x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Merkel at mercy of Turkey and Russia as she seeks fourth term as chancellor

Erdogan says Turks living in Germany shouldn't vote for Merkel, and the Russians are peddling fake news

Angela Merkel is going for a fourth term as Germany's chancellor but finds herself caught in a battle for ethnic Turkish and Russian voter. September 12, 2017. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
Angela Merkel is going for a fourth term as Germany's chancellor but finds herself caught in a battle for ethnic Turkish and Russian voter. September 12, 2017. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

In Cologne’s little Istanbul, centred on Keupstrasse, the business of daily life is hardly affected by the German election that looms on September 24.

Delivery vans make stops, barber shops do a brisk trade and there is plenty of chatter in the coffee shops. But a battle for the loyalties of the mainly Turkish residents of the area has left a bitter aftertaste to rival that of the coffee.

Mustafa Beihan is one of the 1.3 million Germans of Turkish origin that Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was referring to when he asserted that none of his ethnic kin would vote for the “enemies of Turkey”.

Mr Erdogan’s speech appeared to be targeted at the mainstream centre-right, centre-left and Green parties, all of which have been highly critical of Turkey’s round up of journalists and oppositions activists. As Mr Beihan pointed out to Germany’s Deutsche Welle television channel,  this left him with little option but to vote for the smaller parties, some with messages antithetical to his interests, such as the far-right.

"It was really unfortunate of him," Mr Beihan said. "If I'm not supposed to vote for the CDU, SPD or the Greens, then who am I supposed to vote for? The Free Democrats? Or even the Alternative for Germany?"

Cologne has one of the densest concentrations of Turkish-origin voters anywhere in Germany. More than a quarter of the city centre population has Turkish heritage. It may not be a coincidence that the city has barely featured on Angela Merkel's campaign stops as she seeks to secure a fourth term as chancellor.

The election has come amid a steady erosion of trust between Berlin and Ankara. Mrs Merkel was accused of courting populists when she questioned the future of Turkish talks on EU accession.On Wednesday, Germany even took the extraordinary decision to upgrade the security classification for civil servants travelling to Turkey to the highest category. Even though Turkey is a fellow NATO state, the German foreign office imposed the sort of secrecy restrictions on officials that applies to travel to predatory nations like China and Russia.

The developments have heightened the mistrust of voters like Mr Beihan. "Maybe Erdogan is speaking the truth but he could say it more diplomatically," he said. "We have to see to it that we get rid of these disagreements and then look forward.”

It is not just Turkish voters that have turned away from Mrs Merkel. A sustained propaganda campaign has eroded support for the Russian-speaking chancellor among another key demographic.

Eugen Schmidt, a computer programmer from Cologne, is a campaigner for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) the far-Right party that is polling around 8 per cent, enough to gain seats in the country’s parliament. Schmidt is one of 2.5 million Germans with Russian roots. He claims his political epiphany came when only the Russian language media reported the “truth” of the New Year 2016 attacks on women in the city.  

 “That was the last straw for me,” he said. “It only came out through Russian media and Facebook.”

Among the stories peddled by Russian sites last year was a fake tale of a  Russian-German girl called Lisa who was abducted and raped by Arab migrants. The story wasn’t true and German officials warned against  “political propaganda” emanating from Moscow. 

But the AfD’s anti-immigrant message has chimed with Mr  Schmidt, who wants to see strict curbs on the new communities and a reversal of the 2015 open door invitation to refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

“Something needs to change or at some point we’ll just have to flee this country,” he declared.

Latest polls show Mrs Merkel is far ahead of her main Social Democratic rival on 37 per cent versus 23 per cent. But the far-right surge has hurt her. The free market liberal FDP, which has been the preferred coalition partner of Merkel’s conservatives, is only on 9 per cent, the same as the AfD. The option of another right-left grand coalition is now the most likely outcome of the vote.

Fears that the election would see extensive Russia meddling by internet bots and other technologies peddling sensational information, have not been borne out so far.

Officials this week warned that Germany’s vote-counting apparatus was vulnerable to hacking to change the outcome. One expert at a centre set up to expose Kremlin-backed fake news warned that the Russians may yet be planning a late intervention.

Maksymilian Czuperski of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab said the flow of misinformation and activity spreading fake news had dropped off significantly since the campaign had got underway, and that worried him. 

“Why is it so quiet?" he said. "It doesn’t feel right.”