A Turkish minister was refused entrance to the country; another minister was de facto detained for hours by an anti-terrorism squad of the Dutch police, prevented from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, and eventually kicked out of the country; Erdoğan’s government has threatened with “severe retaliations”; and eventually, massive riots emerged between Dutch-Turkish Erdoğan-supporters and the police. In short, what we have seen unfolding in the Netherlands last night is little short of an international incident.
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As far as I am concerned, what we witness here is a confrontation between two politicians who have at least one thing in common: elections are coming up, and there is a lot at stake for both of them. Rutte (a right-wing neoliberal) is most likely to win the Dutch parliamentary elections next Wednesday (and, one may add, he will probably remain prime minister for the next four years – albeit with the support of a different coalition). His main competitor, however, is the extreme Right politician Geert Wilders. In his electoral campaign, Rutte has mainly targeted Wilders’ supporters, in an attempt to snatch some of his seats. Rutte’s campaign, therefore, has been remarkably conservative in tone, with a strong and negative emphasis on topics such as migration, multiculturalism, and “Dutch values” (whatever that may be). Rutte’s choice to intensify this conflict with Erdoğan is merely a part of this campaign. Tomorrow Rutte and Wilders will be facing each other in a one-on-one televised debate, and Wilders will no longer be able to play his favorite card: namely, that Rutte is a weak politician who – much like all the others – is too reluctant to take a stance against the so-called “islamisation” of the country.
Needless to say, Erdoğan has rather similar interests. The Dutch-Turkish population is politically divided, but a significant part is rather conservative (during the parliamentary elections of 2015, nearly 70% of the Dutch-Turkish votes casted went to AKP). Erdoğan hopes to gain support for his constitutional reforms in the Netherlands and Germany, and this whole incident will only make him look stronger – both abroad and at home. Let there be no question about it: if Erdoğan (who, during the past months, has jailed several opposition leaders, purged 130.000 government officials, teachers, judges, and academics, and shut down thousands of schools, universities, media outlets, and labour unions) is not a dictator yet, he at least aspires to become one, and these constitutional reforms will clearly help him to reach this goal.
The Dutch government argues that they cannot allow Erdoğan to pursue his political ambitions on Dutch soil. Ironically, it is in the name of free speech and democracy that members of his administration are prevented from campaigning in the Netherlands. But Rutte plays a dangerous game, that is essentially not very different from Erdoğan’s: he seeks to marginalize the Dutch-Turkish minority, to incite nationalist and racist sentiment among white voters, and to legitimize the use of excessive force against political and cultural minorities. This has very little to do with freedom of speech or with Erdoğan’s attempt to establish autocracy.
Thus, what we are witnessing here is two right-wing politicians inciting riots and international unrest for their personal political gain. Both deliberately pursue a strategy of confrontation at the expense of the Turkish minority in the Netherlands. Both seek to inflame nationalist sentiment, which will further distract us from the issues that should really be at the centre of political debate: the increasing gap between rich and poor (in both countries), the systemic racism against cultural and ethnic minorities (again, in both countries), and the continuing refugee crisis in the Levant and Europe.
Rutte and Erdoğan: may a plague strike both your houses!
Mathijs van de Sande