Turkey's elections: 'Syrian refugees' are the password
The elections are taking place in Turkey amid a heated political scene in which the issues of Syrian refugees and Alawites (and Alevis) are being discussed by both sides in completely different manners. So where do Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu stand vis-a-vis these issues?
There are only a few days left until of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, where President Erdogan faces the strongest competition since he came to power two decades ago.
These elections take place three months after the earthquake of last February 6, which resulted in 50,000 victims and 6 million displaced. According to many Turkish politicians, the country is suffering from political, economic and social crises, exacerbated by the "Syrian refugees".
Istanbul is the city in which the largest number of Syrian refugees live, with more than 530,000 displaced, according to data issued from the Migration Department of the Turkish Ministry of Interior.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleiman Soylu had previously revealed that about 3.7 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, and that more than 700 000 Syrian children were born in the country. He further explained that 230998 Syrian refugees have been naturalized, including 130914 who reached the age of maturity.
This means that the Arabs have become the second largest ethnic minority in the country after the Kurds, who make up 15-20% of the population.
Two plans will determine the fate of the Syrian refugees in Turkey
Despite the conflicting views and ideas held by all political parties in Turkey regarding the Syrian refugee file, they now agree that they must be repatriated.
Consequently, their fate depends on two plans, one announced months ago by Erdogan, and the other revealed by opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Erdogan's plan is to work on a project that allows the voluntary return of one million Syrian refugees to their country, to be implemented in 13 regions along the northern borders of Syria.
According to official statements, "Syrians, who voluntarily returned and settled in briquette houses, will be able to become their real owners, provided that they reside for ten years."
As for Kilicdaroglu's plan, it consists of 4 stages, the first of which is meeting with the legitimate government in Syria and opening embassies between the two countries because "if you are going to solve a problem, you have to talk to the person concerned," as he put it.
Then "houses, schools, and roads will be built for the refugees who will return to Syria, through the funds provided by the European Union and several agreements concluded with Turkish contractors," and "businessmen in Turkey will be allowed to reopen their factories in Syria."
Erdogan has so far not stated the time period during which the "return of the million project" will be implemented, while the opposition leader has set a duration of only two years.
Hate incidents are not an overnight result
In the past years, "hate incidents" targeting Syrian refugees in Turkey have escalated, but recently they have affected different foreigners, whether tourists or residents, on suspicion of being Syrians.
These increasing reactions did not happen overnight. Rather, the Turkish political parties have been nurturing them for a few years, and have used them as a trump card in order to achieve political gains and win more votes in the current presidential and parliamentary elections. The Syrians have turned these disputes into fuel for a political war between the competing parties.
In this context, Turkish journalist Hasan Sivri, who is based in Ankara, tells Al-Mayadeen English:
“Turkey became a destination for many refugees in the past years from many countries other than Syria, such as Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. They come for several purposes, including trying to reach Europe. However, more focus is placed on Syrians in the media due to their large number and high birth rate, and the fear of the demographic changes that they may cause, especially in the southern Turkish provinces bordering Syria".
The country is experiencing a major economic crisis, witnessing high inflation, and a continuous decline in the value of the Turkish lira, due to the policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party, and Sivri explains:
“Instead of filing a complaint with authorities about this issue...Turkish citizens have become hostile to refugees. There are many Syrians who live in poor conditions or in camps and work for low wages without insurance. On the other hand, there are many of them who live in prosperity, so this category is mainly targeted, especially when the Turkish citizen is told: See how they live better than you!”
Concerns in Turkey about the vote of naturalized Syrians
The issue of naturalized foreign immigrants from many countries, most notably Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Georgia and Moldova, is badly hitting the Turkish election scene.
The opposition estimated the number of naturalized Syrians to be over 900 000, and has said that their vote will surely affect the election results.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu mocked this argument, saying that "those who have the right to vote, compared to the total number of Turkish voters of 64 million voters, do not exceed 0.1%."
Turkish journalist Hasan Sivri agrees with this, telling Al-Mayadeen English:
"According to official data, only 167,000 naturalized Syrians in Turkey will be able to vote in the presidential elections, and their influence will be very limited, but these votes will clearly influence the parliamentary elections, and it seems that most of the naturalized Syrians will be voting in favor of the Justice and Development Party, which was closer and more connected with the Syrian refugees, unlike the opposition, which used racist rhetoric instead of using more moderate speech."
Will Alawite Arabs vote for the candidate who said, 'I am Alevi'?
“I think the time has come to discuss with you a very special and sensitive topic, I am Alevi, and I am a sincere Muslim”.
With these words, the opposition candidate for the presidential elections in Turkey, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, broke a taboo in the country through a video clip he posted on his Twitter account.
But this statement is not the only reason why the vast majority of Alevi Arabs in Turkey will vote for him.
Rather, it is because of the exceptional reality imposed by this designation, which Sivri explained to Al-Mayadeen English:
“Kilicdaroglu is the first Alevi in the history of Turkey to announce his candidacy, despite the black history full of massacres against the Alawites in the country, such as the Maras massacre and the Sivas genocide, so the issue is very sensitive, and despite it all, recent opinion polls showed Kilicdaroglu's progress, which means that he is very popular among the Sunnis and the rest of the groups as well.”
The statement of the opposition candidate, from the Tunceli region known for its Alevi and Kurdish majority, created an important impact at a time when the Alawites in Turkey were afraid of revealing their identity.
“Anyone declaring to be Alevi is not a problem anymore in 2023, and so far in Turkey. In the past, there were some houses on which threatening signs were placed because their residents are Alawites, and there were extremist Islamic parties that issue permanent hostile statements against them” according to Sivri.
Meanwhile, Erdogan had attacked Turkey's Alawites minority, accusing them of creating a "new religion".
"Those who do not know the direction of the qiblah (the direction of the Kaaba), who trample with their shoes on the prayer rug, will be shown the correct direction on May 14," he said at a meeting in Istanbul.