BERLIN: Wracked by a damaging corruption scandal at home, a defiant Turkish prime minister took his election campaign to the streets of Berlin Tuesday, seeking to rally Germany’s vast Turkish community.
“We will stand up straight. We’ll never bow down, you can be sure of that. We only bow before God,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told thousands of flag-waving Turks in the Kreuzberg area of the German capital, known affectionately as “Little Istanbul.”
For the first time, Turkish citizens living abroad will be able to vote in their country of residence, making Germany a key campaigning ground for Erdogan ahead of crunch municipal elections in March and a presidential vote later in the year.
Germany counts three million Turks or people of Turkish origin, making Germany one of the biggest electoral constituencies after Ankara, Istanbul or Izmir.
In Berlin, which houses the largest Turkish community outside Turkey, Erdogan issued a fierce rallying call in a 40-minute speech.
“I want you to be proud to live in Germany. But I also want you to be proud of the Turkish flag. You are the children of a great country,” he cried.
He said the younger generation should “not forget their religion and their roots to become foreigners ... you are European Turks,” he told the enthusiastic crowd.
At home, Erdogan, 59, is facing the most serious scandal of his 11-year rule amid a major graft investigation implicating members of his inner circle and their families.
But in his Berlin speech, he appeared to take aim at his critics, asking: “Can there be corruption in a country where the gross domestic product has grown from 200 to 800 billion dollars?”
He also appeared to attack his rival Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher living in the United States, whom Erdogan blames for instigating the corruption probe.
“Those who want to get mixed up in politics should not do so by giving advice from afar,” Erdogan said.
Many in the crowd seemed convinced by the canvassing effort.
Sangul Esmer, 29-year-old woman, veiled as were many in the audience, leapt to Erdogan’s defence.
“I live in Berlin but when I go to Turkey, I notice that many things have changed for the better since he became prime minister,” she told AFP.
“The majority of people are pleased with what he has done. I hope his party will win this year,” added Esmer, who was born and grew up in Berlin.
Despite the support shown on Tuesday night, the Turkish community in Berlin is usually considered anti-Erdogan and joined in mass protests last year in support of anti-government protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi park.
And Erdogan found little support from German Chancellor Angela Merkel as he sought to shore up his country’s long-standing bid to join the European Union.
At a joint news conference earlier Tuesday, Merkel said that her “scepticism” over Turkey being a full member of the EU was no secret.
But, for Oktay Torun in the crowd in Kreuzberg, there was no question of anything but full support for the embattled Turkish prime minister.
“We believe in him with all our heart. We admire his courage,” said the 42-year-old, who came with his family.
“He has built hospitals, roads. We are no longer dependent on outside help,” he added.
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