Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held an election rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia on Sunday after three European Union countries banned Turkish politicians from campaigning on their soil ahead of next month’s polls.
Austria, the Netherlands, and Germany – home to the largest Turkish diasporas – have announced that Turkish politicians were not welcome to hold political rallies there.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rally in the Bosnian capital was the only one to be held in Europe ahead of the snap parliamentary and presidential elections on June 24.
The vote will see Turkey switch from a parliamentary to a presidential system, granting the next president increased powers.
The six million Turks living abroad, mostly in Western Europe, have a lot of 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.
In March 2017, ahead of a referendum on expanding presidential powers, Dutch authorities blocked a number of Turkish officials from campaigning in the Netherlands, citing security concerns. Germany also imposed a ban on security grounds.
This time, politicians from Germany, the Netherlands and Austria announced an explicit 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.
During his speech in Sarajevo, Erdogan called on Turks in Europe to support him with a “record number of votes” and urged them to actively participate in European politics.
“At a time when the glorious European countries that claim to be the cradle of democracy failed, Bosnia and Herzegovina proved to be not ostensibly, but truly democratic by giving us the opportunity to gather here,” Erdogan told a crowd of more than 12,000 people, according to reports.
“Today we saw true friendship and brotherhood.”
Media reports also quoted the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), the group that organised the rally, as saying about half of the rally’s attendees had come from Germany and Austria.
Supporters in the diaspora can make a significant difference in the outcome since they have shown to be more supportive of Erdogan in polls compared to voters in Turkey.
In the 2017 referendum, the Turkish diaspora voted 59 percent in favour of Erdogan while 51 percent of those in Turkey voted in favour of expanding presidential powers in a poll that was just narrowly won by the “yes” team.
As such, many have commented that stopping Erdogan from reaching his voters across the EU may be counterproductive and the tension may work in his favour.
Although Bosnia is not in the EU, Erdogan’s choice of Sarajevo still stirred debate among the Bosnian public.
The rally got off to a rough start, even at the announcement phase. According to local reports, neither the Bosnian foreign ministry nor the presidency had been initially notified it would take place.
The announcement spurred condemnation by critics, who accused Turkey of undermining Bosnia’s sovereignty.
“If we introduce this principle that anyone can hold meetings or political rallies in our country whenever they want, we lose our sovereignty,” Bosnian parliamentarian Sadik Ahmetovic told local media.
During the visit, Erdogan held 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.
Some critics, such as parliamentarian Dusanka Majkic, said the visit serves Izetbegovic’s interests ahead of Bosnia’s general elections in the fall of 2018.
Majkic also pointed the meeting may serve as a barrier for Bosnia’s path to the EU as Bosnia has allowed Erdogan to campaign while EU countries 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 AK Party’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 welcomed Erdogan’s arrival, pointing out that Turkey has always supported Bosnia, whereas Europe is seen by some as complicit in the bloody war that tore Bosnia apart in the early 1990s.
“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.
“Whoever in their actions shows friendly intentions towards Bosnia and Herzegovina should have the doors open for them,” said 26-year-old Ajdin Tinjak, also from Sarajevo.
Emir Suljagic, a professor of social and political science at the International University of Sarajevo, called out what he described as the hypocritical behaviour of the three European countries, which have previously allowed political meetings to be organised by other foreign, non-Muslim politicians.
Last March, President Milorad Dodik and Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic 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, Dodik openly encouraged Bosnian Serbs in Austria to vote for the “neo-Nazi” FPO (Freedom Party of Austria) candidate Norbert Hofer, Suljagic added.
“Milorad Dodik 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.
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.
Describing Erdogan as someone who is seen by many as a “protector of Muslim communities all over the world”, Arman said the Turkish president tends to visit countries in the run-up to elections that have large Muslim populations such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.
Erdogan’s visit to Sarajevo solidifies this “protector” image with his voter base, Arman explained.