Erdogan on 14 May is seeking a third term in office. But he is battling an ongoing economic crisis, soaring inflation and a collapsing currency, as well as criticism over his handling of the February earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people.
“This is a big chance for the opposition to remove Erdogan from the place he has been for 22 years. The direction of the country has changed dramatically since he has been there,” said Murat*, who has lived in Luxembourg for around nine years.
“The overwhelming majority of my family is still in Turkey, so I would also like to contribute to the decisions where my family lives,” he said of his intention to vote.
Erdogan first became president in 2014 after previously serving as prime minister. He won a second campaign in 2018 and during his presidency expanded the powers of the office.
In a 2017 constitutional referendum, voters approved amendments including replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential system, abolishing the post of prime minister and increasing the share of political appointees in the judiciary.
Supervised polling in Luxembourg
Nearly 10,000 Turkish citizens voted in the referendum from Luxembourg, although most came from surrounding countries and used the grand duchy as their nearest polling station. The embassy expects a slightly higher turnout this year, first counsellor Nevzat Arslan said in an email.
Voting is open between 27 April and 9 May, “under the supervision of polling committees with representatives of the political parties participating in the election, including the opposition parties. After the votes are cast, they will be sent back to Turkey for counting, again under the supervision of political party representatives.”
Every single vote really matters.
Voter turnout in Turkey is generally high. At the last election in 2018, it was at over 80%. “Every single vote really matters,” said Mehmet*, who left his country a decade ago, adding that he cannot simply stand by and watch losing his rights.
A re-election of president Erdogan could set the country on an even more difficult path of return to democracy, he said. “This election has significant importance to make sure that the current status quo doesn’t continue anymore.”
Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn (LSAP) described the relationship with Turkey as “extremely difficult.” While he criticised its poor human rights and rule of law record, he said it had also brokered a grain export deal with Russia in the war against Ukraine. It is a Nato member and EU partner. “We talk to each other.”
During a press conference on 20 April, Asselborn told Delano he hopes for pro-democracy change. “It could happen in May,” he said. Accession talks for the country to join the European Union have been frozen for years and the minister said there is no scope for negotiations to resume under the current regime.
But he also warned that Turkey is “not just a government” but “a huge country with 80m people.”
Disillusioned first-time voters
Rising numbers of them, however, are leaving. “Everyone wants to get out of the country,” said Murat. Nearly three-quarters of young people said they would move abroad given the opportunity in a survey published in February by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a German NGO.
Around 1,000 Turks lived in Luxembourg in 2017. The community has grown to around 4,000 in the last six years. “High wages, high standard of living and highly qualified job opportunities in Luxembourg are among the reasons that attract well-educated Turks here, just like people of other nationalities,” the embassy’s Arslan said.
More than a third of young people in the German survey said they feel hopeless about the future of their country. But six million first-time voters, who have grown up under Erdogan rule, could also change the election stakes. “They are fed up and they want to see something else. This kind of gives me hope,” said Mehmet.
Three opposition figures are running against Erdogan, although the strongest opponent is Kemal Kilicdaroglu who represents a six-party alliance that promises to return Turkey to a parliamentary democracy, undo many of Erdogan’s constitutional changes and strengthen freedom of expression and media freedom.
Kilicdaroglu is backed by Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a popular figure in politics who many had hoped would lead the opposition into the election, as well as the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavas.
The other two presidential candidates are Muharrem Ince, who split away from Kilicdaroglu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 2018, and ultranationalist Sinan Ogan. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place on the same day as the presidential vote.
Electoral fraud fears
Murat fears that the Erdogan regime “will do everything they can to stay in power”, including manipulating the election results. In 2019, Erdogan’s party, the AKP, called for a re-run of the Istanbul mayoral election after a slim win for opposition candidate Imamoglu. An election body nullified the results, but in a re-run three months later, Imamoglu won a second time.
Both Murat and Mehmet expect a majority of voters in Luxembourg to support the opposition, and more people who did not want to be quoted for this article said the same. Some expressed fears of a prolonged Erdogan presidency turning Turkey into an Islamic republic. Many did not want to be interviewed for fear of being identified and possibly penalised upon travel home.
Under a controversial disinformation law, citizens face charges for spreading misleading information that risks security and public order. The ambiguous text leaves people vulnerable to attacks over criticism of the government. Turkey’s prison population has more than doubled since Erdogan became president to reach 327,000 people last year, with the country now the sixth-largest incarcerator in the world.
For several years, rising numbers of Turkish nationals have been seeking, and receiving, political asylum in Luxembourg, data from the foreign affairs ministry shows.
In 2018, Turkey placed 17th on the list of countries of origin of asylum seekers arriving in Luxembourg. In absolute numbers, that meant 44 people from Turkey sought international protection in the grand duchy, the equivalent of 2% of 2,205 applicants that year.
Last year, there were 94 asylum applicants from Turkey, more than double the number from Iran (42) and accounting for 4.1% of the total number of people seeking protection in Luxembourg. The number of applications granted rose from 17 in 2018 to 49 in 2022.
EU-wide, Turkey was the fourth largest country of origin of asylum seekers last year, with 49,720 people making up 6% of first-time applicants for international protection.
Difficult task ahead
While Mehmet and Murat haven’t ruled out returning to Turkey someday--under different political circumstances--“we see ourselves as citizens of the European Union. There are a lot of opportunities elsewhere,” the latter said.
As a single mother, Shirin* left Turkey because she felt stigmatised under Erdogan’s conservative vision of society. A job opportunity brought her to Luxembourg, the first time that she’s living abroad.
“It’s my country,” she said about her intention to vote despite her move. “My family lives there, friends… I want a better future, also for myself. Maybe I want to go back one day.”
The government, she said, does not reflect her mentality. After more than 20 years in charge, it’s time for change. She wants new leadership to “find a way to come together again in respect” after a divisive rule. People, she said, should be able to talk freely “without thinking they will be going to jail or be discriminated.”
But she fears that, even if the opposition wins, it will be a long way for the country to recover.
There will be too much pressure, too many expectations.
The opposition coalition under Kilicdaroglu, the National Alliance, is something of a marriage of convenience between six parties from across the political spectrum, including two that split from Erdogan’s AKP.
The right-wing IYI threw the alliance into disarray at the start of March when it walked out over Kilicdaroglu’s nomination. The party had favoured the mayor of Istanbul or Ankara, but later returned to the so-called Table of Six. The rift, however, shows the brittleness of a coalition whose uniting feature is the desire to remove Erdogan from office.
“There will be too much pressure, too many expectations,” said Shirin. “They made promises and if they cannot deliver there will be a cost.”
*The interviewee’s name has been changed to conceal their identity.