Türkiye and nationalistic trends in politics

Photo Credits: Reuters

By June 2023 at the latest, combined parliamentary and presidential elections will take place in Türkiye. The pre-election campaign has long since begun, and the more than 4 million Syrians who have fled to Türkiye are at risk of suffering. According to polls, harsh rhetoric against them is popular with the electorate.

Suat Kiniklioglu, a former parliamentarian for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP party, who left the movement due to discord, drew attention to this back in 2020. Turkish society has taken in about as many refugees as the EU state of Croatia has inhabitants and has thus achieved a great achievement, he wrote in a paper published by the “Foundation for Science and Politics” and warned: “Many opinion polls confirm a sharp decline in support for taking in refugees.”

Nationalist opposition leader Meral Aksener recently compared Syrian refugees in Türkiye to “garbage” and promised that if he took power, by September 2026 they would all have left Türkiye – voluntarily or involuntarily. This must be done to protect the country’s “demographic composition and Turkish identity”. Syrian women have a higher birth rate than Turkish women, leading Türkiye’s population of more than 80 million to fear becoming a minority in their own country.

Aksener wants to ban Syrians from parks and beaches, deprive them of government benefits and lock them up in camps. According to Turkish media reports, that is the strategic plan of her party, which calls itself the “Good Party”. Initially, a voluntary return to Syria is planned, in cooperation with the Syrian dictator Assad. The EU should pay for it by rebuilding the infrastructure in Syria. Anyone who does not leave voluntarily should be deported. Aksener’s rhetoric is also bolstered by the fact that a small split from her party appears even more radical.

The main force in the opposition, the CHP, a social democratic party, is pursuing similar plans to Aksener’s, except that its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, speaks of a voluntary return. In his party, too, open racism against the Syrian refugee population in Türkiye is accepted. Erdogan’s junior partner Devlet Bahceli from the MHP agitates against anything non-Turkish anyway.

What is even more important is that Erdogan himself, who has long pursued a moderate course on this issue, is no longer withdrawing from the discourse. He, who at the beginning of the war in Syria still stated that Assad’s overthrow was a key objective, is now ready to negotiate with the Syrian dictator, including about the deportation of refugees. During a visit to Belgrade last year, his Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke out in favor of a “compromise” between the Assad regime and the (Turkish-backed) Syrian opposition.

The rush has long been reflected in everyday life. In early September, a 17-year-old Syrian man was stabbed to death by an angry crowd in Antakya after, according to reports, touched a Turkish woman on the shoulder. The victim had good school grades and wanted to study medicine.

Overall, with the four million Syrians who have found refuge in Türkiye, reception is still working well. But many Syrians complain about everyday insults and threats, including against their children at school. Syrian business owners are afraid of raids. Even in the southern city of Gaziantep, which is seen as an example of the successful integration of Syrians and which benefits from massive investments by Syrian businessmen, there are now more incidents.

All this is taking place against the background of difficult economic developments. Syrians, who often have to work for the lowest wages, are viewed by locals as competition in the low-wage sector. The Turkish economy grew by eleven percentage points last year and also grew by more than seven percentage points in the first quarter of 2022. The rise in prices for basic foodstuffs (bread prices have more than doubled within a year) is causing problems for the lower income brackets right down to the middle. The fact that people look around for scapegoats when there is a hole in their wallet is not a unique Turkish selling point. In Türkiye, the anger hits Syrians in particular, although they are suffering at least as much from the rise in prices.

Despite this, developments in Türkiye have so far not resulted in a large number of Syrians making their way via the “Balkan route” between Greece in the south and Austria and Hungary in the north. Data from the United Nations refugee agency in Greece shows consistently low numbers of Syrian arrivals.

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