Specter of Referendum Dominates Turkish PM’s Germany Visit

If you have a large number of Turkish expatriates like Germany, there is little chance to avoid being dragged into the heart of whatever political conflict plays out back in Turkey. Be it decades-old Kurdish conflict and related insurgency mounted by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern Turkey, or the Turkish government’s crackdown on Gulen movement or the recent referendum over the presidential system.

Germany is unable to escape undesired but inevitable embroilment in the Turkish affairs as Turkey’s own political battles spill over to the European Union’s largest and most prosperous country. It was clearly evident on Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s visit to Germany as he used the opportunity to hold a rally for a robust display of support for the proposed transition to the presidential system in Turkey.

In the city of Oberhausen, Mr. Yildirim addressed to a crowd of 10,000 Turks in German leg of the campaign to convince Euro-Turks for adopting a presidential form of government in Turkey. To the chagrin of German lawmakers, Turkish leaders again brought another campaign cycle to Germany where 1.4 million Turks will be eligible to vote in April referendum. In the past, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held large rallies in German cities for elections in Turkey. 

“They say that a one-man system is coming. Are there two chancellors in Germany? In a presidential system, of course, there is only one president. There can’t be two captains on one ship,” the Associated Press quoted Prime Minister Yildirim as saying. 

He rebuffed sustained criticism over potential consequences of the current proposal, which envisages placing most of the executive powers at the hands of one man. The gist of his argument for the past weeks was to end dual power structure and an ever-constant struggle between the presidency and office of the prime ministry. The specter of a power struggle has been a recurring theme in the pro-Yes camp and was again at the core of Yildirim’s address in Germany.

He also accused Germany of supporting terrorism, giving shelter to the political activists and insurgents linked with the PKK. 

The Turkish Prime Minister met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Munich on the sidelines of an annual security conference on Saturday. His visit came amid mounting tension between Turkey and Germany over allegations of Turkish imams’ spying on sympathizers of Gulen movement in Germany.

Last week, German police raided apartments of four imams accused of conducting espionage on behalf of the Turkish government in North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate against Gulen sympathizers. Turkey’s top religious official on Friday rejected allegations and deemed German police raids as political moves ahead of elections in Germany.

But the issue of spying has injected a new source of friction into bilateral relations already frayed and strained over other matters. In his meeting with Merkel, Yildirim reiterated Ankara’s longstanding demand for an extradition of a number of military officers who were representatives to NATO in Brussels and other posts across Europe. A dozen of Turkish military officers and diplomats are seeking asylum in Berlin and other European capitals.

Ankara accuses them of taking part in a failed coup attempt on July 15, in 2016. But they reject accusations. The Dutch government has allowed Turkish officers and their families to stay in the country for 18 months until their asylum application reviewed.

Germany has found itself in a delicate position to navigate between domestic political considerations and its need to work with Turkey to keep a fragile migrant deal in place. Germany has sought to moderate more hawkish calls from European allies to cut relations with President Erdogan’s government over the clampdown on opponents since the failed coup.

Last year, Germany refused to place economic sanctions against Turkey at an EU summit in Brussels. In a clear-cut indication of caution not to alienate Turkey, Merkel even did not mention during the meeting with the Turkish prime minister about the imprisonment of a German-Turkish journalist from Deutsche-Welle in Turkey.

The Turkish prime minister also met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Munich. Extradition of U.S.-based Islamic Cleric Fethullah Gulen and cooperation over operation against Islamic State-controlled Raqqa were on the agenda, the press office of the prime ministry said.

“We will not be directly inside an operation [on Raqqa], we will provide tactical support, of course, if we agree in principle,” semi-official Anadolu news agency quoted Mr. Yildirim as saying.

He warned over implications of U.S. willingness to partnering Syrian Kurdish militia to liberate Raqqa. Turkey remains highly skeptical and resented over close cooperation between Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the U.S., and began intense lobbying to nudge the new Donald Trump administration to reconsider its position.

“We’ve told them one terrorist organization cannot be used to fight another. I believe the new U.S. administration will take these assessments into consideration,” Reuters quoted Mr. Yildirim. 

A day before, U.S. and Turkish military chiefs met at the Incirlik Air Base in the southern province of Adana to discuss cooperation for Raqqa operation.

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