Turkey's election: Economics, the earthquake, and anti-refugee rhetoric

Analysis - Illustration - Elections
10 min read
09 May, 2023

Istanbul, Turkey - Turkish voters will go to the polls on Sunday to elect both the president and parliamentary representatives in what is set to be a tight contest between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

During their campaigns, the Justice and Development (AK) Party and the main opposition bloc Nation Alliance have put forth their proposals on a range of questions.

One main issue concerns the country’s political system. Since the country transitioned to a centralised presidential system Erdogan has been able to exercise an unprecedented level of power and expand his control of the state. The Turkish president has defended the current system, saying it has made Turkey “more stable”.

The opposition coalition vows to undo the presidential model Erdogan introduced in 2018, after pushing through a referendum, and to restore a parliamentary system. It proposes reinstating a prime minister, empowering the parliament to have oversight over ministries, limiting the president’s mandate to a single seven-year term, and abolishing the president’s right to veto legislation and issue decrees.

"Turkish voters will go to the polls on Sunday to elect both the president and parliamentary representatives in what is set to be a tight contest between President Erdogan and his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu"

But the biggest electoral battleground remains the economy. Erdogan’s unconventional handling of inflation by keeping interest rates low despite soaring prices has triggered the worst economic crisis of his rule. The Turkish lira has lost more than half of its value against the dollar over the past two years, and the official inflation rate is 50% after peaking at 85.5% in October.

Erdogan promised voters a policy reversal to cut inflation and boost growth but has offered few concrete details, while economists doubt he will abandon his “new economic model” after the elections. He has announced a host of relief measures for those hardest hit by inflation, including raising minimum wages and pensions and providing assistance to consumers for electricity and natural gas.

The Nation Alliance has pledged a return to orthodox economic policies in monetary and financial areas to bring inflation to low single digits in two years and reinstate the stability of the lira, in addition to bringing interest rates in line with market realities. It intends to bring in vast sums from Western investors by offering “brand-new investment opportunities”.

Yet, any economic plans require revision in light of February’s earthquake devastation, which displaced at least one million people from the country’s southeast and left millions without homes.  The estimated cost of reconstruction ranges between $100 and $150 billion.

In the lead-up to the polls, there has been much anger and grief in the Turkish public from the state's slow response to the disaster. Erdogan's political adversaries have slammed the government for initially intervening late and failing to enforce building codes.

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Regardless of who will run the country after this election, the new government will have to deal with the fallout from the earthquake, most critically the rebuilding of damaged regions and risk minimisation in other quake-prone areas.

Part of Erdogan’s election campaign has also focused on the opening of large-scale energy and infrastructure projects and boosting the defence sector. He has said he also intends to continue normalising relations in the region, after Ankara recently moved to mend ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria.

While vowing to reverse Turkey’s democratic backsliding and crackdowns on free speech, Kilicdaroglu has stated a desire to maintain smoother relations with the West, including ties with NATO allies and EU partners.

The refugee card

One issue, however, on which all political parties have found common ground in campaigning is hostility to the large number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The opposition has argued, for example, that the large number of Syrians in Turkey is the primary reason why the country is suffering economically.

Speaking at an election rally in the north-western Zonguldak province on May Day, Kilicdaroglu reiterated his pledge to send back Syrian refugees within two years if he is elected president, claiming the country  “looks after 3.6 million Syrians while the youth remain unemployed”.

Erdogan, though not advocating for a rushed dispatch of refugees, has also increasingly discussed returning refugees to Syria, through “voluntary” and “safe” return, and has said that the AKP would continue to fight illegal migration.

“The refugee issue is a card that basically all political parties are playing,” Shahem Hoari, a Syrian freelance professional in Istanbul told The New Arab. “They’re saying that if they win they will take care of ‘the Syrian problem’.”

A painted Turkish national flag is seen on the wall of a collapsed building, two months after a 7.8-magnitude jolt and its aftershocks wiped out swathes of Turkey's mountainous southeast, in Antakya on 5 April 2023. [Getty]

He criticised both the AKP and the opposition parties for fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment, noting that the rhetoric against Syrians is mainly propagated by politicians, rather than the Turkish public, even though common misconceptions that Syrians receive financial help from the government, are exempt from electricity and water bills, and don’t pay taxes or rent, still exist.

Syrians regularly face racism and discrimination in Turkey, with many being exposed to negative stereotyping and verbal racial abuse while others, in some instances, have been subjected to physical violence. Getting harassed for speaking Arabic in public is very common. In recent years, there have been recurring reports of hate crimes against Syrian refugees.

“If you get into a fight or are attacked, there’s a high chance that if you report it to the police you will get deported,” the freelancer said.

“Any time I call to inquire about an advertised apartment, I would be asked where I’m from. When I reply I’m Syrian, the owner would say he doesn’t rent for ‘foreigners’,” he added.

Hoari stressed that restrictions on mobility critically affect Syrians’ ability to travel between and settle within cities, as he himself experienced while living in the southern-eastern part of Turkey before being granted Turkish citizenship a couple of years ago.

"Regardless of who will run the country after this election, the new government will have to deal with the fallout from the earthquake"

Most Syrian refugees in Turkey are granted a temporary protection ID card (Kimlik), which gives them access to basic services including education and health care but requires them to live in the province in which they are registered and obtain permission to travel between provinces. Though the temporary protection regulation in theory enables them to apply for work permits, many refugees cannot access lawful employment due to the complex and costly paperwork required.

