With each attempt to strong-arm the media, Turkish President Erdogan only confirms his vulnerability
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is having a tough time. He thought he had the Europeans over a barrel, thanks to the refugees. But no sooner had he negotiated the Deal of the Decade with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – prying €6 billion out of the Europeans over three years in exchange for halting the refugee flow – than he found himself the laughing stock of the Internet.
First it was a music video broadcast in late March on the weekly satire “extra 3” on German TV. Pieced together from news casts, we see “big foot” Erdogan strutting around in a soccer uniform, then strong-arming a “recalcitrant” ballot box, and parading down the grand staircase of his vast official residence (“built without a permit on a nature preserve”) flanked by guards in Ottoman fancy dress. We see Turkish police spraying protestors with tear gas and fire hoses, taking journalists by force, and assaulting unarmed women at a Women’s Day rally – equal brutality for all.
The refrain, Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan, translates literally as “Erdo-how. Erdo-where, Erdogan,” but must be understood as a play on Irgendwie, irgendwo, irgendwann, “Somehow, somewhere, sometime” – after a 80s hit song by the German singer Nena, but also a 1930s ballade by the great Comedian Harmonists that became a moving protest against the Nazis who had outlawed both their Jewish members and their satire.
Erdogan was apparently infuriated, and summoned the German ambassador for a stern dressing down, demanding the video be “deleted from the internet.” The Germans refused. Instead, the writers reposted it – this time with Turkish subtitles, just in case Erdogan had missed any of the references.
Next, it was Jan Böhmermann, a popular German comic who upped the ante with cheap digs at Erdogan for being weak, “a president with a small tail,” which in German slang refers to a defining part of the male anatomy. This time Turkish complaints led to Merkel reluctantly agreeing the comedian face prosecution under a little used defamation law. Which in turn was followed by a palace revolt from members of her own government, who now hope to abolish the law before the case even comes to court.
The inescapable irony is that each attempt to strong arm the German media has only served to prove the truth of the satire – that Erdogan is a thin-skinned authoritarian unable to tolerate criticism, who doesn’t understand a country where the government neither has, nor wants, control of the public dialogue.
Nor can Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, apparently, who cancelled a state visit to Vienna in March because the city refused to deny permits to the range of anti-nuclear, Kurdish and Jewish groups planning demonstrations.
And now, just this week, British journalist Douglas Murray of The Spectator announced the magazine would run a “President Erdogan Offensive Poetry Competition” for the best Limerick insulting the Turkish leader.
So I’ve decided to enter a submission to The Spectator competition – perhaps not scatological enough to win a prize in the U.K., where the term humor is, at best, broadly defined. (In Britain, it seems, most anything goes as long as it’s been said in Parliament!) And as in Austria, truth is a priori a defense.