Saturday, May 18, 2024

Erdoğan Has Found Another Way to Undermine German Democracy

NewsErdoğan Has Found Another Way to Undermine German Democracy

A new German Islamist party that is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has obtained authorization to participate in upcoming elections for the European Parliament from Germany’s Federal Election Committee (Bundeswahlausschuss). The controversial decision offers Erdoğan and his affiliates in Germany an unprecedented opportunity to establish a foothold within the main organs of the European Union — from where they can expand their influence, spread propaganda, and propagate political Islam.

[I]t is urgent that our security authorities closely monitor all activities of this party and intervene if the Turkish government exerts direct influence.

German Parliamentarian Christoph de Vries

The Democratic Alliance for Diversity and Awakening (Demokratische Allianz für Vielfalt und Aufbruch, DAVA), which was founded in Germany in January 2024 by political operatives with longstanding ties to Erdoğan and his AKP party, has been variously described as the Turkish president’s “mouthpiece,” “offshoot,” and “extended arm.”

DAVA’s emergence constitutes a significant and worrying development for Germany and for Europe more broadly. Opponents of Islamism have long warned against the possibility of the emergence of sectarian Islamist parties drawing support from alienated Muslim populations in Europe. DAVA is an example of this phenomenon, but of yet greater concern, it is also the creation of individuals and organizations with close links to the ruling party in Turkey, the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP (Justice and Development Party).

DAVA, which aims to fight “Islamophobia” and promote “traditional [Islamic] values,” caters to the sizeable Turkish community in Germany, where 2.5 million Muslims currently have the right to vote. When changes to Germany’s citizenship law (Staatsangehörigkeitsreform) enter into effect, another 2.5 million mostly Turkish immigrants will become eligible to vote, giving DAVA a potential voter base of around 5 million.

Interestingly enough, the organization’s name – DAVA – has the same spelling of the Turkish word dava, a cognate of the Arabic term da’wa which describes the act of inviting non-Muslims to Islam). Moreover, Erdoğan often uses dava to mean “the right way” or “our cause.” In an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Caner Aver, an expert on German-Turkish relations, said that the “ambiguity of the party name is certainly intentional.”

DAVA Chairman Mehmet Teyfik Özcan. (Photo by CeediiYT, via Wikimedia Commons)

DAVA’s chairman is Mehmet Teyfik Özcan, a 36-year-old Turkish-German lawyer who is a frequent contributor to the Turkish state broadcaster TRT, which has been described as a propaganda mill for the Turkish government. Özcan, a former member of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), frequently pushes a victim narrative that highlights the grievances of Turkish immigrants in Germany.

In an interview with the German media network RND, Özcan said that DAVA has “no contacts with the Erdoğan government or other foreign governments.” He added that DAVA’s participation in the European elections are aimed at gauging “to what extent we can mobilize our potential voters” so that the party “can stand in the federal election next year. We then want to establish ourselves nationwide.”

DAVA’s top candidate is Fatih Zingal, a Turkish-German lawyer and former spokesman for the Union of International Democrats (Union Internationaler Demokraten, UID), a Turkish NGO that operates in several European countries. Germany’s interior ministry has described UID as a lobby organization for Turkey’s ruling AKP party, and Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency monitors UID for allegedly engaging in anti-constitutional activities.

Second on DAVA’s list of candidates is Ali Ihsan Ünlü, a 65-year-old German-Turkish physician and former secretary-general of the Cologne-based Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (Türkisch-Islamische Union der Anstalt für Religion, DITIB). The DITIB, part of the Turkish government’s Directorate for Religious Affairs (known in Turkish as Diyanet) that is directly controlled by Erdoğan, operates more than 900 mosques in Germany. Frequently referred to as an “extended arm” of the Turkish state, DITIB is a powerful politico-religious vehicle that allows Erdoğan to influence the three-million-strong Turkish diaspora in Germany.

DAVA’s third candidate is Mustafa Yoldaş, a 53-year-old Turkish-German doctor who has been investigated by Germany’s interior ministry for “supporting Hamas and its affiliated organizations.” He was chairman of the Frankfurt-based International Humanitarian Aid Organization (Internationale Humanitäre Hilfsorganisation, IHH) until it was banned by the German government for “supporting the terrorist organization Hamas.” Yoldaş is a longtime member of Milli Görüş (Islamischen Gemeinschaft Milli Görüs, IGMG), which seeks to transform Turkey into an Islamic state and is also the largest Islamist group in Germany.

