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Fake News, Refugees, and Armaments: Christian Democrats and Islamists Join Forces in the German Election

Author’s photo in Istanbul.

Germany’s ruling center-right CDU (Christian-Democratic Union) has the lowest number of politicians with immigrant backgrounds, yet it looks like in this election the party will be supported by immigrants and their descendants to an unprecedented degree. A study conducted this year has shown that in recent years the percentage of Turks who would vote for Merkel’s CDU rose to 53% from 13%.

The CDU may not have many politicians of Turkish origin but it has always worked to establish and maintain a balanced relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and this seems to be the key to winning the support of ethnic Turkish voters. Germany’s Christian Democrat CDU and Turkey’s Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) have a strange relationship based on their mutual interests, for example, the 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal. By the terms of this deal prepared by chancellor Angela Merkel and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey has agreed to keep the Syrian refugees on its territory for 6 billion euros. This year the agreement has been renewed for an additional 3.5 billion euros, so that Germany does not have to worry about a new “refugee crisis” for the next five years. Meanwhile, in Turkey, anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise and most opposition parties are openly criticizing the new deal. Many think that Merkel has bribed Erdoğan to keep the refugees. Meral Akşener, chair of the center-right Good Party (IP) has even told its supporters that Turks should collect this amount of money and send it to Europe along with the millions of refugees. From this standpoint, one can easily see why the CDU is comfortable with the AKP being in power. 

Refugees are not the only matter of concern; the two conservative ruling parties have also been doing brisk business on the armaments front. As Turkey involves itself in more and more armed conflicts from Libya to Azerbaijan, Germany under the CDU has always been ready to provide weapons. A possible German embargo on weapons to Turkey has been discussed for years now, but the CDU has refused to implement a full embargo on Ankara. Last summer when Turkish research vessels started to drill for oil in the Greek EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean, the EU planned to put sanctions on Turkey, but Germany has used its veto against it. This June, a motion prepared by the Greens titled “no weapons to Turkey,” which would have limited arms sales to Ankara, was rejected by the CDU and its Social Democratic coalition partners (SPD) in the Bundestag. This is not surprising, as Germany has sold arms worth 22.9 million euros to Turkey this year alone. 

From this, we can understand why Erdoğan prefers a Christian-Democratic chancellor in Germany. With the Greens criticizing the refugee deal and arms trade the most, the AKP has been mobilizing its diaspora in Germany to support CDU candidate Armin Laschet, Merkel’s hand-picked successor. He has been minister of integration from 2005 to 2010 in North-Rhein Westphalia and a minister in the same federal state since 2017. North-Rhein Westphalia is home to the largest Turkish community in the country, so he is already well known among Turks. This January when Laschet was elected new president of the CDU Erdoğan immediately congratulated him on the phone, and since then media outlets linked to the AKP have been praising Laschet as a friend of Turkey. It seems that he has paid a considerable price for this friendship.

At a time when populists and nationalists across Europe and Asia Minor talk of a purported clash of civilizations between Islam and the Christian West, the Christian Democrats and the Islamic conservative AKP have even found common ground on a question of religious education. Public schools in Germany include religion classes tailored to the German Evangelical (i.e., Lutheran) and Catholic Churches, and citizens fund the two established churches on a voluntary basis and according to personal affiliation, through their tax returns. The question, then, is how Muslim students in Germany should learn about their faith. In steps Germany’s largest Islamic organization, the DITIB (Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs), founded by Turkey’s state religious body the Diyanet in 1984 to take care of Turkish Muslims living in Germany. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has become more of Erdoğan’s longhand in the west. Besides the fact that the organization commonly shares antisemitic slurs on social media, the imams it sent to Germany directly from Ankara have been caught spying on Turks living in the country. This was the case with those who criticized Erdoğan for not mentioning that DITIB organized events in its mosques praising the Turkish military in 2018, when they invaded together with their jihadist linked militias the Kurdish populated Afrin province of Syria.

Because of the scandals, North-Rhein Westphalia’s government stopped cooperating with the organization in 2017. This May, however, Laschet has started to work with them again. From now on, DITIB will be part of the commission preparing the curriculum of religious lessons for Muslim students in North-Rhein Westphalen. For this very controversial move, Laschet gained huge support from the local Turkish community, with Erdoğan-linked media outlets putting his cooperation with the DITIB in the headlines.

Besides all the ongoing deals between the AKP and CDU, there are some overt examples of how Laschet is trying to gain the support of Turks. The CDU even set up a team called Supporters of Armin Laschet (Armin Laschet’i Destekleme Grubu) which is made up of 48 well-known Turkish people, mostly professors, living in Germany. Now they are making campaign events all around the country to convince Turks to vote for CDU. This was initiated by Prof. Dr. Faruk Şen, a well-known Turkish professor from Germany, who came under fire this summer when the AKP-linked Sabah newspaper made a headline: “Laschet: I Love Turkey.” It was assumed that Sabah had an exclusive interview with Laschet, in which the candidate praised Turkey, promised to boost the relations between the two countries, said he would make his first official visit after being elected to Ankara, and asked Turks to vote for him. As it turned out, however, Laschet hadn’t given any interview to Sabah. The newspaper came up with the strange excuse that Laschet did say he loved Turkey in a private phone call with Mr. Şen, and this was the source of their exclusive headline.

Erdoğan’s media in Germany are not just making up fake news in favor of their fellow conservatives, but also demonizing anyone who disagrees with them. Critics of Erdoğan like Cem Özdemir and Berivan Aymaz from the Greens, Sevim Dağdelen from the Left Party, journalists Erk Acarer and Can Dündar, and even the football player Deniz Naki and boxer Ünsal Arik have often been portrayed as traitors of the Turkish nation, for nothing else but being critical towards the AKP government. Erdoğan’s media is working so well in Germany that these people are not just getting death threats on a daily basis from Erdoğan’s supporters, but sometimes they even fall victim to physical attacks. 

The results of the elections are still very uncertain, but it seems doubtful that the Turkish votes will be enough to help Laschet to the chancellor’s office. Even so, Erdoğan has already gained a lot from this partnership.

Gábor Billay is a Hungarian journalist who has been covering mostly Turkish politics, migration, and religious and ethnic conflicts of the Middle East. Ha has a BA in Sociology from Istanbul University.