In March 2017, the Netherlands and Turkey were involved in a diplomatic incident, triggered by Turkish efforts to hold political rallies on Dutch territory and subsequent travel restrictions placed by Dutch authorities on Turkish officials seeking to promote the campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the upcoming Turkish constitutional referendum to Turkish citizens living in the Netherlands. Such foreign campaigning is illegal under Turkish law.
The Netherlands barred the aircraft of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing, and expelled Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya from the country, when both tried to speak at rallies.
In response, Turkey expelled the Dutch ambassador from the country, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called the Dutch “fascists” and “remnants of Nazism” and accused the Netherlands of “massacring” Muslims in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War in 1995.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called Erdoğan’s remarks “unacceptable” and a “vile falsification of history” and demanded an apology.
Rutte also called for talks to resolve the impasse, adding that Turkey had crossed a diplomatic line.
The Turkish referendum scheduled for 16 April 2017 concerns a series of constitutional amendments that, if approved, would transform the country from a parliamentary democracy into a presidential system, under which President Erdoğan would be able to stand in two more elections, theoretically allowing him to govern as a powerful head of state until 2029.
Critics of the proposed changes have expressed their fears of increased authoritarianism, whereas supporters claim the new system would make the Turkish state stronger and safer.
In the ‘Yes’ campaign’s attempt to persuade Europe’s Turkish diaspora (many of whom still hold Turkish citizenship and thus are allowed to vote on the referendum) several high-ranking Turkish government officials sought to campaign in European cities with large Turkish populations.
This included the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which contains a large portion of the 400,000 people of Turkish origin living in the Netherlands. The Turkish plans to campaign in European cities met a mixed reception in many European states, including the Netherlands.
Overseas election campaigning, even in diplomatic missions, is illegal under Turkish law; yet most political parties in Turkey, including the ruling AKP, have flouted this law.
The Turkish referendum comes at a time when the Netherlands, too, was scheduled for its general election, which was held on 15 March 2017.