Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kılıçdaroğlu: Using the Refugee Card to Sail to the Presidential Palace?

Kılıçdaroğlu's pragmatic approach to winning over the votes of Turkish nationalists will shake his image in front of voters who are seeking a change.

Kılıçdaroğlu Using Refugee Card
Turkey’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chairman and Presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu gives a speech in a tent during a campaign rally in Antakya, Turkey, on May 23, 2023, ahead of the May 28 presidential runoff vote. Can EROK/ AFP

Nabil Mohamed

Targeting Syrian refugees has probably turned out to be the final hope for Turkish opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to win the Turkish presidential race.

As the second round of the Turkish presidential elections scheduled for May 28, 2023 approaches, using the refugees’ card became more evident. Banners in several squares in Istanbul depict Kılıçdaroğlu calling on Syrian refugees to leave Turkey.

Throughout his election campaign, the deportation of refugees was one of the key points of Kılıçdaroğlu’s platform. And in the last couple of days, this topic has been the central focus of the opposition candidate who heads the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

Right-wing candidate Sinan Oğan did not qualify for the final stage of the presidential election. Therefore, Oğan’s supporters should vote for either current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu.

Kılıçdaroğlu is capitalising on the anti-refugee rhetoric to sway the far-right voters. That kind of rhetoric is close to what Oğan represents. However, for political reasons, Oğan pleaded with his supporters to vote for Erdoğan rather than Kılıçdaroğlu.

Oğan’s decision results from the CHP’s rapprochement with Kurdish parties. In addition, Oğan’s supporters share common principles with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is the main ally of Erdoğan.

Meanwhile, Kılıçdaroğlu proceeded with escalating his rhetoric, calling for the deportation of Syrians. In a video he tweeted a few days ago, he said: “If you love your country, decide! Are 10 million Syrians not enough? Are you waiting for 20 million more?” The tweet was surprising, especially since it was based on inaccurate statistics. According to the Turkish Presidency of Migration Management, the number of Syrian refugees registered in Turkey until May 2023 reached 3,381,429.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s Political Career

Since he joined the CHP in 2002, Kılıçdaroğlu has been one of the leading figures in the party. He has a long-standing reputable career with several key positions, the most important of which has been Director-General of the Social Security Institution (SGK).

Kılıçdaroğlu’s political career began when he joined the CHP. In the same year, he was elected a member of the Turkish parliament. In 2007, he was re-elected. The party also nominated him in 2009 for mayor of Istanbul. However, he did not get enough votes to win and lost to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate, Kadir Topbaş.

Since the resignation of experienced politician Deniz Baykal in 2010, Kılıçdaroğlu has been leading the CHP. Under his leadership, the party has participated in four parliamentary elections: 2011, 2015, 2018 and 2023. However, it could not defeat the AKP.

The most prominent progress the CHP achieved under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu was the 2019 municipal elections in major Turkish cities, including Istanbul and Ankara. Those elections introduced new figures in the Turkish political arena. Examples included Ekrem Imamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul, and Mansur Yavaş, the mayor of Ankara.

The Turkish media expected that one of these new figures would be the opposition’s candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. However, despite all the speculation, the party has nominated Kılıçdaroğlu.

The CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturük, the founder of the Turkish Republic, is regarded as the strongest and most popular opposition party, representing Turkish laicism. The party has four foundational principles that define its political lens: “Republicanism”, “Populism”, “Nationalism”, and “Laicism”. The party led Turkey from its founding until 1950. Since then, it has become an opposition party that has barely been able to participate through coalition governments.

Kılıçdaroğlu opposed Erdoğan’s domestic and foreign policies. He stated that his political platform includes: distancing Turkey from “Russian hegemony,” opening up to the EU, reconciliation with the Syrian regime, and returning Syrian and Afghan refugees back home.

Kılıçdaroğlu won popular support from inside and outside his political party, especially among the Kurds. His popularity grew after the 450-kilometre march he led from Ankara to Istanbul, dubbed the “March for Justice.” The march served as a protest against the authorities’ arrest of opposition figures accused of having connections with the alleged plotters of the 2015 failed coup d’état. At that time, the Turkish authorities attributed the attempt to the Hizmet Movement, led by Fethullah Gülen.

The march was considered an exceptional and influential civil movement, especially after the imprisoned leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, announced his support. This led to a pro-Kılıçdaroğlu wave among the Kurdish political currents, carrying him in the first round of elections.

Divided Opposition

Kılıçdaroğlu Using Refugee Card
A man walks past a poster with a portrait of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the presidential candidate of the Main Opposition alliance, and the words ”Syrians will go” in Kocaeli on May 22, 2023. Umit Turhan Coskun / NurPhoto via AFP.

In February 2022, the Table of Six alliance was formed in Turkey. The alliance includes leaders of six Turkish opposition parties. Besides Kılıçdaroğlu, the list includes the Good Party leader Meral Akşener, Saadet Party (SP) leader Temel Karamollaoğlu, Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA) leader Ali Babacan, Future Party (GP) leader Ahmet Davutoğlu and the Democrat Party (DP) leader Gültekin Uysal.

In 2022, the alliance started holding meetings to determine its unified political project against the AKP in parliament and Erdoğan in the presidential palace. The parties agreed to create a strengthened parliamentary system in Turkey.

