Direkt zum Seiteninhalt springen

The Turkish Diaspora Landscape in Western Europe

Between the AKP’s Power Aspirations and Migrants’ Grievances

SWP Comment 2024/C 20, 21.05.2024, 8 Seiten



The AKP leadership’s diaspora policy has created tensions between Turkey and Euro­pean countries. Turkey’s gradual slide into authoritarianism, Islam’s steady expansion into public life and the increasing divergence between the foreign and security policies of Turkey and the EU have deepened the mistrust in relations between that country and the Union. Concerns abound about Ankara’s “long-arm” influence and the loyalties of Turkish migrants and their foreign-born children to their countries of residence. Meanwhile, the mainstreaming of anti-migration and anti-Islam sentiments in European countries has led to a conflation between Ankara’s ambitions and the diaspora’s attitudes and demands in the public discourse. While it is crucial not to overstate the AKP’s ability to mobilise the diaspora, the genuine grievances of indi­viduals with a migration background should be taken seriously. At the same time, Euro­pean governments should continue to advocate the greater independence of mosque communities from Turkey’s influence in order to maintain a balanced dias­pora landscape.

Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s diaspora policy has become a key element in the government’s efforts to strengthen its power domes­tically and extend the country’s influence globally. Since the 2010s, Turkey has pursued an ever more assertive, iden­titarian and polarising approach to diaspora engagement. Following Recep Tayyip Erdo­ğan’s victory in the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, there has been a clear intent to consolidate the president’s unchecked authority. And while the main opposition party’s unexpected success in the recent local elections in March 2024 is a setback to achieving that goal, the govern­ment’s efforts to convince the public of the need for a new constitution suggest that Ankara will not back down easily.

This enduring ambition to hold onto power may intensify existing trends in dias­pora engagement, including the Turkish gov­ernment’s instrumentalisation of migrants’ grievances amid growing anti-migration and anti-Islam sentiments in West European host societies. At the same time, Turkey’s ruling elites will continue to propagate a form of conservative morality that claims there are ontological differences between members of the Turkish diaspora and Europeans. Ankara’s policies and dis­courses promoting such ideas may contrib­ute to further polarisation within the dias­pora. It is also realistic to expect increased surveillance of the political opposition in the diaspora that the Turkish authorities blame for the religious, cultural and politi­cal decline of the local Turkish populations.

Steady electoral support abroad for President Erdoğan and the AKP

Unlike other political parties, the AKP was not only aware of the numerical significance of the diaspora vote but rightly expected that its impact on the election results would work in its favour. Addressing the persistent demand of Turkish migrants in Europe to be able to easily participate in Turkish elections, the party leadership implemented significant changes to the election law in 2008 and 2012. Those measures – which allowed Turkish citizens residing abroad to cast their votes in the countries in which they live – marked a transformative shift. Previously, Turkish citizens living abroad had had to travel via air or land to vote at Turkish customs points or inside airports upon entering Turkey. The financial and logistical challenges of such undertakings had contributed to the low turnout rates among the diaspora ever since 1987, when Turkish migrants voted for the first time in Turkish elections.

From 2014 onwards, when Turkish citizens first cast their votes outside Turkey, turnout rates increased significantly from a mere 8.37 per cent to 52.04 per cent in the second round of the 2023 presidential elections (49.4 per cent in the first round). Through a network of old and new migrant associations with close ties to Turkey, the AKP has systematically worked to mobilise eligible voters over the past decade. State resources, increasingly available to party elites, have facilitated this mobilisation effort. Consulates have emerged as central actors in reaching out to eligible voters, thereby contributing to the effective engage­ment of the Turkish diaspora in the elec­toral process.

In the presidential run-off on 28 May 2023, Erdoğan secured re-election with 52.18 per cent of the total vote (that is, inside and outside Turkey) in what was an impressive voter turnout of 84.15 per cent. Notably, the trend observed in the diaspora since 2014 continued: Turkish citizens abroad overwhelmingly supported Erdoğan, ensuring that he gained a higher percentage of the total vote (59.71 per cent) with a lower turnout (52.04 per cent). Erdoğan re­ceived even higher vote shares in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and France (see Table 1). In each of these coun­tries, a significant portion of Turkish voters have consistently supported the in­cumbent president in those elections in which voting has also taken place outside Turkey.

