Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) decided to hold a rally in Bosnia’s capital after Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany – home to Turkey’s largest diaspora – announced that Turkish politicians were not welcome to campaign there.
Erdogan’s rally in Sarajevo – the only one to be held in Europe – comes ahead of the snap Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections, set for June 24.
The six million Turks living abroad, mostly in Western Europe carry a large clout; since 2014, about half of them have been able to vote in Turkish elections. There are 1.4 million eligible Turkish voters in Germany alone.
But the last time Erdogan attempted to rally in Europe, it ended in a fiasco.
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In March 2017, ahead of the referendum on expanding presidential powers held that summer, Dutch authorities blocked Turkey’s family affairs minister from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and cancelled Erdogan’s rally, citing security concerns.
Germany also imposed bans on security grounds.
This time, however, European politicians announced ahead of time that there was a clear ban on Turkish campaigning in their countries.
“Erdogan’s Turkish leadership has been trying to exploit Europe’s communities of Turkish origin for many years,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a local radio station in April.
Although Bosnia is not in the EU, Erdogan’s choice of Sarajevo has still stirred debate among the Bosnian public.
The rally’s announcement itself got off to a rough start. According to local reports neither the foreign ministry nor the Bosnian presidency were notified that a rally would take place.
It spurred condemnation by some who accuse Turkey of undermining Bosnia’s sovereignty and of exerting its influence over the country.
“If… anyone can hold meetings or political rallies in our country whenever they want, we lose our sovereignty,” Bosnian parliamentarian Sadik Ahmetovic told local media.
According to reports, Erdogan will hold talks with Bakir Izetbegovic, leader of Bosnia’s Conservative Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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Some critics such as parliamentarian Dusanka Majkic say the visit serves Izetbegovic’s interests ahead of Bosnia’s general elections in the fall of 2018.
Majkic also pointed out that the rally may send a wrong message to the EU by allowing Erdogan to campaign, while EU countries have refused to do so.
“It just shows that we have no feelings for European values,” Majkic told local media.
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic, who specialises in southeastern European affairs, views Erdogan’s visit as an assault “on a weak democratic regime”.
“Erdogan’s Turkey is an authoritarian state according to the observations of every major monitoring organisation in the world,” Mujanovic said.
“The AKP’s growing clout among the SDA and Bosnia and Herzegovina more broadly is therefore necessarily a worrying trend in a country whose own democratic institutions and norms are already under tremendous stress.”
However, many Bosnians welcome Erdogan’s arrival in their capital, pointing out that Turkey has always been supportive of Bosnia, whereas Europe is seen by some as complicit in the bloody war in the early 90s that tore Bosnia apart.
“Turkey is our friend. I work for them and I can earn my bread. I thank them for that,” commented Albina Sidran who works for a Turkish company in Bosnia.
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“I don’t have anything against it. He’s not the first foreign politician to hold a pre-election meeting here. If [former president of Croatia] Ivo Josipovic can do it, why can’t Erdogan?” asked 28-year-old Damir Badzic, a resident of Sarajevo.
Emir Suljagic, a professor of social and political science at the International University of Sarajevo agreed that “ideologically related parties support each other everywhere across the continent, and in countries of former Yugoslavia it’s widespread”.
Suljagic called out the hypocrisy among the noted European countries as they have allowed political meetings to be organised by other foreign, non-Muslim politicians.
Just last March, the president and prime minister of Republika Srpska – Bosnia’s semi-autonomous Serb entity – held a meeting for the Serb diaspora in Linz, Austria, Suljagic noted.
Ahead of Austria’s presidential elections in December 2016, Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpksa, also openly called for Bosnian Serbs in Austria to vote for the “neo-Nazi” FPO (Freedom Party of Austria) candidate Norbert Hofer, Suljagic added.
“Milorad Dodik [President of Republika Srpska] has spent 20 million KM ($12m) on institutional and systematic denial of genocide in Srebrenica… is accused of corruption… and he’s welcome in the EU, but Erdogan isn’t,” Suljagic said.
‘Protector of Muslims’
For Murat Necip Arman, Professor of International Relations at Turkey’s Adnan Menderes University, Erdogan’s visit to Sarajevo is nothing out of the ordinary.
Ahead of every election, Erdogan – who is seen as the “protector of Muslim communities all over the world” – typically makes official visits to countries that have a large Muslim population such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, Arman said.
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Erdogan’s visit to Sarajevo solidifies this ‘protector’ image with AKP voters, Arman explained noting that the AKP has a voter base of approximately 40 per cent in Turkey.
Many believe that by banning Erdogan from reaching his voters across the EU, it may create a counterproductive effect instead.
Last year after Austria, Germany and the Netherlands called for a halt on Turkish political campaigning, the Turkish diaspora overwhelmingly voted in favour of constitutional changes in the April 2017 referendum that was narrowly won by the government’s “yes” team.
With the upcoming election, Turkey will switch from a parliamentary system to a presidential one, which will grant the next president increased powers.