Like nothing else, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is dividing Turks in Germany. While some Turkish shops and teahouses here still display the usual dusty, fly-blown pictures of Atatürk, announcing allegiance to the secularist principles of the Turkish Republic, others show framed portraits of Erdoğan, proclaiming devotion to an entirely different ideology, and a man they see as no less than the new saviour of the Islamic world.
Now, a decisive referendum will be held on April 16 in Turkey. Voters will vote on a set of 18 proposed amendments to the Turkish constitution, suggested by President Erdoğan. The amendments include, among other things, the introduction of an executive presidency that would replace the existing parliamentary system and the abolition of the office of Prime Minister. Critics say that a “yes” vote would strengthen the already authoritarian tenor of Erdoğan’s rule and put Turkey on track to becoming a bona-fide dictatorship.
It’s a close race. And so Erdoğan’s government has been courting potential voters who live abroad – like the 1.4 million Turks in Germany who are eligible to vote. It is estimated that 60 percent of them will cast their vote for Erdoğan, about the same percentage that supported the Turkish president in the last presidential election.
While pro-Erdoğan supporters are fighting to make their voices heard in Europe, the anti-Erdoğan camp is quietly pushing forward with its campaign for the “no” vote. Here in Berlin, the new artist initiative TARA hopes to subtly sway German Turks towards voting down the referendum.
“This referendum is about whether the Turkish Republic will remain intact or if it will become a dictatorship,” says Mürtüz Yolcu, an actor, curator and screenwriter from eastern Turkey who has lived in Berlin for 35 years. “We are of the opinion that the Republic simply offers a better way of life. And we don’t want this country to be governed by a single individual. We think that the parliament should remain as it is.”
Yolcu and TARA’s other co-founders, who include writer and journalist Gülcin Wilhelm and Petra Diehl, a German national who lived in Istanbul for 20 years, are all liberal supporters of a European Turkey that has come increasingly under siege with Erdoğan’s accession to power in 2003. They are non-religious, enjoy a drink, are progressive in their values and have become increasingly alienated by the neo-Ottoman, Islamic tone of Erdoğan’s Turkey. They also represent the views of roughly half of Berlin’s Turks.
“In the last election two years ago, 60 percent of the Berlin Turks voted for the government party,” says Yolcu. “But how they will vote in the referendum, it’s hard to say. There are many conservative voters who are not in favour of these changes.”
Speaking at Kuchen Kaiser in Kreuzberg, the three explained their motto of “Enjoy and Encourage”: encourage a “no” vote in the referendum, but in a way that is not heavy-handed or political, avoiding speeches while supporting the increasing numbers of artists and academics who are hoping to claim asylum in Germany.
All three organizers have spent a lot of time in Istanbul and they are unanimous about the change that has come over the city since the quashing of the Gezi Park protests in 2013, and especially after the crackdown in the wake of the attempted coup last year that saw 9000 police officers fired, 21,000 school teachers suspended, 1500 university deans forced to resign and 100 media outlets forced to shut down.
“It’s just gotten worse and worse,” says Diehl. “People don’t go out anymore. Many foreign companies, have pulled out of Turkey. Bağdat [a chic promenade in Kadıköy] was once a popular shopping street, and it’s like a ghost town now. Sixty percent of the shops are shut.”
Yolcu, Wilhelm and Diehl praise German politicians, journalists and celebrities for coming out in their stance against Erdoğan and in support of victims of his purge, like the journalist Deniz Yücel. Shortly before we met, Yolcu had been to see an Istanbul playwright who is no longer able to work in Turkey thanks to the Erdoğan establishment.
“His plays are just stories, biographies of people living in Istanbul,” says Yolcu. “And he can’t put these pieces on the stage anymore. In Istanbul, art doesn’t jibe with the concept of the government… Everyone that thinks a little bit differently is a terrorist. Another colleague of mine was an actor of many years standing in the National Theater of Istanbul. He published something on Facebook, something that the government didn’t like. And they fired him. Just like that.”
Even in Berlin, it can be difficult to be part of the Turkish opposition. “What we’ve experienced here in Kreuzberg was pretty amazing,” says Yolcu. “We’ve been at events where we’ve been asked not to give political speeches, to keep our mouths shut.”
TARA’s group’s first scheduled event would have been a party with musicians and DJs at Kreuzberg’s Aufbauhaus on April 14, two days before the referendum. But what was to be entitled “No – the Party” ended up cancelled at the last minute. The group themselves decided not to host the event, citing “security concerns”.
“The Turks are all riled up, and something could have happened. We would have had to hire security. But this isn’t the end of the story,” says Sultan Tunç (photo), a rapper who was scheduled to perform at the event. Born in Germany to Turkish parents, he has lived in both Istanbul and Berlin, but recently relocated to the German capital for good.
Tunç’s parents and grandparents belong to the minority Alevi religion, which has often found itself at odds with the powers that be, even going back to Ottoman times. The music of the Alevis is often political, and Tunç sees himself as coming out of this tradition. In his raps, he takes aim at prominent politicians and champions the rights of the oppressed. In 2008, Tunç – who currently lives in Berlin – came out with a song taking aim at the current Turkish government called “Pardon Afedersiniz Mr. Genelkurmay” (“Excuse me, Mr. Chief of Staff”), which ruffled some feathers. “It was a bit funny and very danceable, but with a pretty hard-core text. The funny thing was when it came out, the AKP [Erdoğan’s party] championed it in a big way because they had a beef with the same people. So I started to retreat a little bit because I didn’t want to be a part of Erdoğan’s political game.”
Tunç was in Istanbul the night of the attempted coup in July. “We were drinking in a hotel in Taksim, preparing for a concert. The TV was on, and we saw what was going on, that the bridge was blocked, and then I figured I’d bring the people I was with to their hotel, but at the moment I wasn’t thinking I would cancel the concert the next day. And we went out on Istikal street (Istanbul’s main pedestrial thoroughfare) and then someone started shooting, undercover cops or I don’t know what. Someone got shot 20-30 metres away from me. There were street fights that whole night long. And then afterwards, there were arrests of people who had nothing to do with the coup, a lot of left-wingers. And this has been going on till today.”
Tunç had recorded an album of new songs, but decided not to release it in Turkey, opting for a German release instead. “A lot of the record was political. So to protect myself and the record company, we pulled out.”
And so Tunç and many others like him – Turkish artists, musicians, journalists and academics – are fleeing the once magnetic city on the Bosporus and coming to Berlin, where they rub shoulders with countrymen who may have very different political opinions. Who will win out in the end? That remains to be seen on April 16.