BERLIN (Reuters) - Turks living in Germany began casting their ballots on Monday in a referendum that proposes changing Turkey’s constitution to increase President Tayyip Erdogan’s powers.
The controversial vote takes place amid increasingly strained ties between Turkey and Europe, home to an estimated 2.5 million Turkish citizens eligible to vote.
Bans on some campaign rallies by Turkish officials in Germany and the Netherlands have prompted Erdogan to accuse European leaders of “Nazi methods”.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said on Sunday Erdogan’s rhetoric was setting back integration in Germany by years and it would take years to repair the damage.
Germany has about 3 million people of Turkish background, including some 800,000 ethnic Kurds. About 1.41 million are Turkish citizens eligible to cast ballots at the voting stations located mostly in Ankara’s 13 consulates around Germany.
Erdogan argues the proposed strengthening of the presidency will avert instability associated with coalition governments, at a time when Turkey faces terrorist threats. Critics, including European leaders, say it will concentrate too much power in his hands.
Dozens of people lined up outside the Turkish consulate in Berlin to vote as a handful of supporters of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish opposition party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), held up protest signs.
One sign read: “6 million HDP voters are not represented at the ballot box.”
Several HDP lawmakers have been arrested in Turkey. Erdogan’s critics say they worry that Turks in Germany opposed to him will refrain from voting to avoid repercussions for themselves or their families back home.
Erdal Cakiroglu, voting in Berlin, told Reuters he supported Erdogan’s proposed changes.
“Let them think what they would like to think,” he said, gesturing at the protesters. “But we are sticking together for Turkey and the future of the Turkish Republic ... we are here to support the stability of our country.”
Tarik Demir, a construction worker in Berlin, also supported the measures. “The AKP (Erdogan’s ruling party) has made positive changes in Turkey. They’ve implemented social benefits, they built many houses and streets,” he said.
Retired bank employee Demiral Sadet said many of her friends were apprehensive about returning to Turkey until they saw the outcome of the vote. “Erdogan is running everything. Why should he have more power?” she asked.
Melahat Yildiz was also against the changes: “Until the end will I say no, for my country because I love my country, for the future, for my Turkey and for my grandchildren and for all the children in Turkey I will say no.”
Metin Cagli, who traveled to vote in Munich from Rosenheim about 65 km (40 miles) away, said the constitutional proposals would give Erdogan too much power.
“We’re against a dictatorship. We want ... the best for our country. We are social democratic people,” he said.
In Germany, voting will take place from March 27 to April 9, with sealed ballot boxes then flown to Ankara to be counted on the evening of April 16, when people in Turkey vote.
France has just over 318,000 Turks eligible to vote and the Netherlands nearly 245,600. Austria, Belgium, Britain and Switzerland also have sizeable Turkish communities.
Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and broadcasters NDR and WDR said on Monday that Turkey’s secret services seemed to be spying on supporters of the Gulen movement in Germany.
Turkish authorities accuse U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen of orchestrating a failed coup in July.
The media outlets said that in February the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) gave the head of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Agency (BND) a list containing the names of hundreds of supposed Gulen supporters living in Germany.
They said the list included the registered addresses, mobile numbers and landline numbers of those people as well as photos in many cases. An investigation by German authorities found that some of the photos seemed to have been taken in secret, such as by surveillance cameras, they said.
They said the list included the names of more than 300 people and more than 200 associations, schools and other institutions supposedly linked to the Gulen movement.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV and Michelle Martin; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Heneghan