Table 1

Results of Run-Off Presidential Election of 28 May 2023

Vote share of
President Erdoğan



67.22 %

50.38 %


70.59 %

54.90 %


74.70 %

59.40 %


73.85 %

58.85 %


66.77 %

51.87 %


52.18 %

84.15 %

* Includes votes cast inside and outside Turkey

Compiled by the authors based on data available at the website of the daily Yeni Şafak.

Meanwhile, the opposition presidential candidate, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, performed strongly in the US – securing 82.67 per cent of the votes – where the Turkish popula­tion is composed predominantly of students and white-collar professionals. And in Swit­zerland, where there is a sizable Kurdish migrant community from Turkey, Kılıçdaroğlu won 57.04 per cent of the vote. All in all, the outcome of the May 2023 presidential election reflects the diverse political inclinations within the Turkish diaspora worldwide.

Table 2

Results of the Parliamentary Elections of 14 May 2023






50.50 %

12.60 %

19.20 %

8.70 %


53.40 %

13.00 %

18.90 %

4.60 %


55.00 %

14.20 %

14.70 %

5.98 %


54.80 %

14.00 %

14.40 %

7.40 %


48.20 %

13.90 %

12.70 %

17.90 %


35.61 %

10.07 %

25.33 %

8.82 %

Nationalist Action Party

Compiled by the authors based on data available at the website of the daily Yeni Şafak.

The varied migration patterns and the corresponding political preferences within the Turkish diaspora were also evident in the May 2023 parliamentary elections. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition party, gained 60.2 per cent of the vote in the US (while the AKP won just 13.1 per cent). Similarly, the vote share of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which ran under the banner of the Green Left Party, was the second highest in Switzer­land (after the AKP with 25.1 per cent). In Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and France, on the other hand, the AKP gained significantly more votes than the other parties (see Table 2 above).

The significance of the diaspora vote for the AKP’s power consolidation

In previous elections, the diaspora’s support had played a pivotal role in tipping the balance in favour of Erdoğan, highlighting the significant impact of Turkish migrants on Turkey’s electoral landscape. In the 2017 constitutional referendum, which introduced the presidential system, the voting preferences of the diaspora accounted for approximately 19 per cent (256,000) of the total difference (1.37 million) between the “yes” and “no” votes. That share underscores the significance of the diaspora’s contribution towards shaping the outcome of crucial elections.

In the 2018 presidential elections, Erdo­ğan was able to clinch only a marginal victory among the electorate within Turkey, having secured 50.8 per cent of the eligible vote in the first round. But, combined with the 894,585 votes cast for him by Turkish migrants in other countries, he ultimately won a more comfortable 52.59 per cent of the total eligible vote.

Conservative morality: Emphasising how the diaspora and host society differ

The AKP’s mobilisation efforts have led to the emergence of a fervently engaged group of voters within the Turkish diaspora. Fol­lowing Erdoğan’s victory in the 2023 presi­dential run-off election, enthusiastic AKP supporters took to the streets of various German cities. Their actions sparked public criticism, underscoring European societies’ ongoing frustration with the AKP’s influ­ence over considerable parts of the Turkish diaspora and their concerns about the per­ceived loyalty of Turkish migrants and their European-born children to a foreign state.

Given the assertive, identitarian and polarising shift in Turkey’s diaspora policy over the past two decades, European dis­content is not entirely unfounded. During a visit to Cologne in 2008, Erdoğan defined assimilation as “a crime against humanity” and called on Turkish-origin migrants and their foreign-born children to maintain their linguistic and religious roots as a sign of enduring attachment to their homeland.

The narrative is also built on the idea that there are ontological differences be­tween the Turkish (and Muslim) diaspora and their host societies in terms of values and morals, identity and culture. Indeed, the AKP promotes itself and its leader as the representative and defender of a “(post­colonial) new subjectivity” enabled through the establishment of a “new Turkey” – a term introduced by Erdoğan in 2014 during the presidential election campaign. This vision emphasises the building of a new nation that draws its strength from Turkish society’s authentic values and local knowl­edge, aspires for independence (mainly from the West) and acts with self-confidence to propel the nation forward.

