How a Nazi-era sports stadium in Berlin became Turkey’s largest polling station


Turkish citizens will head to the Olympiastadion in Berlin to vote in Turkish presidential elections on Aug. 10. For the first time ever, expatriate Turks are allowed to vote by casting their ballots abroad. About 140,000 eligible Turkish voters live in Berlin. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Berlin's Olympiastadion, an enormous stadium built under Adolf Hitler's rule in the 1930s, is mostly used for soccer games or concerts these days. Until Sunday, however, the historic site will serve a different purpose: as Turkey's largest polling station.

For the first time, Turkish citizens will be allowed to elect their new president directly. And while many citizens living as expatriates can cast their votes in the consulates or embassies of their home countries, this year the Turkish government has rented extra rooms and properties ahead of the actual presidential elections on Aug. 10. Given that 1.4 million Turks live in Germany and 140,000 of those live in Berlin, the Olympiastadion (capacity: 77,166) was deemed an appropriate venue.

Even in Germany, however, there are doubts about how democratic the Turkish presidential elections will really be. Tensions arose after journalists were refused access to the Turkish polling stations in Germany on Thursday. "The rules that apply to Turkish elections need to be similar to those in place during elections for the Bundestag or regional parliaments", Michael Konken, the chairman of German's journalist association DJV, said in a statement.

Turkish affairs have been of special interest to the German public since the 1960s, when many Turkish citizens moved to the central European economic powerhouse to find jobs as "guest workers."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AP Photo/dpa,Martin Schutt) German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AP Photo/dpa,Martin Schutt)

Turkish integration has been a major political issue in Germany for years, causing particular upheaval in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party and its sister party CSU, which heavily rely on Christian values. Former German president Christian Wulff fueled the public discourse in 2010 when he said that "Islam is part of Germany." That same year, Merkel made headlines when she stated that multiculturalism had "utterly failed".

A new problem, however, is growing disagreement between Turkey's government and a number of European Union nations, including Germany. In a speech in April, German President Joachim Gauck argued that Turkey was increasingly censoring media and failing to address other possible threats to the nation's democratic processes. Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at Gauck and ridiculed him as a "pastor" who interferes into other people's affairs.

Germany's Der Spiegel magazine found the rhetorical dispute to be part of a bigger problem:

The motivation for Erdoğan's sharp comments is clear. On August 10, Turks will go to the polls to elect a new president. And for the first time ever, Turks living in Germany will also be able to cast ballots. [...] Many Turkish-Germans feel that politicians here don't take their concerns seriously. The Turkish government has tried to fill this gap, with Erdogan posing as the patron of the Turkish diaspora. (...) His deputy also criticized Germany's policy of requiring immigrants to take German courses as a "human rights violation." Such aggressive rhetoric has driven a wedge between immigrants and German society.

Erdoğan is serving his third term as Turkey's prime minister and would not have been eligible to run again under his party's rules. Instead, he decided to campaign for the traditionally ceremonial office of president. And no matter who wins the Aug. 10 elections, the impact will certainly be felt in Germany.

Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.

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