Another DAVA candidate is Yonca Kayaoglu, a 25-year-old Turkish-German engineering graduate who is a former chairwoman of the UID youth wing in Baden-Württemberg. Kayaoglu, who has met Erdoğan several times, says her aim is to fight for “comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-racism legislation” and a “pragmatic and ideology-free refugee policy.” In an interview with Bild newspaper, Eren Güvercin, an expert on German-Turkish relations, said that Kayaoglu “comes from the classic conservative-religious AKP milieu.”

Christoph de Vries.

Lawmakers from across Germany’s political spectrum have sounded the alarm about DAVA and appear ready to form a cordon sanitaire against the new party. Christoph de Vries, a parliamentarian with the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), told Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) that DAVA’s electoral strategy is “to portray Muslims as victims of a racist majority society and to act as representatives of their interests.” The federal government, he said should “under no circumstances take this party formation lightly,” and stressed: “I believe it is urgent that our security authorities closely monitor all activities of this party and intervene if the Turkish government exerts direct influence.”

Seyran Papo, a German-Turkish lawmaker with the CDU, said she was concerned that leading members of DAVA are “raising doubts” about their loyalty to the German Constitution. “We do not need any indirect influence from foreign forces on politics in Germany and Europe,” she added.

The leader of Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), Saskia Esken, said that “it is important that we make it clear to our fellow citizens of Turkish origin that Germany belongs together.” She warned against allowing “the divisive tendencies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan” to play a role in German politics. Another SPD lawmaker, Derya Türk-Nachbaur, warned that DAVA should be “constantly scrutinized, not only over its financing, but also for possible political influence by Erdoğan.”

Sevim Dağdelen, a far-left German-Turkish member of the Bundestag, said that German government policy has, through its policy of “coddling” Erdoğan, and by supporting Islamist mosque associations like DITIB, “helped to strengthen the very structures from which DAVA apparently intends to draw voters in order to establish the AKP strategy of a secondary foreign policy.” She warned that “DAVA de facto acts like a foreign mission of the Islamist-fascist AKP/MHP [Nationalist Movement Party] coalition in Turkey and is apparently aimed at mobilizing AKP supporters in Germany.”

DAVA leaders say the European elections, which will be held in Germany on June 9, 2024, are a trial run for German federal elections that will be held on or before October 25, 2025. DAVA is seeking around 300,000 votes (about 0.65% of the vote), which would give it a seat in the European Parliament and overcome the 0.5 percent hurdle to obtain German taxpayer funding for the party. By comparison, Erdoğan won around 500,000 votes (or 67% of those who voted) from Turkish immigrants in Germany in the Turkish presidential election in May 2023.

In an interview with TRT Deutsch, DAVA’s lead candidate, Zingal, said that “we are doing pioneering work here” and that “our movement will establish itself in the medium and long term in such a way that it will become an important political player in Germany.”

Gökay Sofuoglu, chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany (Türkische Gemeinde in Deutschland, TGD), told the media outlet RND that he sees “no reason to panic” because “a party that is founded solely according to ethnic criteria and only focuses on ethnic issues only has a marginal function.” Over time, he said, “DAVA will fail.”

Sofuoglu may be correct. In fact, other Erdoğan-linked parties in Europe have — so far — achieved only marginal electoral successes in countries with sizeable Turkish diasporas. In Bulgaria, for instance, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), which represents the country’s ethnic Turk and Muslim populations, is arguably the most successful such party in Europe. It has three seats in the European Parliament and 36 out of 240 seats in the National Assembly. In France, the Erdoğan-friendly Equality Justice Party (Parti Egalité Justice, PEJ) dissolved after it won less than 10,000 votes in legislative elections in 2017.

In the Netherlands, the DENK party (Politieke Beweging Denk), which is close to Erdoğan and the AKP party, has only three out of the 150 seats in the lower house of the Dutch Parliament, and none in the European Parliament. In Sweden, the Erdoğan-aligned Islamist Nuance Party (Swedish: Partiet Nyans) won seats in two municipalities with large Muslim immigrant communities, but failed to obtain any seats in Sweden’s Parliament.

Nevertheless, Bavaria’s interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, warns that DAVA is far from harmless. “Erdoğan’s AKP party friends,” he said, are using DAVA “to try to exert direct influence on the European Parliament.” He added that efforts “to directly assert Turkish interests there by running for the European Parliament is a completely new step” that “is also an alarm signal for developments in Germany.”

Germany’s Agriculture Minister, Cem Özdemir of the Greens party, concluded: “An Erdoğan offshoot running for elections here is the last thing we need.”

Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.

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