Government officials often contrast what they perceive as the resilience of upright people in the Muslim world with what they describe as the nihilism of the West, despite the latter’s political stability, economic wel­fare and development. This mindset was highlighted by İbrahim Kalın, the current head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Orga­nisation and former spokesperson for and adviser to the Office of the Presidency, at the 2018 World Forum organised by Turkey’s national broadcaster, TRT. And it is fur­ther reflected in Erdoğan’s emphasis on assimi­lation being “a crime against humanity”.

Blurring the boundaries between the nation and the party, the AKP leadership perceives the Turkish diaspora as composed essentially of pious Muslims. Women are assumed to play a crucial role in enacting and spreading piety. For the AKP leadership, the lifting of the headscarf ban is the prime example of what it perceives as the em­powerment of underrepresented citizens.

Such conservative morality – which emphasises the family as the core of society and recognises only traditional gender roles within it – is promoted by Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, among other state institutions, as a safe­guard against perceived identity challenges that the European “lifestyle”, as interpreted by the ruling elites, might present to Turk­ish migrants and their foreign-born chil­dren. Over the past two decades, the AKP leadership has established a patronage network composed of both old and new associations in order to reach and mould the diaspora in accordance with the party’s political and cultural self-understanding. The aim is to tighten the AKP’s political grip on the diaspora vote and consolidate its political hegemony in Turkey.

The diaspora’s political empower­ment is in line with the ruling party’s worldview

However, the AKP’s interest in the Turkish diaspora goes beyond consolidating its own power. Turkish migrants and their foreign-born children are being encouraged to participate in the political life of their host societies and to form political parties in order to increase Turkish and Muslim rep­resentation in the national assemblies of their countries of residence as well as in the European Parliament. Such parties are in­tended to address issues that are of concern to both Turkish and non-Turkish (Muslim) migrant communities.

In the Netherlands, the political party DENK (meaning equal or balanced in Turk­ish) is a notable example. It was established on the initiative of two Turkish Dutch members of the House of Representatives who were expelled from the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) in 2014 over proposals for the “stronger monitoring of several conservative Turkish organisations”. The DENK party programme promotes a tolerant society and advocates global justice through the reform of international institutions. It also supports initiatives such as the creation of a “racism registry” to track racist incidents, the inte­gration of Islamic education into the school curricula, imam training without interference by the Dutch government and expand­ing the presence of imams beyond mosques to institutions like hospitals, prisons and the armed forces. Currently, DENK has three seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. In the 2019 European elections, the party nominated 14 candidates, including three of Turkish origin, but did not gain enough votes to send any representatives to the European Parliament.

Another example is DAVA (Democratic Alliance for Diversity and Awakening), which was founded by four German citi­zens with Turkish backgrounds. The formation of the new party sparked controversy in Germany’s public discourse. Its name is associated with the Arabic word “Da’wa”, which means inviting people to Islam and is widely used within the Turkish Islamist movement.

One of DAVA’s founders was a member of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) until 2011, while two others were ac­tively involved in the Union of International Democrats (UID), an AKP lobby organisation that has played a central role in the mobili­sation of the Turkish migrant vote. The remaining founders are affiliated with AKP-related religious associations. Similar to DENK, DAVA emphasises the need to com­bat Islamophobia and advocates Islam’s rec­ognition as a statutory body under German public law. It also argues in favour of the strengthening of traditional gender roles.

Expanding Turkish influence abroad

The AKP government’s efforts to engage the Turkish diaspora in Europe are not being made in isolation; rather, they form an in­trinsic part of Turkey’s domestic and for­eign policy. Just as Turkey is presenting itself in Europe as the defender of the pious Turks, so it is promoting itself at the global level as the patron and sponsor of Muslims in particular and of the globally disenfranchised in general.

Under Erdoğan’s leadership, the Turkish ruling elites view the empowerment of Turkey’s conservative and pious commu­nities – which was brought about by the AKP – as a precursor to the liberation of disenfranchised communities worldwide. Inevitably, Muslims feature prominently in this narrative. Over the past decade, Ankara has strategically developed four foreign-policy talking points aimed at positioning Turkey as a champion for the disenfranchised around the globe:


Defending Palestine and Palestinian rights: Turkey advocates the rights of Palestin­ians and promotes itself as a defender of justice in the Israeli-Pales­tinian conflict.


Combatting Islamophobia: Turkey staunchly opposes Islamophobia in Europe and the US and aims to address the issues of dis­crimination and exclusion faced by Turk­ish and Muslim communities.


