Erdogan’s planned pre-election address in Germany sparks criticism

Accusing him of seeking to 'polarise'

BERLIN - Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's planned pre-election address in Germany Saturday has sparked widespread criticism in the wake of the country's mine disaster and concern over opponents' protest calls.
Amid heightened anger within Turkey over his response to last week's tragedy in which more than 300 died, Erdogan is set for a long-scheduled appearance before supporters in the western city of Cologne.
For the first time, some 2.6 million Turks living abroad -- including 1.5 million in Germany alone -- will be able to cast their votes in the August presidential vote in which Erdogan is expected to stand.
It will not be Erdogan's first such event in Europe's top economy, home to three million Turks or people of Turkish origin, nor the first to stir controversy, and comes on the heels of a diplomatic spat with the German president.
But its timing, just 11 days after the country's worst ever industrial disaster, has been fiercely questioned across Germany's political spectrum, with some calling for its cancellation.
Berlin has stressed that as the prime minister of a "close and important" partner country, Erdogan is welcome in Germany but highlighted the need for him to show sensitivity at a difficult time.
"I'm counting on the fact that he'll do this (appearance) on Saturday with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity," Chancellor Angela Merkel told Thursday's Passauer Neue Presse newspaper.
Erdogan spoke by phone with Merkel later Thursday about the Cologne visit, but mainly to discuss the Ukraine crisis, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement.
- 'Not an electoral campaign' --
Germany's Alevi community -- which follows a moderate form of Islam and makes up around a quarter of Turkey's 76 million citizens -- has called an anti-Erdogan demonstration on the day for Cologne, accusing him of seeking to "polarise".
Organisers of the event, the Union of European Turkish Democrats, insisted Thursday that Erdogan -- who in February addressed supporters in Berlin a month before Turkish municipal elections -- would not hold an election rally.
"Mr Erdogan will not hold an electoral campaign here," UETD chairman Suleyman Celik told reporters.
But the head of the German police union voiced concern that the event at Cologne's Lanxess arena, which has an 18,000-strong seating capacity, could provoke tension within the country's Turkish community.
Rainer Wendt told Handelsblatt online that Erdogan's speech after the mine accident in the western town of Soma had been "lacking in instinct and cold", causing sorrow and anger among many.
"Unfortunately one can't expect that Erdogan will make an about-turn in Cologne and appear measured, rather one must reckon on him pouring oil on the fire," he was quoted as telling the business daily.
In 2008 Erdogan caused a storm in Cologne when he said that assimilation, which he defined as a person being "forced" to abandon their culture, was a "crime against humanity".
Euro MP Elmar Brok, from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, said Thursday that if Saturday's event helped polarise, it would be better if the Turkish prime minister dropped his plans.
"Cologne cannot become the venue for conflict between tens of thousands of Turks," he told Thursday's Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung.
Last month Erdogan sharply rebuffed criticism by German President Joachim Gauck who on a visit to the country had said that a recent spate of rights abuses in Turkey were "scaring" him.
Claudia Roth of the Greens party argued that preventing Erdogan's appearance would send "the wrong signal".
"We should show him that there are different conditions in Germany than in Turkey where freedom of opinion, press freedom and right of assembly are dramatically limited," she said on n-tv rolling news channel.