Erdoğan is relishing this war of words with the Netherlands

Ece Temelkuran

In appeasing rightwing voters at home, the Dutch are helping the Turkish leader consolidate his rule

The diplomatic row that has flared up between the Dutch government and Turkey is a last-minute saviour for the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He had run out of domestic opportunities to stir up his supporters for next month’s referendum to extend his powers. But he finally found the occasion abroad when the Netherlands barred Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of Turkish people living in the country ahead of the referendum.

For Turkish people, Erdoğan’s escalating war of words against the Dutch, from branding them “Nazi remnants” and “fascists” to accusing them of contributing to a massacre of Muslim men at Srebrenica in 1995, comes as little surprise. During his career he has fuelled international crises to generate domestic support. Now, once again, he is stirring up nationalist sentiment and exploiting nostalgia for Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past.

What’s more shocking about this tit-for-tat row is the near-xenophobic discourse coming from the Dutch side. It makes me think that the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, is no less in need of inflammatory populist politics than Erdoğan, in order to see off the challenge of the far-right, anti-Islam Geert Wilders, whom he faces in Wednesday’s election.

Voters tempted by Wilders’ Freedom party may be reassured by the unprecedented force used to disperse Turkish crowds that gathered in Rotterdam after the Turkish family affairs minister was detained and escorted to the German border, and Turkey’s foreign minister was barred from flying to the city. But the police dogs and horses that stopped the demonstrators gave Erdoğan a priceless opportunity to talk about human rights violations in Europe.

Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland have all cited security reasons for not permitting Turkish officials to campaign at rallies aimed at Turkish expats allowed to vote in Turkey’s forthcoming referendum. It is as if European leaders now regret sitting at the bargaining table with Erdoğan to stop Syrian refugees from coming to Europe. It is almost as if Europe wants to distance itself from this unpredictable, “Middle Eastern” leader.

However, European leaders are simply reacting to Islamophobic parties in their own countries and the relentless populist politics of Erdoğan. In doing so they are fanning the flames of racism at home and playing into Erdoğan’s hands in Turkey. Neither Erdoğan nor his Dutch counterpart are thinking of the long-term consequences of their row. Expelling ambassadors, closing airspace to diplomats and ratcheting up the rhetoric will make not only Turkey but also Europe a less liberal society in the future.

In Turkey, we would call this a “fishermen’s fight”. Fishermen fight with boat oars. It appears epic from a distance but neither of the enemies can really harm each other. However, it makes them look strong and adds to their heroic image in the eyes of their supporters. That is why this conflict was the perfect option not only for Erdoğan, but also for Rutte. Both need to win nationalist votes to fulfil their political ambitions, and there could not be a better occasion than this so-called crisis.

The night the government announced political sanctions against the Netherlands, two hashtags dominated Turkish social media. Pro-Erdoğan trolls rejoiced with #EuropesfearofErdoğan, while critics of the government mocked them by reversing it as #ErdoğansfearofEuropa.

As expected, most of the government supporters tweeted under the wrong hashtag. Therefore government trolls with better English, like desperate traffic policemen at a jammed roundabout, were warning the government supporters to go to the right hashtag. The maddening confusion among the government supporters was a sign of them being unable to keep up with the speed of the manufactured crises. They were already weary of showing up for recent crises with Russia and Syria. Every time Erdoğan changes his mind, they have had to change their sincere anger to brotherly love in hours, and then back to anger if necessary.

For the Dutch crisis, Erdoğan’s supporters have done some of their most creative work. They stabbed and squeezed oranges in public, because the Dutch football strip is orange. (The oranges were local, of course.) They posted selfies while “beheading” a tulip. Some of them burned the French flag, as they thought that François Hollande must be the president of Holland, and tweeted insults in broken English at the French president.

Critics of the government, meanwhile, found the ridiculous situation too far beneath them to make serious comments. They contented themselves with making jokes about Turkish ministers wanting to visit the Netherlands because of a craving for space cakes and mushrooms.

Since the Turkish media has been silenced, comments reminding Erdoğan of human rights violations in his own country couldn’t go beyond social media posts. But the uncompromising Dutch attitude towards Turkey has handed our president a gift, providing him with the perfect opportunity to start a new war of words. This is a fight that can only hurt ordinary people in both countries, who are looking on with increasing embarrassment and anxiety.