Criticising the West’s colonial past: Ankara is critical of the colonial history of Western states and seeks to align itself with post-colonial narratives and appeal to those who harbour grievances against the for­mer colonial powers.


Demanding reform of the international system: Turkey calls for the reform of the global international system, positioning itself as a voice for change and advocating a more inclusive and equitable global order.

These talking points resonate with Turk­ish and Muslim communities in Europe and leverage their concerns about discrimination and exclusion. The rise of civilisationist narratives and identity politics in mainstream societies in Western Europe has pro­vided Ankara with a platform from which to amplify its narrative. Political parties like DENK and DAVA echo Ankara’s talking points in their programmes, while simul­taneously addressing the main concerns of migrant communities, such as discrimination and Islamophobia, and thereby rein­forcing the alignment between Ankara’s foreign-policy narrative and how the dias­pora communities themselves feel.

Polarisation within the Turkish diaspora

However, not every member of the Turkish diaspora is considered equally deserving of participation in the imagined nation pro­moted by the AKP leadership. If conservative morality is one crucial criterion for determining inclusion or exclusion, loyalty to Erdoğan and the AKP is another.

The ethnically and religiously diverse nature of the Turkish diaspora has long been a source of tension among Turkey-origin migrants. Political partisanship – in par­ticular, loyalty to Erdoğan and the AKP – has exacerbated the frictions and given rise to new fault lines within the diaspora between pro-AKP supporters and opposition parties, including the right-wing Good Party (IyiP) and the splinter parties that have emerged from the AKP, such as the liberal-conserva­tive DEVA and the more traditionalist-con­servative Gelecek. During last year’s twin elec­tions in Turkey, isolated violent inci­dents in Belgium, the Netherlands and France involving clashes between AKP sup­por­ters and opposition voters were a vivid il­lustration of just how fractured the dias­pora is.

Furthermore, the AKP’s efforts to outlaw and undermine Gülenists following the 2016 failed coup attempt have generated ten­sions between AKP supporters and those who were affiliated with the Gülenist net­work in previous years. Indeed, the political polarisation within the diaspora – which is based on who is loyal to Erdoğan and the party and who is not – adds a layer of com­plexity to the dynamics within the Turkish communities in Europe.

Transnational repression

Indeed, since it fell out with the Gülenists, the AKP government has stepped up its repressive measures even outside Turkey. In Germany, for example, the authorities launched investigations in 2017 into the activities of imams and other members of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) who were alleged to be spy­ing on Turkish nationals suspected by Ankara of having links to the Gülenist net­work. At the same time, religious attachés at Turkish diplomatic missions in the Nether­lands, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium were reported to be collecting information on suspected Gülenist sympathisers and passing it on to Ankara. As part of its global campaign against the Gülenists, Ankara has been deploying “mobility controls, deten­tions, and illegal renditions”, according to a detailed report by Freedom House.

However, Gülen’s supporters are not the sole targets of Ankara’s repressive meas­ures. Since 2016, these tactics have also been applied to a broader group of individuals whom Ankara considers a threat. For ex­am­ple, in exchange for greenlighting Swe­den’s NATO membership, Turkey de­manded that Stockholm extradite those in­cluded on a list of individuals who allegedly had ties to both the Gülenist network and the Kur­di­stan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the EU and the US all regard as a terrorist organisation. In a speech at the Turkish parliament on 16 January 2024, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, for­merly the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation, noted that Ankara had been actively taking measures to slash the finan­cial support that the PKK received from “anti-Turkey groups” within Europe. Mean­while, in late March, there were vio­lent confrontations between members of the Turkish and Kurdish diaspora in Belgium.


Given the political, social and economic landscape of Turkey, it is likely that in the coming years, Ankara will continue i) ex­ploiting grievances, particularly of Muslim migrants and their foreign-born children, ii) emphasising the perceived differences between the Turkish diaspora and the host society, iii) polarising the Turkish diaspora and iv) repressing political dissent of Turk­ish origin. Ankara’s emphasis on defending Islam aligns with the AKP’s ongoing efforts to Islamise everyday life, particularly with­in the family and in the educational sphere. The divisions within the diaspora are likely to persist, too, not least because of growing migration from Turkey to Europe. In 2023, the number of Turkish citizens applying for asylum in EU countries reached an annual all-time high.