Ibrahim Alali, a Syrian project coordinator based in Istanbul who works for international organisations, pointed out that the Kimlik does not lead to a work permit, making it “almost impossible” for Syrians to work legally and denying them the right to travel freely within the country. He himself was unable to get a regular job for ten years until he moved to Istanbul last year, after living first in Hatay and then in Ankara. 

“It’s very hard to integrate when you’re practically deprived of real rights”, the project coordinator told TNA. “Because there’s no clarity regarding our legal status here, and there are no clear policies protecting us, this makes us vulnerable to the propaganda used by most Turkish parties”.

While core national priorities like economic recovery and the fight against inflation take a lead in the electoral campaigning of the various running parties, in his view, the refugee question is still largely present in the lead-up to this Sunday’s general elections.

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He remarked that much of the public antipathy towards Syrians revolves around a general perception that their presence represents a “burden” for the country. “For the majority of Turkish people showing hostility, there’s this thinking that the government is doing too much for us,” Alali said. “That’s why, as locals claim, the economy is getting weak and their living standards are lower because of us.”

Mohammad, a Syrian graduate student living in the northwest city of Bursa who didn’t say his last name out of safety concerns insisted that politicians from all parties are making speeches targeting Syrians along with other foreigners.

“In every election, it’s the same. They are dumping all the government’s mistakes on us,” he told The New Arab.

“People seem to be putting the blame on Syrians, telling things like we’re taking up jobs and making the economic crisis worse,” the student went on, alluding to social media posts by Turkish users circulating fake news about foreigners.

Having fled from war-torn Syria in 2015, Mohammad first resided in Istanbul, but since moving to Bursa for his studies he has been stuck there without a travel permit. He has been struggling to find better job opportunities elsewhere in Turkey as he cannot commute to any other city.

Syrian children sit with luggage as they wait with other volunteers to board buses returning to neighbouring Syria on 6 August 2019 in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul. [Getty]

His brother was able to obtain a Kimlik in the Mersin province years back but stays with him because he is too young to be financially independent and live on his own, which causes Mohammad constant concern in case police find out about his sibling and force him back to Mersin where he is obliged to reside.

“Whether the AKP gets re-elected or the opposition wins, it’s going to be the same for us Syrians,” Mohammad said, voicing his frustration.

With Turkey’s Syrian refugee population hovering around at least 3.5 million since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, anti-migrant discourse has been growing in recent years, with Syrians typically being blamed for the country’s worsening economic outlook.

“The negative feelings toward Syrians in Turkey are largely driven by the poor performing economy, combined with the government’s not well-designed integration policies,” Omar Kadkoy, an Ankara-based migration policy analyst told The New Arab.

"Whether the AKP gets re-elected or the opposition wins, it's going to be the same for us Syrians"

He observed how public attitudes towards refugees have hardened since the Turkish economy began to slow down between 2017 and 2018, as Syrians are often perceived to be driving wages down and pushing Turks out of the labour market.

Kadkoy, whose research focuses on the labour market integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, said that using the card of Syrian refugees is a very “inexpensive political tool” for the current government to avoid reversing its economic policies and for the opposition to not set forth the necessary steps needed to restore the economy.

“Building on this anti-migrant sentiment will appeal to many electors across the political spectrum, and it will divert the attention of voters from the real issues, namely the economy, that need to be addressed,” the migration policy specialist said.

In comparing the stances taken by the government and the opposition on the immigration question, he noted that since the election campaigns kicked off the gap between their positions has become “narrower” with both sides making similar pledges to return Syrians to their country.

The analyst specified that the difference in the two standpoints is that the opposition bloc assigns a timeline (two years) to repatriate or de facto expel Syrians while Erdogan’s cabinet has been executing return programmes since 2015 of Syrian refugees to zones created under Turkish control in northern Syria, an area that remains unsafe.

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But in the face of pressure from the Turkish electorate, with the economic crisis deepening and inflation climbing, Erdogan has changed his approach. He indicated a few months ago that he is considering normalising relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pave the way for Syrians to return.

In May of last year, he announced that his government was working to resettle about one million refugees in Turkish-occupied areas in northern Syria.

Erdogan’s main contender, Kilicdaroglu stated that should he win the vote, he would negotiate with the Syrian regime concerning the return of refugees.

Kadkoy predicted that in the event of Erdogan’s re-election, the government would maintain the status quo in claiming to ensure protection for Syrian refugees on Turkish soil on one hand and carrying out plans of return for refugees on the other, as a way to secure the Syrian-Turkish border.

In the case of Kilicdaroglu’s victory, he believes Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Syria would soften and break with the launch of cross-border operations in northern Syria to prevent the formation of a militant corridor there.

That said, no major policy shift is to be expected regarding Syrian refugees inside Turkey, regardless of who prevails in upcoming polls.

Alali said he is worried that after the elections his Turkish citizenship may be denied or revoked at any time. “I obtained citizenship just two months ago, that doesn’t mean I’m safe. The authorities could take it away from me if they want to,” he warned.

“Whatever the election’s outcome, we will still be the scapegoat,” Hoari concluded, expressing concern over possible new regulations or further restrictions that may be introduced for Syrians.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec