How Refugees Became A Hot Button Issue Ahead Of Turkey’s Runoff Election

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who underperformed in the first round after finishing second to Erdogan, has hardened his stance on migration to win over voters. Will it pay off?
Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Tayyip Erdogan
Kemal Kilicdaroglu and Tayyip Erdogan
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the challenger to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sunday’s runoff election, is hardening his stance on refugees in a last-ditch effort to win over voters after underperforming in the first round.

While polls showed center-left Kilicdaroglu leading the conservative Erdogan, Erdogan ended up coming in first in the May 14 contest, with 49.5% of the vote. But neither candidate managed to secure an outright majority, setting off this weekend’s high-stakes race.

“I think the opposition has calculated that its decision to prioritize the economic issues hasn’t really delivered the victory that they wanted,” Merve Tahiroğlu, Turkey program director at the U.S.-based Project on Middle East Democracy, told HuffPost.

Erdogan’s unorthodox decision to cut interest rates at a time when most governments and central banks around the world are raising them to rein in inflation caused the value of the country’s currency, the Turkish lira, to tumble, meaning many Turks can barely afford everyday goods.

But it appears that voters may not blame Erdogan for that after all.

“Erdogan has consolidated his bloc through identity politics, through a track record of successful economic policies in his first two terms that also provided for wealth and solid economic performance roughly up until the 2016 coup attempt,” said Emre Peker, Europe director at the Eurasia Group consulting firm.

The voters who have continued to back him despite the recent financial turmoil “think back to all their social gains and all their economic gains prior to when the economic problems started,” Peker said, adding that they also fear the opposition is untested.

This appears to have now forced the opposition to pivot and shift its campaign focus to the issue of migration and refugees.

Their campaign has “taken a full 180,” Tahiroğlu said, adding that Kilicdaroglu appears to have left behind the more positive tone he had maintained up to the first round.

Candidates Seek And Get The Support Of Far-Right Figures

Hard-right third-party candidate Sinan Ogan outperformed expectations by receiving over 5% of the vote in the first round, and was described by some as a “kingmaker.” On Monday, he endorsed Erdogan, the head of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, who has been in power for over 20 years and is the country’s longest-serving leader.

Ogan told The New York Times last week his conditions for granting his backing would include a specific plan for deporting refugees from Turkey, and that he also wanted to get a top job in the next administration.

“Why would I be a minister when I can be vice president?” he asked.

It’s unclear what Erdogan agreed to in exchange for receiving Ogan’s support, but Ogan on Monday said his performance in the first election has given nationalists a strong platform, including on the refugee issue.

Yet experts note that Ogan does not have a unified base of voters, and people who supported him in the first round are not necessarily going to follow his endorsement.

Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, who was the joint candidate of six opposition parties, was endorsed by Umit Ozdag, the leader of the far-right Victory Party, which led the coalition that backed Ogan in the first round.

Ozdag on Wednesday said he and Kilicdaroglu both agreed that millions of refugees should return to their home countries within a year, shortening the two-year timeline that the opposition candidate had initially set out in his plan, according to The Associated Press.

We reached consensus on “a model that is in line with international laws and upholds human rights, that would ensure the security of Syrians in Syria but lift the heavy burden on Turkey’s economy and that would make our streets safe again,” Ozdag said, according to the AP.

How Erdogan And Kilicdaroglu Approach The Issue Of Refugees

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, being home to “almost 3.6 million Syrians under temporary protection and close to 370,000 refugees and asylum-seekers of other nationalities,” according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Kilicdaroglu, who up until the first round has pledged to repatriate refugees within two years by creating safe conditions allowing the return to their country, has since touted his anti-migrant credentials, accusing Erdogan of “deliberately [allowing] 10 million refugees into Turkey.”

“I will send all refugees back home once I am elected as president, period,” Kilicdaroglu said, Politico Europe reported, citing local media.

Kilicdaroglu has also pledged to renegotiate the 2016 European Union-Turkey deal on refugees, if elected. Under the 2016 agreement, “all new irregular migrants and asylum seekers arriving from Turkey to the Greek islands and whose applications for asylum have been declared inadmissible should be returned to Turkey.” The country has received millions from the EU in humanitarian aid for refugees.

Meanwhile, Erdogan “has played the role of protector for millions of refugees in Turkey,” Kaya Genc, a novelist and essayist from Istanbul, recently told The New Yorker.

“Kilicdaroglu’s refugee policy has rattled me,” Genc said, adding that some of his statements on refugees represent the “ugly language of Turkish nationalism.”

“Erdogan, meanwhile, has framed himself as the protector of the umma, the nation of Islam, and, in this case, his Islamic nationalism seems humane by comparison,” Genc continued.

Erdogan told CNN’s Becky Anderson last week he would “encourage” refugees to return to their home countries rather than deport them.

“Turkish NGOs are building residential units in northern Syria so that refugees here can go back to their homeland,” Erdogan said. “This process has already started.”

The Rise Of Anti-Refugee Sentiment In Turkey

Erdogan seems to have also recognized the rise of the anti-refugee sentiment in his country over the past few years, and “has mostly taken the air out of it,” Peker said.

For instance, following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Turkey took further measures to guard its eastern border to prevent a mass influx of Afghan migrants into the country.

According to official figures from Turkey, over 500,000 Syrians have been repatriated in recent years in the safe zone that Turkey has created in northern Syria through military operations, but critics have warned the figure may be exaggerated.

“The opposition identified rising domestic concern over refugees and their presence in Turkey and tried to turn it into a major campaign issue,” Peker told HuffPost, explaining that this trend was fueled in part by worsening economic conditions in the country in the past few years.

“Erdogan managed to largely quash that, although there is an undercurrent that has now become relatively mainstream in Turkey, which is set against migrants in a similar way of the discourse in Europe and the U.S.,” Peker added.

A mass influx of refugees in Europe in 2015 drew backlash in many countries and fueled the rise of far-right parties.

Republicans in the U.S. have also been vocal against migration, with then-candidate Donald Trump rallying voters in the 2016 GOP primary about building a wall along the southern border to block migrant crossings, even though he failed on this pledge.

Tahiroğlu added that another challenge for Kilicdaroglu is that he hasn’t articulated a plan on how he would be able to execute the expulsion of millions of migrants.

“They can campaign on it, but there’s no viable way,” she said.

“Even those concerned about this issue are thinking if anyone’s going to solve it, it’s going to be Erdogan,” Tahiroğlu continued.

The Situation On The Ground For Refugees In Turkey

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president and co-founder of MedGlobal, an organization that helps provide health care in disaster-stricken regions, told HuffPost that Turkey was considered a model country for hosting and providing opportunities for refugees up until recently.

The rise of anti-refugee sentiment, and a belief by some Turks that migrants are draining the country’s resources, has also been exploited by politicians in this election cycle.

This has meant that refugees in Turkey feel very concerned about their future in the country, Sahloul, who visited Turkey three weeks ago, explained.

He added that repatriating Syrians is not realistic given the circumstances in the country, and that those who have built a life in Turkey will not want to leave that behind.

“Why would someone who is living in a stable country move back to a war zone? Or potentially a war zone?” Sahloul asked.

Sahloul, who hails from Syria, explained that while Syrians are very grateful to Turkey for building hospitals and other infrastructure in the areas they control in the country, it would be the wrong thing to make people move back “without a political resolution, without any concession from the regime, without a third party like the United Nations overseeing the return of refugees without reconstruction.”

Will Kilicdaroglu’s Messaging Work?

Erdogan’s strong performance in both the presidential and parliamentary election, after he was able to cling on to his majority, means he is well positioned to win reelection this Sunday.

“That creates a big momentum for Erdogan, makes it easier and more convincing for him to argue for continuity and stability,” Peker said.

Meanwhile, Kilicdaroglu, who lost to Erdogan by nearly 5 percentage points, is facing an uphill battle.

It will be “be harder for Kilicdaroglu to motivate his base, and attract additional voters to overtake the incumbent,” Peker added.

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