However, there are several factors suggesting the appeal of the AKP leadership for the Turkish diaspora appears to have reached a certain limit. First, while voter turnout has steadily increased since the 2014 presidential elections, the growth rate has been declining significantly over the years. The recent increase in turnout abroad – from 50.1 per cent in 2018 to 52.04 per cent in 2023 – can arguably be attributed, above all, to the efforts of op­position parties to mobilise voters. And the diaspora vote did not play as big a role in favour of Erdoğan as it did in previous elec­tions: even without the votes cast abroad, the president won 51.91 per cent of the vote in the run-off election on 28 May 2023.

Second, European governments have in recent years increasingly been adopting an approach towards Ankara aimed at restrict­ing its influence on the diaspora. For ex­am­ple, since 2018 Turkish political parties have not been allowed to organise election rallies within EU member states. While political actors can still reach constituencies through events at mosques and other associations, the public reach of such events is limited.

At the same time, European governments have taken measures to curb third-party funding to mosques. Austria, for example, banned foreign funding for religious asso­ciations in 2020 as part of an anti-terrorism package that included amendments to the country’s Islam Act. For their part, other countries have imposed restrictions on imam training programmes. In December 2023, the German minister of internal af­fairs announced the decades-long practice of Turkey-trained imams serving in Ger­many would be phased out. France intro­duced a similar measure in late 2023 aimed at promoting the independent recruitment and employment of imams. And three years earlier, in 2020, the French government banned the Grey Wolves, a Turkish far-right organisation affiliated with the ultranation­alist MHP, which is a member of Erdoğan’s People’s Alliance and whose symbol had been outlawed in Austria in 2019 under legis­lation prohibiting the symbols of extremist organisations. The banning of the Grey Wolves has also been discussed in the Dutch and German parliaments, while the organisation features regularly in the an­nual German domestic intelligence-service reports at the federal and state levels. All these developments signify a more restric­tive attitude towards external influences on religious and political activities within diaspora communities.

Finally, it is important to recognise that Turkish migrants and their foreign-born children are not passive recipients of Anka­ra’s efforts to gain influence. For example, in 2018, following allegations of interference by the DITIB headquarters in Cologne and the Turkish religious attaché, the entire board of DITIB in Lower Saxony resigned. Ideology is not always the main reason for the appeal of the AKP; individual interests – both material and non-material – play a role, too. The success of the AKP leadership in co-opting the diaspora’s civic space should not detract from what is a growing gap be­tween the party’s efforts to promote a con­servative morality and the aspirations of today’s younger generations.


European governments should approach the AKP’s efforts to gain influence over the diaspora bearing the above in mind.

The following deserves special attention:

  • There is a need to differentiate between AKP policy and the actual grievances of the Turkish diaspora. The rise of far-right voices in many European countries not­withstanding, it is essential to signal to individuals with migration backgrounds that they have an equal place within mainstream society. This will help pre­vent Ankara from exploiting migrant resentments and filling a vacuum in the political landscapes of the host countries that exists amid anti-migrant and anti-Islam sentiments.

  • In their statements and criticisms, Euro­pean governments and political parties should clearly distinguish between the Turkish government and Turkish political parties, on the one hand, and Turkey and “the Turks”, on the other.

  • The issue of more proportionate political representation should be considered.

  • The same applies to the issue of religious representation. Despite differences among various European countries over how to regulate the religious realm, it is necessary to recognise Islam as part of the host society. Muslim religious orga­nisations should be granted the same status, rights and obligations as Christian and Jewish religious bodies.

  • At the same time, European governments should break the chains of administrative command between religious state bodies of foreign countries (such as Diyanet) and/or religious attachés, on the one hand, and Muslim associations in the European diaspora, on the other.

  • Efforts should be directed towards ensur­ing the greater independence of mosque communities from Turkey. This could contribute to fostering a more inclusive and balanced representation within dias­pora communities.

Dr Sinem Adar is Associate at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) at SWP. Dr Yaşar Aydın is Associate at CATS. Dr Cengiz Günay is Director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) and Lecturer at the Department of Political Sciences, the Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Department of International Development at the University of Vienna. Dr Günter Seufert is former director of CATS.

The Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) is funded by Stiftung Mercator and the German Federal Foreign Office.


Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik

ISSN (Print) 1861-1761

ISSN (Online) 2747-5107