Anti-immigration sentiment threatens to topple Erdogan ahead of Turkish elections

Kemal Kilicdaroglu - Kerem Alp Eren Kaya/Anadolu Agency
Kemal Kilicdaroglu - Kerem Alp Eren Kaya/Anadolu Agency

The main challenger to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is campaigning on a pledge to expel refugees ahead of tightly contested elections in May in which he is now the frontrunner.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the 74-year-old leader of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), visited the Syrian border in the earthquake struck province of Hatay this week vowing that if elected, he would send home refugees within two years.

“My presidency has two important goals: The first is to send the Syrians back to their homeland. The second is to send those who came illegally via Iran back to Iran,” he said on Tuesday.

“We have to give back our streets and neighbourhoods to their owners. However, we have to do this sensitively, so as not to stigmatise our nation with racism. We are working on it,” he added.

As campaigning heats up ahead of the May 14 elections, Mr Kilicdaroglu - known among his supporters as "Kemal Gandhi" - has begun making a play for votes from the nationalist base that has long supported Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party.

Migrants wait at a border crossing - ERDEM SAHIN/EPA-EFE
Migrants wait at a border crossing - ERDEM SAHIN/EPA-EFE

Resentment over the issue of migration has been building for years. Opinion polls regularly identify immigration as among the most urgent problems facing the nation.

But Mr Erdogan - who has allowed millions of Syrian refugees to come to Turkey - has struggled to quell the anger.

His government has alternated between defending immigrants and passing new regulations to limit their visibility.

Last year, he vowed to send a million Syrians home, a policy seen as impractical and illegal and that has done little to quiet calls from his critics for more action. So far, approximately 550,000 refugees have been returned to regions deemed safe, he said in January.

Now, with two months ahead of the presidential showdown, polling shows Mr Kilicdaroglu is leading Mr Erdogan by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

With Turkey facing a mounting economic crisis of runaway inflation, rising debt and a collapsing currency – all now exacerbated by a multibillion dollar reconstruction bill following last month’s devastating earthquake – the Turkish leader faces a tough battle to remain in charge of the country he has led for 20 years.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks to a crowd - Alp Eren Kaya/Republican People's Party/Handout
Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaks to a crowd - Alp Eren Kaya/Republican People's Party/Handout

But with a fractured opposition, independent media quashed, and the judiciary and organs of state tightly under President Erdogan’s control, the election’s outcome is far from determined.

Mr Kilicdaroglu is an economist and former bureaucrat who crusaded against corruption, cultivating a persona of calmness and reliability – earning him favourable comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi from his supporters. He is an Alevi, a religious minority that has faced systematic discrimination in the past.

But some have questioned whether he has the charisma to take on President Erdogan, who at 69 has dominated Turkish politics for decades.

Accordingly Mr Kilicdaroglu is targeting every possible segment of voter and campaigning against the centralisation of power under President Erdogan by calling for strengthening democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

But with so many of Turkey’s 85 million strong population feeling the economic strain, Mr Kilicdaroglu is hoping that calling for 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees and 320,000 refugees from other countries to return home may also be a popular policy.

“For us, the issue is very simple: Border security is national security. Border security is the most fundamental and necessary responsibility of a sovereign nation. Those who cannot protect their borders cannot be sovereign,” Mr Kilicdaroglu said.

He added: “In brief, we will say goodbye to our Syrian guests in two years. I will close the border to all kinds of illegal crossings in the first week of my presidency.”