Turkish elections: Erdogan and Kemal Kilicdaroglu clash in desperate race for votes

  • By Paul Kirby
  • BBC News, Ankara

image source, Getty Images

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President Erdogan continued to receive huge support at a Friday rally in Istanbul

The final hours of Turkey’s presidential race have turned increasingly sour as Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to extend his 20 years in power for another five.

Ahead of Sunday’s second round, opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu has won nationalist votes by vowing to deport millions of Syrian refugees.

The president accused him of incitement to hatred – and said a victory in Kilicdaroglu would be a victory for terrorists.

The opposition candidate was behind by 2.5 million votes in the first round.

The president is the favourite, but his rival thinks the margin can still be closed – either by the 2.8 million supporters of an ultra-nationalist candidate who came in third, or by the eight million voters who failed to turn up in the first round.

This week, Mr. Kilicdaroglu spent four hours answering questions from the public on a YouTube channel called BaBaLa TV. According to the latest count, the broadcast has been viewed 23 million times and Turkey has a population of 85 million.

Youth campaigner Mehtep thinks the YouTube marathon could work: “Being on BaBaLa TV had a lot of influence on a lot of young voters who didn’t vote the first time.”

She is a member of the centre-right nationalist party Good, which has supported the opposition challenger and has the only female leader in Turkish politics, Meral Aksener.

The appearance was a smart move for a candidate trying to overcome his rival’s built-in advantage of controlling some 90% of Turkey’s media.

President Erdogan has not only amassed overwhelming power over the past six years, he has cracked down on dissent and thrown political opponents in jail.

The town of Bala, an hour’s drive southeast of Ankara, is not the sort of place Kilicdaroglu should turn to for support. More than 60% of voters there supported President Erdogan two weeks ago, and there is little sign of any of the five million Turkish voters taking to the streets for the first time.

Across the street from the president’s party headquarters, doner kebab shop owner Al Ozdemir says he will vote for Erdogan for another five years.

But another shopkeeper refused to tell the BBC who he supported, fearing losing Erdogan supporters as customers.

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Kebab shop owner Al Ozdemir is a staunch supporter of Erdogan in Bala

For months, Turkey’s struggling economy has been the main issue, but as Sunday’s run-off approaches, the rhetoric has intensified and refugees have taken center stage.

Gone is the united 74-year-old opposition leader with his hands in the shape of a signature heart. Instead, he is trying to attract voters who supported ultra-nationalist leader Sinan Ogan two Sundays ago.

Although the president received Ogan’s support, the opposition leader secured the support of the anti-immigrant Victory Party, led by Umit Ozdag, whose party won 1.2 million votes.

The leader of the Victory Party said this week that Mr Kilicdaroglu had agreed to return “13 million migrants” within a year “in accordance with international law”.

Turkey hosts more refugees than any other country, but not nearly as many.

prof. Murat Erdogan, who conducts a regular field survey called Syrians Barometer, believes the total number of Syrian refugees and irregular migrants from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is closer to six or seven million.

“Their discourse is not realistic, it is physically impossible,” says Prof. Erdogan. “When we talk about (voluntary repatriation) it’s not feasible, and by force it means more than 50,000 have to be returned a day.”

The rhetoric is off-putting, but it can make a difference. A whopping 85% of Turks want refugees from the Syrian civil war to go home, according to opinion polls.

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This Kilicdaroglu poster in Istanbul reads: “Syrians will go! Make a decision!”

Both parties have nationalist parties to keep on their side, says political scientist Nezih Onur Kuru of Koc University, and Kilicdaroglu taps into the security concerns of many voters, especially young voters.

“He knows that the level of perceived threats is too high because of the immigrant crisis and terrorist attacks and wars involving Russia, Syria and Azerbaijan.”

President Erdogan says he is already returning Syrian refugees and plans to send more. His main partner is the far-right nationalist MHP.

And he has also gone on the offensive, using a manipulated video at a rally to link his rival to the Kurdish militant PKK, considered a terror group in both the West and Turkey.

On Friday, he said a victory in Kilicdaroglu meant “terrorist organizations” would win.

His target is the major pro-Kurdish HDP party, which supports Mr Kilicdaroglu and which President Erdogan has repeatedly tried to identify with the PKK militants. The HDP denies such links.

The HDP is tentatively supporting Mr Kilicdaroglu as it wants to end Turkey’s “one-man regime”. But it has genuine concerns about its alliance with a far-right nationalist.

It was initially thought that President Erdogan could be defeated due to his disastrous handling of Turkey’s economy and his poor response to the February earthquakes.

And yet nearly half of voters supported him. The question is whether Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s change of course will work.

“I wanted change, all my customers wanted change,” says Songul at her chicken restaurant in Bala.

But in the end, she says they all stick with the president because they don’t trust his counterpart: “I will vote for Erdogan because there is no alternative.”

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