Only 38 people turned up at screen 7 of Berlin’s Alhambra cinema on Thursday night to watch a powerful Turkish president make a pitch for why he deserves even more power. But those who came were impressed.
Reis (the Turkish word for chief), a biopic in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is played by soap opera star Reha Beyoğlu, premiered in Istanbul last month. It is now touring cinemas among Europe’s Turkish diaspora communities in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on 16 April, a vote that could boost Erdoğan’s powers and allow him to remain president until 2029.
The film shows the co-founder of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) growing up in Istanbul’s working class Kasımpaşa neighbourhood to become a man of prodigal talent and saintly self-denial, scoring the last-minute winner in a five-a-side football match with an overhead kick and getting up in the middle of the night to rescue a puppy that has fallen down a well.
His supporters are willing to use blunter means to defend their chief against Turkey’s cosmopolitan elite. In the film’s final scene, showing one of Erdoğan’s guards punching an assailant in the face, the Berlin audience – watching the film with German subtitles – broke into spontaneous applause. The dialogue was widely understood to be a reference to last July’s averted coup: “Who are you?” asks the assailant. “The people,” the guard replies.
Smoking cigarettes on the pavement outside the cinema, a group of four Turkish-Germans in their late teens said Reis had only affirmed their decision to vote yes in the referendum. “A strong Erdoğan is good for a strong Turkey,” said Ahmet, 19.
Tensions between the German and Turkish governments, triggered by the arrest of Die Welt’s correspondent Deniz Yücel and culminating in Erdoğan accusing Germany of “Nazi practices” over banned rallies in German cities, had merely strengthened his allegiance, said 20-year-old Mehmet. “To be honest, when America, Germany and France tell me to vote no in the referendum, then I am going to vote yes.”
Both said no German party represented their interests: “We are just foreigners to them.”
The heightened fervour of support for Erdoğan even among younger members of Germany’s population with Turkish roots – a community of about 3 million, of which roughly half are entitled to vote in April – has scandalised the country’s public and media.
German politicians allege that the AKP is trying to influence the diaspora vote not just through public rallies but by covertly pressurising and threatening its opponents in Germany via religious and business networks. In January, Turkish-German footballer Hakan Çalhanoğlu was publicly criticised by his club Bayer Leverkusen for posting a video on social media in which he declared his allegiance with the evet (yes) camp.
“You are part of our country,” Angela Merkel, the chancellor, appealed to the Turkish-speaking community on Thursday. “We want to do everything to make sure that domestic Turkish conflicts aren’t brought into our coexistence. This is a matter of the heart for us.”
The unquestioning support of some of Erdoğan’s fans has tended to drown out more critical voices as the constitutional referendum draws a new line across an already divided diaspora community.
Across the city from the Alhambra cinema, the Südblock concert venue has been staging events calling on Turks in Germany to emphatically reject the proposed changes to the constitution.
On Wednesday, for International Women’s Day, a group of female Kurdish activists rallied a room full of German, Polish, Irish and Egyptian women to a chant of “no”. Next Tuesday, there is a show starring Turkish-born cabaret artist Dildogan, who describes herself as “the world’s first queer femme PoC Dicktator”.
Südblock’s co-owner Tülin Duman, 38, who was born in Germany but whose parents are from Turkey’s Alevi minority, argued there was nothing new to the idea of Turkey exporting its domestic conflicts abroad. “The Turkish diaspora community in Germany has always been strictly divided between Sunnis, Kurds or Alevis,” she said.
Political identities among the Turkish community in Germany are often based on the domestic politics of the year when people left Turkey, whether at the time of the 1968 student revolution or the military coup in 1980, Duman argued. “Among expats, prejudices are sadly often preserved and passed down from one generation to the next.”
The hope among the Turkish president’s critics is that the debate around the constitutional reform is cutting through the old divisions. A motley crew of social democratic, Kurdish and Islamist forces have announced they will campaign against the changes. Even the Nationalist Movement party (MHP) and its ultranationalist youth organisation, the “Grey Wolves”, appear split on the referendum question.
The association representing the Turkish community in Germany is campaigning for a no vote, arguing in a statement that “the Turkish community rejects any attempt to lead the country to a one-man regime”. In 2015, 60% of the approximately 600,000 German Turks who turned out to vote cast their ballot in favour of Erdoğan’s AKP. The outcome in April looks more uncertain.
“Whatever the outcome, I am not going to stop saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to my neighbours, even if they voted for yes,” said Duman. “At the end of the day, we have to coexist.”