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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ruth Michaelson and Deniz Barış Narlı in Istanbul

Turkish opposition stirs up anti-immigrant feeling in attempt to win presidency

Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shout during a campaign rally in Istanbul on 26 May.
Supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a campaign rally in Istanbul on 26 May. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

On the dock next to Istanbul’s Kadiköy ferry port, a large screen displays the opposition’s campaign videos on a loop, with presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s voice booming out through the speakers. Interspersed with soft rock soundtracking footage of the campaign trail are speeches where he promises to deport the roughly four million refugees currently in Turkey.

“You brought more than 10 million refugees in,” he shouts, addressing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over footage of young people climbing through barbed wire and through dusty tracks next to grassland. “I hereby declare that I will send all refugees back as soon as I come to power.”

Campaigners from Kılıçdaroğlu’s Republican People’s party (CHP) hand out Turkish flags and leaflets bearing his campaign promises, including a flyer bearing the words “refugees will return home”, showing a figure scaling a wire fence at sunset.

CHP voter Çisel Onat tapped her foot to the music as she watched. “We have to do this, unfortunately,” she said of the promises to expel refugees. “I’m the kind of person who thinks everyone should just live in their own country in suitable conditions.”

While Kılıçdaroğlu and his party have branded themselves as democratic challengers to Erdoğan, their campaign before the second-round poll has focused on an anti-immigrant message in a bid to attract votes.

Campaign posters with photos of Turkey’s presidential candidates, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Campaign posters for the presidential candidates, the leader of the opposition Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (left), and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Photograph: Umit Turhan Coskun/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Asked about Kılıçdaroğlu’s newfound alliance with ultranationalist Ümit Özdağ, the head of the aggressively anti-refugee Victory party, Onat grimaced.“I find his rhetoric quite harsh, not just about refugees but also about Kurds,” she said. “But we don’t have the luxury of saying no to compromise now. We need to be united.”

In the first round of the elections, Kılıçdaroğlu disappointed opposition supporters when he attained 44.5% of the vote behind Erdoğan’s 49.5%. Sinan Oğan, the Victory party’s presidential candidate, gained roughly 5%. A coalition between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) and three nationalist parties surpassed expectations and won a majority in the parliament, part of an old alliance between Erdoğan and hard-right political elements that brought nationalist elements into the ruling coalition, even as Turkey welcomed millions of refugees from Syria.

The campaign before Sunday’s runoff vote saw both Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu courting hardcore nationalist voters in an election where growing numbers looking to show their discontent with two decades of Erdoğan’s rule have aligned themselves with ultranationalist, anti-refugee elements in Turkish politics.

When polled, a large majority of voters say the country’s harsh economic crisis is their main concern, but surging far-right elements have scapegoated immigrants, harnessing anti-refugee sentiment across the country and trumpeting racist discourse on immigration in a way that has been taken up by the mainstream and appears set to stay long after the election ends.

Rather than provide alternatives, both presidential candidates have sought to harness support from the ultranationalist right with both gaining the support of one of the two leading figures in the Victory party. A week after the first-round vote, Oğan said he was backing Erdoğan. Days later, Özdağ declared an alliance with a smiling Kılıçdaroğlu at a press conference. The Victory party leader said he had backed the opposition leader because he believed Kılıçdaroğlu was more likely to enact his policy of immediately deporting refugees.

“It’s one thing to add tough rhetoric on refugees, it’s another to shake hands with Özdağ,” said analyst Selim Koru of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “This changes the entire chemistry of the opposition coalition to something different from what it was before the first round.”

While the CHP leader’s campaign previously pushed a message of social inclusion, tolerance for religious minorities and Kurds, and often showed him making his signature gesture, a heart symbol with his hands, his campaign before the runoff has pivoted firmly to the right in a desperate bid to find the millions of votes he needs to challenge Erdoğan.

Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of a historically socially democratic party, has doubled down on pledges to deport all refugees within a year of coming to power and hardened his rhetoric, including releasing campaign material falsely inflating the number of Syrian and Afghan refugees in Turkey by several million. A recent video splices footage of burning cars with a man shouting that immigrants must leave immediately, before showing a menacing figure following a woman as she walks home at night.

Turkey’s opposition, primarily composed of the CHP along with their nationalist coalition partners the Iyi party, have sought to oppose Erdoğan by challenging his decision to grant temporary protection status to about 3.6 million Syrians, as well as making a deal with the EU that granted Turkey €6bn (£5.2bn) in support in return for preventing migration into the bloc.

Under Erdoğan, Turkish authorities have cracked down on migration flows from Afghanistan and Syria while recently seeking to mend relations with Damascus, prompting Erdoğan to say he believes Syrians are safe to return. Last October, Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of Syrian men and boys were arbitrarily detained, beaten and deported, and in some cases forced to cross the border with Syria at gunpoint. Syrians and refugees have also been the target of violent attacks that often go unpunished.

Yet a harsh stance on refugees found willing ears among many of the CHP’s younger supporters. Earlier this week, a leading member of the party’s youth wing posted a video to Twitter under the words: “Syrians will leave,” showing a figure in a hoodie spray-painting the same words on to a wall next to Kılıçdaroğlu’s name.

“I don’t consider this racist,” said Melis, 23, standing on the dockside in Kadiköy as she discussed Kılıçdaroğlu’s pledges to deport refugees. A fervent supporter of Kılıçdaroğlu, she was eager to voice her belief that Syrians have benefited disproportionately from Erdoğan’s rule, a common talking point with the opposition, if untrue.

Melis was also unconcerned by Kılıçdaroğlu’s recent alliance with Özdağ. “It fits with his previous remarks and policies,” she said.

Few opposition supporters questioned the benefits of Kılıçdaroğlu’s rightwing shift, despite a majority of Victory party voters telling pollsters they would vote for Erdoğan, and Kılıçdaroğlu previously relying on Kurdish votes, a group traditionally opposed by nationalists.

In his corner shop, Bilal Yuksel said he’d voted for the Victory party’s Oğan in the first round, as part of his commitment to protest voting.

Yuksel said he was angered by high inflation and the slow response to deadly earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 earlier this year, and was voting to oppose the government on these issues as well as immigration.

“The reason I’m voting for Kılıçdaroğlu is that I don’t like the other side, I don’t want them in power. But I don’t believe he’ll keep his promises to deport refugees,” he said.

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