Germany's SPD says problems in Turkey's democracy can't be ignored

The co-chair of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany has said that anti-democratic issues in Turkey cannot be ignored. These issues will figure prominently in SPD foreign policy if they come to power, Norbert Walter-Borjans said.

Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken.

Duvar English

Co-chair of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party of Germany, Norbert Walter-Borjans, has said that the party will pursue a policy that addresses anti-democratic trends in Turkey if it comes to power.

Walter-Borjans, whose party is expected to win the elections, said that while he hopes to maintain friendly relations with Turkey, the party would be remiss to not critique negative aspects of Turkish government policy.

“We cannot ignore the negative developments seen in the field of democracy in Turkey,” he said.

Based on recent polling, the SPD is expected to take power from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), on Sept. 26. In a recent opinion polling, the SPD ranked a full five points above the CDU, an unexpected upset for the conservative party. A likely SPD victory means a potential change in relations with Turkey, one of the country’s critical regional allies. A 2020 micro-census of German citizens by the national statistics directorate showed that over 12% of Germans surveyed with a foreign background were of Turkish descent.

Over the course of her tenure as chancellor, Angela Merkel maintained fairly friendly relations with Turkey. The relationship cooled in 2016 when the German government formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, but since then Chancellor Merkel has made several working visits to Turkey, most recently in January 2020. That visit focused primarily on the migrant crisis and Turkey’s role in housing millions of refugees.

Walter-Borjan’s comments, made to Tuncay Yıldırım of DW Turkish, mark a potential shift in German policy towards Turkey. While he noted that Turkey is of critical importance to Germany and the EU, he highlighted that there are critical issues that need to be addressed through dialogue. In particular, he noted concern for the obstruction of parties in the political process.

“Political activities, including those of our sister party the Social Democrats, are obstructed in Turkey. This is not a situation we can simply accept - we cannot say, ‘Never mind, let's ignore this and just look to the agenda,’” he said, “This would be unfair to those who support freedom of thought and democracy in Turkey.”

'We should never end the negotiations' 

Walter-Borjans also focused on Turkey’s faltering EU accession process and the effect that Turkey’s anti-democratic turn has had on the negotiations. It is critical, he said, to maintain dialogue and to work towards eventual EU membership for Turkey. While he acknowledged the ideological difference between the two countries, he argued that this should not necessarily prevent Turkey from obtaining EU membership - this is a stark departure from the policy of Chancellor Merkel, who in July said she did not expect Turkey to join the EU.

“We don’t only experience these [anti-democratic] issues with countries outside [the EU],” he said, “It should be possible to talk about such differences and problems…we should never end the negotiations.”

Walter-Borjans went on to highlight that these democratic issues leak into economic and monetary issues. Without trust in the Turkish democratic system, he highlighted, German investors will be hesitant to invest in the Turkish economy.

Despite his critique, however, Walter-Borjans highlighted Germany’s longstanding relationship with Turkey, as well as his own affinity with the country. This year marks the sixty-year anniversary of the labor relationship between Turkey and Germany, which has seen millions of Turkish people migrate to the European Country. The politician himself has been involved with Turkish organizations, such as the Turkish-German business association, for over 20 years and his daughter-in-law is also of Turkish descent. Under the SPD, he hopes Germany will not only work to improve international relations with Turkey, but will also fight discrimination that Germans of Turkish descent face at home.

“There are people who are excluded because of their name, where they come from, or what neighborhood they live in,” said Walter-Borjans, “As a social democrat, I intend to lean harder on these issues.”