Search form

Last updated: 21 min 23 sec ago

You are here

Another part of the story: Turkish diaspora and politics

As we all still speak about the results of Turkey’s April 16 constitutional referendum to replace the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential model that ended with a victory for the “yes” camp, let us take a look at another side of the story. That is Turkish diaspora and their reaction to referendum.
Although around 3 million Turkish citizens abroad were eligible to vote, only about half of them went to the polls. Yet, their votes played a significant role in the outcome of this historic referendum. Moreover, expat votes tell a lot in what Turks living outside think about Turkish politics and the future of their country.
Going beyond the ordinary discussions that are focused merely in politics in Turkey, I will focus on the voting behavior of Turkish diaspora in Europe in comparison with those living in the Gulf which is worth analyzing, while acknowledging that there might be some parts that I may miss.
High turnout in voting from abroad is actually a new political case. Since 2012, Turks abroad are granted the right to vote in domestic elections at Turkish diplomatic missions abroad — a move that increased the turnout among expats. With this referendum, it is the fourth time that diaspora votes have played a crucial role after 2014 presidential election, June 2015 national election and November 2015 snap election.
Although for many years, Turkish politicians were interested in keeping the country’s politics alive among the diaspora, the importance of the expat vote really attracted attention with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which paid a special focus on the Turkish diaspora as a crucial electorate gain and gave priority to them in its election campaigns. It even opened a special agency, named Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), to deal with the issues of Turks outside. While other Turkish political parties recently opened branches in abroad, it should not be a surprise for anyone that yes votes from expats in Europe was in favor of AK Party. As a Turkish proverb says, “what you sow is what you reap.”
Turkish leaders even highlighted the significance of the diaspora vote when Turkey got into a diplomatic row with several EU countries, which banned Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of expatriates. The reaction of the European leaders not only led to a historic low in Turkish-EU relations, but also helped in galvanizing “yes” votes from Turks abroad.
Looking at the figures, we can see this clearly. More than 63 percent of Turkish voters in Germany, that has the highest number of Turkish migrants in Europe, voted “yes.” The situation was largely same in France, Belgium, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Although around 3 million Turkish citizens abroad were eligible to vote, only about half of them went to polls. Yet their votes played a significant role in the outcome of this historic referendum.

Sinem Cengiz

However, unlike in Europe, the Turkish diaspora in Gulf countries had different opinion. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, more than 80 percent of the voters said “no.” Though small in numbers compared to Turkish expats in Europe, it was interesting to see the figure this high. It is worth asking then, “why is that so?” Needless to say, the answers lie in years of academic research on Turkish diaspora, but in brief, there are several factors, such as class, education, religious and ethnic, that play a significant role in the voting behavior of the Turkish diaspora in Europe and the Gulf.
Turkish migration to Europe started almost five decades ago from small villages or towns and those migrants were blue-collar workers with limited formal education. So, class and education are important factors that influence voting behaviors. Also, being in the third generation, five million people of Turkish origin live in the EU. The upbringing of these generations is significant in shaping their attitudes towards politics.
Secondly, some Turks in Europe tend to be more nationalist both due to their being away from home while also failing to fully integrate to the host country’s social, economic and political environment. Here, nationalist sentiments and the feeling of being “foreign” feed the voting tendency. However, migrants from Turkey also include Kurds and Alevites, whose support for the opposition seems to be more dominant, unlike those mentioned above.
The third factor is the failure of integration. Particularly after seeing that Turks in their country’s vote for “yes,” several European politicians raised the issue of revoking dual citizenship rights, and even some called to deport Turks. Therefore, these Turks see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “savior” and they buy his rhetoric particularly at a time when xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe is on the rise.
However, Turks in the Gulf is quite different than in Europe. The immigration of Turkish workers into Europe continued until early 1980s. From that time onward, Turkish labor force changed its route to Middle East and Gulf countries. As a Turk who lived in a Gulf country for almost two decades, I could say that there is a marked difference between Turks in Europe and those in Gulf.
First of all, unlike Turkish workforce in Europe, those in Gulf are not blue-collar workers but are businessmen, investors or professionals working for either local or Turkish companies. Also there are Turkish academics who work in Gulf universities. This is a new phenomenon. With the increasing business ties between Turkey and the Gulf in the past decade, the workforce in the Gulf changed. However, there is also a significant presence of Turkish citizens coming from Turkey’s southern provinces of Adana, Mersin and Hatay who are Arab Alevis who tend to vote for leftist parties in Turkey. Due to both their religious, educational and class background, these people tend to be more critical of the ruling party in Turkey.
That is to say, rather than criticizing the Turkish community in Europe or Gulf due to their voting behavior, it is necessary to examine these factors all together. Thus, figures show that the votes coming from abroad should not have come as a surprise.


• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’srelations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.