“Do not vote for these parties” – The Turkish President’s interference in German internal affairs

Published: 02 July 2020 Author: Patrick Alexander Wittum

Historically, Turkey and Germany have had very close relations. Both countries are allies in NATO, and Turkey is an EU accession candidate. Germany is the most important trading partner and largest foreign investor in Turkey. Germany hosts the world’s largest Turkish community abroad with 2.8 million Turkish immigrants, more than half of which have German citizenship. Since 2016, however, ties between Ankara and Berlin have been strained. On 2 June 2016, the German Federal Parliament characterised the mass murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War as “genocide”. In the aftermath of the abortive coup on 15 July 2016, Turkish authorities sacked or suspended 150,000 officials and detained more than 50,000 people, including several German nationals. Turkey accused Germany of interfering in the 16 April 2017 constitutional referendum by preventing Turkish Ministers from campaigning in Germany, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Germany of “Nazi practices”.

On 18 August 2017, in the run-up to the elections to Germany’s Federal Parliament, the Bundestag, President Erdogan called on all Turks living in Germany not to vote for the two parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling government – the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – or the Greens, saying:

“I am calling on all my countrymen in Germany: […] the Christian Democrats, the SDP, and the Greens are all enemies of Turkey. Support those political parties who are not enemies of Turkey […]. I call on the Turkish voters, in particular, not to vote for these parties that have been engaged in such an aggressive, disrespectful attitude towards Turkey and I invite them to teach these political parties a lesson at the ballot box”.

Only a few hours after these comments were made, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued the following statement:

“This blatant interference in the German election campaign shows that Erdogan wants to incite people in Germany against each other. This is an unprecedented act of interference in our country’s sovereignty.

I call on everyone in Germany to take a resolute stand against this attempt to stir people in this country up against each other. In particular, I would ask those who have their roots in Turkey but have a German passport to take part in the Bundestag elections and to cast their vote for a democratic party. Let us show those who want to play us off against each other that we refuse to go along with this scurrilous game!

Regardless of our origins, regardless of our passport: we are all citizens of a free and democratic country. In Germany, everyone – no matter where their roots lie – can find what Erdogan is trying to destroy in Turkey: freedom, the rule of law and democracy. We will all stand shoulder to shoulder to defend that. No matter where we come from.”

On the same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly rejected any interference in the German federal elections, saying:

“We will not let anyone, not even President Erdogan, spoil the idea that our German citizens, regardless of their origin […], have the right to vote freely. We will not tolerate any kind of interference in the election process.”

This statement was also echoed by the Federal Government spokesperson, who tweeted:

“Regarding the latest statement of President Erdogan: we expect foreign governments not to interfere in our internal affairs.”

The Federal Government accused Turkey of an “interference in its internal affairs” – a concept rarely invoked by Germany in its international relations. This gives reason to examine how statements by foreign heads of State or other government officials aimed at influencing the outcome elections in States are treated in international law.

The principle of “non-intervention” requires States not to “intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”. Generally, intervention is defined as the interference by one State in the internal or foreign affairs of another State. The principle of non-intervention is one of the most powerful and vaguest principles of international law, and States claim its violation in very different circumstances. In the Nicaragua case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) defined a prohibited intervention as follows:

“A prohibited intervention must […] be one bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely. One of these is the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy. Intervention is wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices, which must remain free ones. The element of coercion […] is particularly obvious in the case of an intervention which uses force, either in the direct form of military action, or in the indirect form of support for subversive or terrorist armed activities within another State.”

Unlawful intervention thus has two requirements. First, it must concern an exclusively domestic affair that is protected by State sovereignty. Domestic affairs are generally all matters which are not regulated by international law. President Erdogan’s statements concerned the parliamentary elections of Germany – by definition, a domestic affair. Second, intervention must involve a certain element of coercion. Traditionally, coercion required the use of military force. The new, broader definition of intervention also forbids indirect coercion through economic, subversive, or even diplomatic means. President Erdogan’s statement did not include any military or other coercive element. It thus did not violate the principle of non-intervention.

President Erdogan’s statement rather constituted an “interference” in Germany’s internal affairs. The principle of non-interference goes much further than the prohibition of non-intervention. It also encompasses actions not involving methods of coercion. For example, Article 41(1) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provides that diplomatic agents “have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of the receiving State. The classic example of an unlawful interference in the internal affairs by a foreign diplomat is the case of Sir Lionel Sackville-West, the British minister in Washington, who in 1888 advised a U.S. citizen on how to cast his vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in the best interest of Great Britain. Not only diplomatic agents, but also the sending States and their officials are under a customary international law duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of other States. By calling on German voters of Turkish origin to vote in a certain way in the federal elections, President Erdogan violated the principle of non-interference. By distinguishing between interference and intervention, the Federal Government chose their words well.

Category: Political independence

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