The Table of Six was considered a qualitative leap in political action in Turkey. It has been described as the strongest political alliance opposed to Erdogan since he came to power. Reasons behind that include having diverse ideologies, from laicism to religious conservatism to nationalism. Moreover, the alliance comprises senior opposition political leaders, including the more prominent defectors from his party, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan.

Although the opposition was unified, the differences were so huge that they almost crushed the entire Table. The most prominent of which was the issue of the presidential election nominee. This controversy came to light in March 2023 when Akşener announced her decision to leave the alliance in protest of Kılıçdaroğlu’s candidacy. Akşener said, “Our party is stuck between the hammer and anvil. We are forced to choose between death and malaria.”

Two days after her withdrawal, Akşener reentered the coalition under one condition. She stipulated that if Kılıçdaroğlu were to win the presidency, he would appoint Ekrem Imamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş as his vice presidents.

Since Kılıçdaroğlu is unpopular among her demographic, Akşener probably wanted to nominate either Imamoğlu or Yavaş for the presidency. In fact, Akşener’s party is known for its right-wing nationalist stance. The party originated as a breakaway faction from the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which currently aligns itself with Erdoğan.

After the first round of elections, Akşener also stepped up the nationalist rhetoric. She hinged the deportation of Syrian refugees on the vote for Kılıçdaroğlu. “The second round of elections is a choice between those who avoid deporting Syrians and those who plan to deport them within two years,” she said.

By her statement, Akşener meant Kılıçdaroğlu’s project to deport refugees within two years of taking power. Therefore, such rhetoric apparently gives an explanation for Kılıçdaroğlu’s most recent escalation against Syrian refugees.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s narrative, which heavily targeted refugees recently, has achieved a clear rapprochement with the head of the Victory Party (ZP), Ümit Özdağ. Özdağ is known for his far-right stances and statements ocassionally against Syrian refugees. Among his controversial statements are that Syrian refugees “will cause civil war in Turkey”, that they are “one of the causes of the country’s economic crisis”, and that they “spoil the food they eat.”

A Radical Shift

Kılıçdaroğlu came from a low-income family. As he once said, he borrowed his friend’s school uniform to attend a party because he did not have one. From the beginning, his political agenda carried the slogans of eradicating poverty, supporting the weak, and prioritising the principles of pluralism and democracy. The media even described him as the “Gandhi of Turkey.”

However, the apparent change in Kılıçdaroğlu’s rhetoric is based on political pragmatism seeking votes even at the cost of millions of refugees getting deported. Of course, this shift fundamentally differs from his previous slogans siding with the weak. He also changed the narrative surrounding him so much that Western media, previously regarded him as a virtuous man shaking politics in Turkey, now describe him as a radical nationalist.

Years ago, Kılıçdaroğlu tried to break out of his party’s isolation under the AKP rule. His platform included openness to other parties, even those ideologically different from his. He gained part of the Islamist current as well as the Kurds. However, his clearest disagreement was with the nationalist current, which initially rejected his candidacy. Therefore, he later completely embraced that rhetoric toward refugees to gain their approval.

However, reality shows that rhetoric alone will not be enough. In addition to the refugees, there are files related to policies towards Kurdish currents and domestic and foreign policies.

Kılıçdaroğlu did not fare well in attracting the conservative Islamist demographic. He only succeeded in attracting the Islamist Saadet Party (SP). However, the SP, one of Kılıçdaroğlu’s allies at the Table of Six, does not have a wide voting base. The party has long failed to cross the 10% threshold to reach parliament. It only secured seats after forming alliances with major parties.

Despite this, Turkey’s conservative base is mostly beyond Kılıçdaroğlu’s grip. The CHP leader is secular and Alevi, which may influence conservative voters.

Between Kılıçdaroğlu and Erdoğan

Kılıçdaroğlu Using Refugee Card
Ballot papers, stamps and envelopes to be used in the upcoming second round of Turkish presidential elections are introduced to press members at the Turkish Supreme Election Council in Ankara, Turkiye on May 24, 2023. Evrim Aydin/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

Erdoğan understood the importance of winning the votes of right-wing parties long before Kılıçdaroğlu did. The Turkish president warmed up to the MHP in 2016 and officially allied in 2018. Erdoğan won on several fronts, including the transformation of the country’s system of government from parliamentary to presidential, which gave him broad powers.

Erdoğan, in turn, did not neglect the issue of returning Syrian refugees back home. He even followed his words with actions. Turkey has already witnessed deportations of Syrian refugees back home and the suspension of many residence permits. Erdoğan has continued to promise to return them all home. Those promises were often conditioned on “providing them with a haven in their country.”

The two presidential candidates have been racing to win over the votes of the Turkish right wing. And the battle between them continues in the second round. Each works to preserve his existing base and appeal to swing voters by adjusting its narrative accordingly, especially for votes from disqualified candidates.

Given this situation, it appears challenging for some voters who are unsure about Erdoğan and Kılıçdaroğlu. Those voters desire political change in their country, which has been under Erdogan’s rule for 22 years. They also want to eliminate the growing security grip, official control over media outlets, and the arrest of political opponents and activists. Some view Turkey’s economic decline recently as the result of failed policies by the ruling regime.

Voters who want change are probably bound to consider Kılıçdaroğlu. However, they will find a candidate who gradually shifted from secularism to fanatic nationalism. They will find a candidate capable of quickly changing his position if it means gaining more votes. Therefore, it is apparent that the choice of these voters will be undoubtedly difficult in the second round of the presidential elections.

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