Why Strongmen Rulers Love Their Emigres

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, knew what he was doing when he courted overseas voters.

Courting his Berliners.

Photographer: Adam Berry/Getty Images

The vehemence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's battle for the votes of the Turkish diaspora in Europe surprised many watchers. Was Erdogan really willing to burn bridges with the EU, Germany, and the Netherlands just to impress a few million people who shared his ethnicity but left their country? It turns out Erdogan knew what he was doing: The diaspora in Europe gave him almost 22 percent of his victory margin in the April 16 constitutional referendum.

Diasporas can be powerful forces for strongman rulers such as Erdogan, Russia's Vladimir Putin, India's Narendra Modi or China's Communist leaders. They are forces with which the West increasingly will have to reckon.

Turks voted narrowly to hand Erdogan powers comparable to those of the U.S. president (but greater given the reality of Erdogan's long-time control of almost all government levers). While almost 50 million people participated in the referendum, Erdogan won by 1.4 million votes. Of that number, 299,176 votes came from 20 European nations. 

The Fifth Column

Net vote in favor of Erdogan's constitutional proposals in countries where more than 10,000 people voted in the April 16 referendum

Source: Daily Sabah

Erdogan would have won without the emigres -- but he couldn't have been sure of that. For his purposes, the aggressive campaign in Europe and all the Europe-baiting paid off. Perhaps he can even mend fences now: Politicians in Europe understand that things said in the heat of a campaign may not mean much.

European governments, however, have a right to be worried about the nature of the Turkish diasporas in their countries. On an official level, Germany is hardly pro-Erdogan; it has criticized him for human rights abuses, and it wouldn't congratulate him on the referendum victory, choosing instead to refer to European election observers' doubts about the vote's fairness. And yet Germany alone delivered 12 percent of Erdogan's entire victory margin.

The reasons for this are perhaps common for many diasporas. Living in a country with a different language, strange laws and traditions is tough. Most immigrants are confronted with discrimination in one form or another. For an overwhelming majority, that doesn't erase the economic benefits of immigration, but immigrants still feel vulnerable. When their home country shows an interest in them and claims that it has the power to protect "compatriots" wherever they are, that energizes emigre communities to show some loyalty to the politicians who promise them protection.

Putin doesn't need the large Russian community in Germany to provide him with votes: The vote-rigging system at home always yields desirable results, anyway. But the Kremlin has used the Russian community for destabilization efforts, as in the case of the alleged rape of a Russian-speaking teenager early last year, when Russian emigres, fired up by propaganda media, demonstrated against Middle Eastern immigration along with German ultranationalists. Increased access to home-country media in recent years, thanks to satellite broadcasting and the internet, is something the Russian and Turkish diasporas have in common. In any German city, one can tell the buildings mostly occupied by immigrants by the forest of satellite antennae they sprout. 

One reason why emigres like what they see on television from the old country is that leaders like Erdogan and Putin are big on restoring the glory of Turkey and Russia, both former empires. They stress the national resurgence, and no matter how long ago the emigres left, they cannot but feel pride for their former home even if, in many cases, they left because there was little to be proud of. Besides, with their new European experience, they see attractive opportunities in their former homelands. They are sources of remittances and investment, which is a major reason why Turkey and Russia like to treat them as compatriots rather than renegades.

The same goes for the Indian and Chinese diasporas. India has had an emigre outreach program since the early 2000s, but Modi has revitalized it in recent years, addressing Indian communities in countries he has visited. This year, addressing a several-day extravaganza of a diaspora convention, Modi praised the 30 million Indian emigres' contribution to their host countries and to India, calling for the reversal of the nation's brain drain. The government is now working, for the first time, to allow Indians living overseas to vote remotely in national elections, so Western nations must prepare for Indian campaigns that can be as noisy and contentious as Turkish ones. 

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, as for Modi and, increasingly, Erdogan and Putin, the overseas Chinese community isn't just a source of investment and experience transfers -- luring back the brightest of the 50 million overseas Chinese is a priority -- but an instrument of soft power. The Chinese government's efforts may never be as loud as the Turkish or Indian outreach initiatives, but they may also be more effective in advancing Chinese interests in immigration countries.

Integration is a nice slogan, but in practice millions of people retain a measure of interest in, and loyalty toward, the countries they've left, whatever the reason for their emigration. With authoritarian leaders latching on to the idea of emigre communities as a resource, immigration becomes that much harder for Western governments. Their job is, increasingly, not just to manage ethnically diverse populations but also populations with split loyalties. This creates a largely unexplored potential for foreign countries to affect domestic political agendas -- and a need to adjust international relationships to the needs of large diasporas that are not going away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.