Turks abroad begin voting in landmark presidential election

BERLIN Thu Jul 31, 2014 10:53am EDT

Supporters of Turkey's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan react during an election rally in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, July 26, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Supporters of Turkey's Prime Minister and presidential candidate Tayyip Erdogan react during an election rally in Diyarbakir, southeast Turkey, July 26, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Umit Bektas

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Turks in Germany streamed into Berlin's Olympic stadium on Thursday, seizing the chance to vote from abroad for the first time in an election Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan hopes will make him Turkey's first directly-elected president.

Turkey itself goes to the polls on Aug. 10 to choose between Erdogan and two opposition candidates. But expatriates - in the past allowed to vote only at Turkey's borders - are casting their ballots over the next four days.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than a decade but is barred by party rules from standing for a fourth term as prime minister, has said the direct nature of the vote will imbue the presidency with far greater clout.

Polls suggest he will win the simple majority needed in the first round. Two surveys last month put him on 55-56 percent, a 20-point lead over his nearest rival, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The diaspora vote will count as never before.

Some 2.8 million Turks abroad are eligible to vote, around 1.4 million of them in Germany, a number equivalent to the electorate of Turkey's fifth largest city, Adana. One million voters are based elsewhere in Europe, with smaller numbers in the United States, Asia, Africa and Oceania.

"It is hugely important for me to be able to vote in this election, and I want to see Erdogan, who has done so much for our country, continue," said Necrettin Koc, 40, who moved to Germany as a child and works as a builder in Berlin.

"I live in Germany, but I'm a Turkish citizen and care deeply about what happens there. I'm convinced that Erdogan will win in the first round," he said, speaking outside the imposing Berlin stadium built for the 1936 Olympics.

Turks comprise Germany's biggest minority as a result of decades of labor migration that began in 1961, which saw many young workers coming from some of Turkey's poorest and most remote areas - conservative heartlands where Erdogan's Islamist-rooted politics draws its strongest support.

Today the German diaspora reflects Turkey's diverse political landscape, with conservative Muslim groups, left-wing trade unionists, Kurds and secularists all represented.

Erdogan visited the western German city of Cologne in May, courting the diaspora vote at a rally of 16,000 supporters, although an estimated 45,000 protested against him. The pro-Kurdish party candidate Selahattin Demirtas also visited Cologne this month, and said he felt strong support.

"Turks are interested in politics here but also in Turkey, because they see their future in both countries," said Ahmet Basar Sen, Turkish Consul General for Berlin.

POLARISATION

Erdogan enjoys huge popularity among a pious, conservative swathe of the Turkish population. But he has alienated others with what critics see as inflammatory language and authoritarian instincts, exemplified by a heavy crackdown on anti-government protests last year and subsequent bans on Twitter and Facebook.

While few doubt the outcome of the vote, Turks at home and abroad feel the future direction of their nation is at stake.

Erdogan's grassroots supporters want the man who has boosted their wealth, opportunities and visibility in a constitutionally secular society to continue shaping Turkey. Opponents fear that he will only grow more autocratic, particularly if he establishes the executive presidency he ultimately covets.

"It is important for me to protect democracy in Turkey, which I think is under threat, for the sake of my family and friends there," said Huzzam Atay, 42, a manager waiting to vote at the Berlin stadium, where VIP boxes were transformed into polling booths and a Turkish flag fluttered overhead.

"Step by step, things are sliding backwards. We can't have a situation where one all-powerful person rules and everyone else has to obey them," she said.

In Germany, Turkish citizens can vote at seven cities and consulates have hired large stadiums and polling stations. The ballot boxes will be flown to Turkey to be counted.

In the United States, where more than 100,000 citizens are eligible to vote, one retired 70-year-old said she and others had struggled to register because the Foreign Ministry's website repeatedly crashed. She also expressed worry that ballots could be subject to tampering during transport and counting.

Still, she said, she was determined to vote. "I am deeply concerned that we are heading towards chaos and one-man rule. May Allah help us," she said on condition of anonymity.

Unlike Europe, U.S. immigration policy in the 1960s and 1970s made it more difficult for unskilled Turkish laborers to migrate, and many Turkish-Americans are educated professionals who identify more closely with Turkey's secular traditions.

"I am really worried about the future of Turkey," said Ayhan Lash, 74, a retired university professor in Chicago, who moved to the United States in 1965.

"I left Turkey 50 years ago, and I think there were more freedoms then than there are now," she said.

(Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul; Editing by Nick Tattersall/Mark Heinrich)

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