Why can’t populist politicians do without enemies? Because they get better results with enemies.
The most recent example of this is the Dutch elections on March 15. Prime Minister Mark Rutte did better than the polls expected of him thanks to the last-minute skirmish with the Turkish government. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım expressed this on March 16 in another way by saying that “racism” could return to the Netherlands thanks to the Turkish row as right-wing candidate Geert Wilders kept his chair to become the second party in the parliament because of a fall for the Labor Party (PvdA).
Actually, Rutte was adroit in using the opportunity of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s demand to carry out campaigning in the form of an official visit to the Netherlands for a “yes” vote for a shift to an executive presidency system in Turkey in the April 16 referendum. Was it necessary for Rutte to send a provocatively strong note to the Turkish government saying that neither Çavuşoğlu nor any Turkish government member would be welcome in the Netherlands before the March 15 elections due to domestic political considerations? The centuries-old Dutch diplomacy could of course do better than that. But in retrospect, it can be said that Rutte might have calculated well that the Turkish FM, who was already agitated by the German
denial a day before, would react to that in the same way. And Çavuşoğlu, who does whatever he does politically by asking President Tayyip Erdoğan first, did so. Then the confrontations started to escalate, as the media have been reporting for days.
Could centuries-old Turkish diplomacy have handled the situation better? Of course it could have. But the enmity with Germany and the Netherlands gave the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) a golden opportunity to use the rhetoric of a government defending national interests against a coalition of Westerners; that was why the nation needed a stronger Turkey which could only be achieved by concentrating the power in a single hand through a “yes” vote in the referendum.
As the enmity with Turkey worked for Rutte against Wilders in the Netherlands, the entire antagonism with the “Europeans,” or the “Westerners,” has worked to produce a “yes” vote in Turkey.
It would not be a surprise if the theme will become a convenient one in the coming French
elections, whose first round will be on April 23, just a week after the Turkish referendum, with a second round to come on May 7. The same goes especially for the German
elections in September, since the migration deal between Turkey and the European Union
is directly related to the election campaign of German
Chancellor Angela Merkel
against the right-wing, anti-migration Alternative for Germany (AfD) movement.
It was no surprise that Turkish EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik tried to get onto the nerves of EU politicians by saying on March 15 that he believed Turkey should revise the migration deal because Europeans were not keeping their promises.
It was no surprise to see Merkel and French
President François Hollande together on March 16 noting that campaigning for the Turkish referendum could only be conducted in their countries if their laws were respected. The two also said the Turkish government’s labelling of European moves as “Nazi actions” could not be accepted. There is nothing wrong in saying that and actually it is among the basic sovereignty rights of all countries. But saying it in such a way, together with the timing, would ultimately result in the Turkish leadership coming up with an answer.
Erdoğan said on March 16 that Europe
had started a cross-crescent fight again and that the circumstances resembled the pre-World War II atmosphere in Europe. The Turkish FM had already said in the morning that Europe
was heading toward a war of religions.
Dangerous? Yes, definitely. But it seems populist politicians cannot help themselves from engaging in antagonism, preferably on foreign issues where they can more easily exploit nationalist sentiments to better harvest votes.