Why Turkey’s feud with the Dutch is good for nationalists – on both sides

Dutch anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan are both angling for electoral advantages as they exchange harsh words. 

Umit Bektas/Reuters/File
People wave flags outside the Ankara headquarters of Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan's AK Party after a 2015 parliamentary election.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan denounced the Dutch government on Saturday as “Nazi remnants and fascists” after it barred his foreign minister from landing in Rotterdam to campaign among Turkish immigrants there, in an unusual eruption of diplomatic antipathies between the NATO allies.

“I sent them so they could contribute to your economy,” foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told CNN Turk TV, in reference to the roughly 400,000 Turks living in the Netherlands. “They’re not your captives."

A pro-Erdoğan rally where Mr. Cavusoglu was scheduled to speak was cancelled, citing security concerns. But he insisted on boarding the plane despite warnings by the Dutch that he would not be allowed entry. 

“If my going will increase tensions, let it be … I am a foreign minister and I can go wherever I want,” he said in a pre-flight interview.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Mr. Erdoğan's comment “way out of line.” 

“It’s a crazy remark, of course,” he said, according to the BBC.

The spat comes during an election season which looks poised to shape the future direction of both countries: the center-right Dutch government is trying to stave off a challenge from far-right candidate Geert Wilders, and Erdoğan is pushing a referendum that would reconstitute Turkey’s political system to place significantly more power in the prime minister’s lap. 

The high electoral stakes raise questions as to whether the disagreement reflects a true shift in the shape of Netherlands-Turkey ties or simple political posturing. 

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson reported in February, Erdoğan has turned Turkey away from the secular legacy of the country’s founder — and away from the European Union, a bloc it once seemed on the verge of joining — in favor of an Islamic nationalism that has taken a more pronounced authoritarian tone following a July coup attempt:

In the political whirlwind, the AKP has convinced one opposition party to join it in rewriting the Constitution to realize Erdoğan’s dream of creating an unassailable executive presidency – to its critics, the post of a modern-day sultan.

Ahead of a national referendum in April, an annual poll by Kadir Has University found a deeply divided society, but one with an ever-coalescing majority.

“The facts are very obvious,” Hasan Bülent Kahraman, the vice president of Kadir Has, told Hürriyet Daily News. “There is a 70 percent majority in Turkey and it is their way of thinking, their ideological thinking, that is already dominating and will dominate in the future.” 

And with the referendum set for April, many see the timing of the diplomatic row with the Netherlands as anything but coincidental.  

Erdoğan has already cited domestic threats from Kurdish and Islamist militants and the attempted coup to justify his efforts to consolidate power. This dispute with the Netherlands lets him argue that NATO allies can't be trusted, even as Turkey faces threats on its southern borders – all the more reason the Turkish people should support him.

Those arguments have spilled over into Turkish communities in places like the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, which in February banned Erdoğan from holding rallies there.

“I have never seen such deep divisions as we’re experiencing now,” Gokay Sofuoglu, head of the Turkish community in Germany, told the Financial Times. “Critics of Erdoğan and his supporters used to be able to talk to each other calmly, but that’s over.”

With general elections just days away, the Netherlands could be on the verge of a swing toward cultural nationalism as well: anti-Islam candidate Geert Wilders has fallen narrowly behind in polls to the current prime minister, after leading consistently for months.

And on Saturday, Mr. Wilders gave his Freedom Party (PVV) credit for pressuring the government into the decision to bar entry to the Turkish foreign minister. 

"Great! Thanks to heavy PVV- pressure a few days before the Dutch elections our government did NOT allow the Turkish minister to land here!!," he wrote in a Twitter post.

"I am tell all Turks in the Netherlands that agree with Erdoğan: GO to Turkey and NEVER come back!!,” he later added.

Material from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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