Erdogan even stronger.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks so much, Peter.

KENYON: Thanks, Audie.

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